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Friday, June 22, 2012

Organized Grocery Shopping Made Easier

Some people enjoy grocery shopping. I'm not one of them, although it got easier when I got organized about it. We have a rule in my house- I handle the housework & cooking, and my mother does the grocery shopping. She's good at it, and much of her brain cells have been devoted to memorizing the aisles of every grocery store in a fifty-mile radius, so I use that to my advantage. (We're foodies, we're kind of picky & eating dinner is considered a sacred hour in my home.) However, when she became ill earlier this year with a series of diabetic complications, I had to take over the chore of grocery shopping. Eating out is virtually unheard of in my home, because I can make just about any dish you'd get in a restaurant & then some. Besides, it's too expensive to eat out all the time for us, and I know how to cook more healthfully at home than virtually any restaurant. Between Penzey's Spices (available online & in catalog- I highly recommend you check them out, as their prices alone beat the grocery stores, not to mention the quality!), a cultural shift that has made getting ethnic foods easier than ever in my town & the Internet for recipes, why eat out? I want to know about every ingredient going into my food. If at all possible, I want to eat healthfully & eat the organic version of everything that I can. Everyone has a different schedule for shopping- some shop every day, some once a week, some once a month. Tastes are far too different in American life, as are family sizes & the options of where to shop, for me to get terribly specific on this topic. But I can offer up a few pieces of more generalized information that may help if this is a frustrating area for you, as it was for me.

Here's the way to start if you're starting from scratch on making your shopping list: Go through your fridge, freezer (including deep freezer), liquor cabinet, pantry, medicine cabinet, cleaning products, bathrooms & outdoors if you need to (depending again upon your lifestyle) to determine what your personal grocery list first thing. Write every single item down, including the brand name. Having this list in hand will help you tweak any generic, pre-printed grocery list that you can utilize, as well. Everybody has different brands that they like or need, and you're not going to find that detailed info on any pre-printed grocery list. Not everything that you need can probably be found right at one grocery store. While most grocery stores have vastly improved in their product line's quantity & variety, sometimes their selection is still lacking and/or the cost of the item is inflated. I turn to www.drugstore.com, www.vitacost.com (a really awesome source for much-less-expensive but completely legal & safe dietary supplements, organic foods & clean-eating-diet items) & sometimes Amazon to round out my selections. Even if you don't shop on these sites, you could always utilize their list-making capability so that you have a resource of reminders for what you use in the home, and what you want to try. I know that allergies or other issues may also mean that typical grocery-store products won't work for cosmetic purposes. For fragrance-free skincare that doesn't induce acne or dry out my skin, I shop at www.cosmeticscop.com.

In my state of residence, I cannot buy liquor online legally, nor is it sold in the grocery store. I have to shop at a separate liquor store if I want something of that nature. Which brings me to my next point. Elaine St. James wrote in her book, "Simplify Your Life", that it's wise to shop all in one place- in other words, a shopping center that has dry-cleaners, maybe a good restaurant, a bank branch nearby, whatever you need. This way you're not wasting time all day, every day driving around town from end-to-end. I live in a sprawling town where everything is just laid out here, there & everywhere. It was not a well-planned city, so it's just a mess to navigate & the road width is way behind the times. My town was once basically nothing but a downtown strip of two-lane road surrounded by big farms, but has quickly turned into a vibrant bedroom community which is a part of the most highly-populated county in the bustling but tiny state. Traffic is a nightmare off of the major exits most times of the day, especially when school is starting or when it lets out & during rush hour (and the latter can last until 11 p.m. at night sometimes). Gas is expensive- we all want to try & cut that expense if we can. However, a difficult economy has made it hard to find a shopping center where every business has stuck around to keep this ideal shopping center physically in place. I once went to a shopping center with a good grocery store, an Outback restaurant (nice if you want to pick up a gift card from there or some dinner on the way home), a Baskin-Robbins ice cream store (yum), a vacuum-supply store, a liquor store, a dry-cleaners & a real estate office all on the premises. But now about half of those stores are gone. In the shopping center that I used to patronize the grocery store was under-performing, so it was eliminated. My habits changed with time, too, and needing a dry-cleaner is no longer relevant to me, nor is that lovely place called Baskin-Robbins (tasty but not in my abundant figure's best interest!). I also realize that despite certain mega-stores' convenience factor, you may have ethical reasons for not shopping there (there's one very popular store in particular that I feel this way about, so I understand if you feel that way, too). I do not, however, place judgment on others for where they shop. I make it a point to buy Fair Trade and/or organic when I can & try to only shop from companies that treat their employees & the environment ethically. However, I know that it is virtually impossible to ensure doing this at all times, and it is usually a bit more expensive to purchase items that way. Some people just can't afford to shop anywhere but the modern super-centers. Just think about the concept of trying to contain your shopping that can't be done online to one centralized location & utilize that as much as you can, what it might do for you & your time, though. It's usually harder to shop all in one place in a small or not-well-laid-out town than in a big city, I know. St. James' book was also written in pre-Internet times, so that was not taken into account when she discussed the concept, either.

