The Fresh Food Counter is not Evil
We are bombarded with the idea that cooking your own food is the most effective way to eat healthy and save money. Well, that’s fine if you have the time for planning menus, shopping multiple times per week, and are skilled in the kitchen. Cooking every day may be the ideal scenario, but it’s not practical for most people. If you’re single, have a small family, or a very hectic schedule you need some shortcuts. It can also end up being wasteful. I love to make lasagna, chili, soup etc. but, not surprisingly, my wife and daughter tire of eating the same thing for four days. There is a better way though. No, I’m not referring to hitting the drive-thru on the way home. I’m talking about finding a good grocery store with a fresh food counter.
Many of us think of grocery shopping as heading to the big box store and stocking up on whatever we can fit in the cart and shuffling through a pile of coupons. The commercial food market has made it so easy to pack our fridges and pantries full of cheap, convenient to prepare foods. The downfall is that most of it is not very healthy. Sure, every box and bottle you grab touts the the 7 essential vitamins and minerals added, or it’s fat and gluten free, or whatever the latest popular health trend. The thing is, we’ve become obsessed with analyzing the nutrition information and missed that we’re actually eating a lot of manufactured food. The good news is there are better ways to add “real” food back into our diets without sacrificing the convenience.
First, limit yourself to buying items like cleaning supplies and the minimum canned/frozen foods you need at the big box store. I’ve found I can get just about everything I need in those departments at Target and get in and out much quicker. Use your coupons for these items.
Second, find a better place to shop for food. Big box stores specialize in foods that are cheap and have a long shelf life. It may be a couponer paradise, but you’re cheating yourself in the long run. I’ve also noticed the fresh food sections in big box stores tend to be stocked with lower quality produce and meats. Look around your area for a smaller market that has more square footage devoted to fresh food than canned. “It’s more expensive!” you say. Well, not necessarily. Take a look at the fruits and vegetables and compare the variety and quality to what you find at the big box; it’s usually similarly priced with a huge difference in quality. The meat counter works the same way. It may cost a bit more, but you’re going to get a quality product. Buy some “beef stew” meat at both places and you’ll see the difference. Now, here’s where that fresh food counter comes in to play.
I like to cook. Well no, I love to cook. The problem is I don’t always have time. For a long time I bought a lot of convenience foods, like frozen dinners and box mixes, to remedy the situation. Then I started buying some things at the fresh food counter and deli and noticed how much they had to offer. Heck, a lot of these items were nearly as good, or sometimes better than what I made at home. It takes some trial and error, but once you narrow down the worthwhile items you can drastically change your weekly menu for the better. There are some pitfalls to avoid, mainly in the realm of buying by the pound; I’m looking at you 4 inch thick lasagna. Shop for foods that are healthy, are made in house (no preservatives), and can be used alongside other items for a quick and easy meal. For example, my market makes a delicious stuffed salmon, something I wouldn’t make myself, and one large piece is easily enough to split between us and goes with all sorts of easy to prep sides. The $15 family size Cobb salad is made fresh, comes with a bottle on house made dressing, and makes four lunches for me.
Now that I dispelled some of the myths about fresh food markets, find one in your area. If you live in a suburban or downtown area, you may also discover a specialty meat market, bakery, or farmers’ market that can also spice up your menu and maybe even entice you into trying out some new recipes of your own. Get out of the big box rut and shop around. As an added bonus, you’re mutually benefiting local owners and employees.
Here are a few tips for effectively shopping the fresh food counter:
- Items are often sold by weight, so take that into consideration for price
- Is it really an in house item or prepacked food tossed in a display case?
- Buy only what you need, use this to your advantage
- Pick main courses and sides that can be mixed up for a variety of meal options
- Go for foods which would require a lot of prep time at home, time is money
In the works: Discussion on developing what I call a “Food Arsenal” for meal planning, more tips on shopping and savings, and converting to a more sustainable and healthier diet. Thanks for stopping by!