Planning a dinner menu a week or a month at a time in advance has helped many people feel less crazed in ths grocery-shopping department. While I don't belong to it, I know that Leanne Ely has a program called "Saving Dinner", which can help in this department. As she's a nutritionist, I do know that she's got her act together in creating healthy but filling meals (I have looked over her website & have read through her recipes when they're sent out FlyLady.) One of my favorite sources for healthy recipes that are tasty but different are via "Oxygen" & "Clean Eating" magazines. They're the only magazines that I subscribe to- they are that good! I believe they both have online subscriptions, where the magazine doesn't come to you in paper format but is Internet-only (a good way to decrease clutter & environmental waste). When planning a dinner menu for the following week or month, get out your favorite cookbooks & printed-off Internet recipes. Recipe websites with reviews written on them are particularly fabulous to get new ideas from, without trying out lots of "duds" that you & your family won't like. Cookbooks aren't cheap & often only have a handful of recipes that you actually end up making regularly. I keep a binder set aside specifically for printed-off recipes, and it stays at the ready in my kitchen. I bought a nice three-hole-puncher from Amazon & it was a wise investment. I just added in some dividers, created categories (chicken, beef, etc.) & put the recipes in each by alphabetical order, after hole-punching them. Old recipes that were yellowing & handwritten also got typed up, printed off & put in the binder as well. Yes, this was a "project" to collect those together, but it was worth tackling. This beats having to go through a scattered old collection of faded recipes every time you need that one dish for company you want to make. If you have one, sit down & talk to your family about what their favorite meals are without judging them for the answers they give. You may be surprised at their answers. Many husbands are happy to eat salads if you serve raw spinach instead of iceberg lettuce. Kids may not mind tomatoes when they're in a marinara sauce or salsa, as opposed to just serving them a plain old sliced tomato. People may have an aversion to a food because of gastrointestinal issues or some other experience in the past, so be mindful of that- they may not want a certain food for that reason. Don't take their answers personally (as in they don't like your cooking- that may not be true at all), but do write down what they say. Sometimes parents automatically think that kids like what they themselves eat, when your child may in fact have totally different tastebuds.

Try to be fair & don't cook the same stuff over & over again simply out of habit. Instead of ground beef tacos, make them with skinless chicken breast or lean steak for a change. Try green tomatillo salsa (also referred to as salsa verde) instead of the typical red tomato kind. Instead of spaghetti with Italian sausage, try making meatballs with what is sold as meatloaf mixture- 1/3 veal, 1/3 pork, 1/3 beef. This outstanding combo makes the moistest meatballs, meatloaf & burgers ever. I bake off my meatballs for a half-hour in the oven at 350 degrees, in a Polish stoneware dish (so they don't burn on the bottom). I put a layer of extra-virgin olive oil in the bottom so they won't stick. Baking them off for this length of time means that I get a lot of fat out of them without losing flavor or moisture. By this time, the meatballs are just about cooked through, if not entirely done. I simply dish them out with a slotted spoon & add them to whatever sauce they're going to be served in, let them simmer lightly for up to twenty minutes, and they're ready to go. Meatball subs are a nice change of pace- find some crusty sub rolls, serve with marinara sauce (I like Raos) & melted mozzarella cheese. I've never seen a kid who won't at least try a few bites of a meatball sub! Most grocery store butchers are happy to grind up whatever you need special if you call in the morning before you go shopping, even if they don't normally put out meatloaf mix or chili meat. They usually don't put it out all the time because it's a seasonal item and/or doesn't sell because people don't know about it. Chili meat is a larger grind of ground beef, and it does indeed make for very a hearty, tasty chili base. I simply try to buy these various proteins when they're in-season and/or on sale, and freeze if need be. Yes, it takes time & a little creativity to make at least one new dish a week, but it's healthier to get a wide variety of different foods into the body, especially for kids.

We all need the nutrients & energy that can only come from good wholesome meals. Supplements in pill form or energy drinks can only do so much. Valuable enzymes & antioxidants come from fresh fruits & vegetables. Items such as greens (kale, Swiss chard, collards, etc.), beans & plain rice (usually sold in bags, not the packaged box mixes) are dirt-cheap but provide vital sustenance, vitamins & minerals to the body. Whole-wheat couscous, millet, barley- all add healthy, cheap "bulk" to meals & give your body a break from wheat-based starches. Sadly, these overlooked items often end up in the trash (both by us & by the grocery stores who couldn't sell them) because we're afraid that we won't like them, don't know how to cook them correctly or we are too tired to try. I'm personally not a big fan of whole beans, but I don't mind hummus or white bean garlic dip because they're smooth in texture. I can stand chickpeas when they're in a salad, mixed up with ingredients that have a different texture, as well. Salads & soups are a good way to sneak in healthy ingredients. Unsalted, shelled sunflower or pumpkin seeds add terrific crunch to salads without the preservatives & lack of nutrients in packaged croutons. Brown rice bought in bulk can be a great "filler" in soups, fajitas & more, stretching your food dollars while still filling up your family's tummies. Our landfills could definitely use a break from the processed, packaged foods we buy all-too-often from grocery stores or fast food joints. Rotate foods according to the seasons- steaming soups, starchier items like potatoes & root vegetables are great in the cold months, but hot weather requires a different approach. Using creative salad additions such as hearts of palm, experimenting with the farmer's market vegetable pickings, making quick stir-fry dishes done in a wok, more frequent use of fish (especially if it's grilled), cold soups such as gazpacho, various chilled pasta dishes, gelatos, Jell-O & utilizing ripe fresh fruit provide abundant opportunities for warm-weather food adventures. Frankly, I love turning to iced coffee drinks, popsicles made with fresh fruit + pure juice & utilizing my blender for making awesome chilled smoothies in the hot months. Greens such as baby spinach can be thrown in a blender smoothie to add a lot of nutrients & surprisingly taste just fine in it. Unflavored whey protein can always be added to blender drinks to give a protein boost to these shakes without affecting the flavor. Be creative- pure unsweetened blueberry juice, frozen blueberries & blueberry-flavored protein powder can make an awesome antioxidant drink which powers up your day, for example. Your brain & body will thank you for the variety & the quality of the fuel you give them. Don't forget that eating a wide variety of fresh food like this will also keep your gastrointestinal system working well, and that (along with drinking plenty of water) will help prevent bloating & may help you lose weight.

Consider the season that you're in, the sales on at your grocery store, what you already have on hand & need to use up. Try to shop according to what you plan to make in the following days or weeks, to avoid as much waste as possible. When you just stock your pantry & fridge haphazardly without a meal plan, chances are you'll end up throwing things out since they'll expire before getting eaten up. That said, try not to under-shop. When you go to the store, consider your family's lifestyle carefully. If you know people will be home for lunch, keep broth-based soups, healthy breads & salad fixings on hand for them to easily make healthier choices. Hard-boiled eggs, 100% fruit juice, unsalted nuts or seeds, all-natural food bars, fresh fruit, baby carrots, bean dips, natural nut butters or other family favorites should always be available to eat as snacks. With items like that chosen to be eaten first, the "temptation" to much on candy or other foods with no nutrient value goes down drastically. Sometimes I'll want some cookies or another sweet- but if I eat a well-balanced snack of nuts & a little dried fruit, the desire for the cookies goes away. The combo of one's blood sugar dropping plus not having healthy snacks on hand usually drives people to munch on sweets- it's not a lack of willpower! The more active people are, the more protein they'll typically need in their diet. Picking up fast food is usually more about a lack of planning, impatience & exhaustion than a real desire to eat the stuff sold by those establishments. Learn how to freeze vegetables that you can buy in bulk in the produce section when they're on sale, instead of purchasing the pre-packaged stuff- some vegetables require blanching before they can be frozen, while others can just be cut up raw & frozen. I'll readily admit that I've never canned anything from scratch in my whole life & therefore hesitate to recommend it myself, but some people swear by it. If it helps you feel more organized & prepared to have your own canned foods on hand, by all means do so. If you clip coupons, review them one more time as you're making the list for the following week or month out. Always get out your recipes before you go shopping, even if you think you remember every ingredient in it & believe you have it on hand. Double-check, and if something is missing from your house, add it to the grocery list immediately. I like to make a double serving at suppertime, and make the second serving my lunch for tomorrow. Different people use different methods of creating dinner menus, but here is mine (based on rotating the protein of my main dish):

Monday- Vegetarian/Beans/Eggs
Tuesday- Turkey
Wednesday- Fin fish
Thursday- Beef
Friday- Chicken
Saturday- Shellfish
Sunday- Pork

Another tip- put white adhesive labels & a black fine-point Sharpie in one of your kitchen drawers where they'll be easy to find. Every single time that you buy ahead & put something in the freezer, stick that label on the outside packaging, and write down the contents & date when it was put away. If you use certain Freezer bags, there's a place already allotted to writing the date & contents on- use it. Include the weight of the item, too, if it's meat. I had to make Parmesan chicken one time with drumsticks because someone didn't label the package, and they thought it was chicken breasts instead. I was not happy, and neither was the dish itself!

The best reusable grocery bags that I know of come from FlyLady. I know that it may be suspect that I'm always bringing up FlyLady, but I own these bags and they are truly awesome! You get a set of five- what they hold is equivalent to somewhere between ten & fifteen normal plastic grocery bags. So for the average person shopping, one bag set will be enough for their grocery trips. Not only are these bags terrific for grocery shopping each week, but they came in handy when I moved last year. I was able to pack everything from my pantry, refrigerator & freezer into the bags & transport them to my new home more safely. Normally with the heavy pantry items (cans, glass jars full of sauces & condiments, boxed goods, etc.), I would panic that the plastic or paper grocery bags would tear or a handle would break- and then I'd have a gigantic mess on my hands. These are easier on the hands that paper or plastic bags, too- important if you have arthritis, carpel tunnel syndrome or fibromyalgia. The two insulated black bags also came to the rescue in yet another situation that occurred twice this year. When my mother was in the hospital, she absolutely despised the heavily-processed, salty food that they served there. So I was able to bring her healthy food from home & keep it hot or cold (as needed) with the insulated bags. I also used one of the insulated black ones to tote my healthy snacks & lunch to work- I added an ice pack or two to the contents, and I had a great lunch tote that looked very understated. Multi-use items are something an organized minimalist should always appreciate! The best way to make sure that you always have them with you is to put them back in your vehicle right after you unload the groceries you just bought. That way, when it's time for your next trip to the store, you don't have to remember to bring them along- they'll already be in the car. I store mine in a clear Rubbermaid container with no lid in the trunk. Another nice aspect of these bags is that they do not fly all over the car like a plastic grocery bag will, because of their weight & material. The black insulated bags work best for frozen & refrigerated foods, and have zippers. My suggestion is to bring an ice pack with you for each bag if your trip takes longer than thirty minutes to return home from the grocery store. Meat (especially chicken) should still have a separate plastic grocery bag around it to prevent any juices from leaking at all into your reusable bags for safety reasons. Periodically wipe down the interior of your insulated bags with a Lysol wipe or something similar to keep them clean & sanitized, too. Here's the link for the bags:

http://shop.flylady.net/pages/FlyShop_gbs.asp

The following is the very best list that I've ever seen made up already for buying groceries each week, and it's a free download. It's very helpful as a reminder list, too- in other words, all the stuff you forgot because you've run out when you made your personal list, it's likely to be on here. Other organizers have recommended organizing a grocery store master list by aisle in your particular supermarket, but this isn't my favorite way to draw it up. I don't think that you're required to use a list that separates items by where they are in your particular grocery store for a few different reasons. One, not everybody just shops at a single grocery store to get even their weekly shopping done (I know that I don't). Two, grocery stores add new items all of the time. Three, grocery stores move items all of the time. So if you make up a super-duper list based on one grocery store's layout, you'll be stuck making out a whole new list every time they rearrange stuff. Most of us who shop often enough retain the memory of approximately what aisle a particular item is in after a couple of trips to the store, anyway. However, do whatever is easiest for you. My favorite list's link is below (you just have to agree to the terms of use; it's completely free & there's no personal info you have to give, so it's safe):

http://www.freeprintablegrocerylist.com/click.php

Next is my second choice, but also a decent printable list that you might actually prefer. It's up to you how detailed you like your lists. There is also a vegetarian version of my second-favorite grocery store list available on the same page:

http://www.grocerylists.org/ultimatest/

I highly recommend that you leave a master grocery list, down to the brands & actual names of products you use (assuming your as picky as me with groceries brought into your house), should someone unfamiliar with your household have to do the shopping for you. Aunts, uncles, nieces, etc. If you only like Green Giant kitchen-cut green beans & will throw a fit if they purchase the French-style one...well, then I suggest you follow my advice. It's worth taking the time now to write your personal master list if you think you might ever be laid up & need help from someone else. Not everybody understands when you say, "Get coffee at the store", that you mean purchase medium-roast Folgers K-cups which are in Aisle 3, not the can of Maxwell House coffee over in in Aisle 6. Now you understand my point & I can move on. :)

I wear an apron with pockets virtually every day as I go around the house (I am a Southern woman, after all :D). I carry a pad of Post-it notes & a pen with me in the apron all day long, too. As I use up items in the household- bathroom necessities, cleaning products, food, spices, drinks, etc.- I make a note of it on my Post-it pad. Then, at the end of the evening, any notes that I wrote during the day as reminders, I transfer to the appropriate place- my calendar, grocery-shopping list, wish list, etc. You can carry 3x5" note cards or a memo pad in your shirt pocket instead, following the same principle. Some people like to list things like this in their cell phone notepad, or have a phone that allows them to immediately delegate this info to their e-calendar. This works fine, so long as your phone doesn't die or you will need someone besides yourself to shop in an emergency (especially if they have no clue how to pull notes off of your cell phone). Do whatever appeals to you & use whatever technology that you feel comfortable with. If you're like me, things must get written down as I go along because my brain works a mile a minute, I'm easily distracted and what I need to replenish will go right out of my head as soon as I leave the room where the item is needed!

Here's to being a happy organized minimalist,
Liz


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