$Monday: How to Get the Most Out of Your Groceries

Many of us have, by now, stocked up on enough groceries to last us two or three weeks. If you're like me, you chose to save money and maximize health by purchasing mostly whole ingredients rather than heat-and-eat processed foods.

Now, to make those groceries last as long as possible, the key is to minimize waste by controlling portions and consuming things in a logical order. If you're not used to cooking and eating this way, it will take some adjustment to accept that you can't just eat whatever you feel like, whenever you feel like it. This is a great opportunity to learn old-school home economics and develop an appreciation for down-home cooking. If you commit to these habits, you will eventually get used to it and start to find real pleasure in the process, and these kitchen witchery skills will keep you healthier and wealthier long after the pandemic has ended.


Yesterday, I had a hard decision to make. Our batch of Scharffen Berger chocolate chunk cookies dwindled to one, and I only had one 6-oz. bag of chunks left. It's important to have at least one yummy treat in the house at all times to keep up morale, so I busted out my 1980s Mrs. Fields Cookie Book to find a recipe that makes a few dozen cookies (I don't care if it's a pandemic, I'm not going to spend my days baking one dozen cookies at a time) and calls for only 6 oz. of chocolate. I found a nice garbage-pail kind of recipe with oats, applesauce, nuts, and dried fruit (gotta eat those daily nuts and fruits anyway!) that I would have enjoyed, but my husband and daughter acted like that would be akin to flushing the chocolate down the toilet.

Now, this isn't the time to be a fussy baby about food, but a treat that 2/3 of the household doesn't like completely defeats the purpose of a treat. So instead, I made a note-to-self to add nuts and fruits every time I make a bowl of oatmeal for myself, and I found a recipe in another cookbook for peanut butter buckeyes rolled in toasted millet. Family harmony restored!

Aside from making sure there's at least one treat everyone can enjoy, I've put together some guidelines for stretching not only dollars but time between grocery trips so that we can all minimize exposure to each other and especially our highly-at-risk, generally underpaid, and under-protected essential workers.

1. Cook one from-scratch recipe every day. This can be a batch of cookies or a big pot of lentil soup. If you make too much to eat all at once, freeze some portions for later. After a few days, you'll get a good variety of leftover choices in rotation. Be sure to freeze anything you won't finish within three or four days to minimize waste and avoid food poisoning at this inopportune moment.

2. Balance your nutritional needs (making sure you ingest healthy amounts of fiber, grains, proteins, fats, fruits, and veggies every day) with pleasure. Yesterday's fresh recipe at my house was a pan of fancy spiced-and-breaded oven fries, eaten in the living room while watching a movie.

3. Consume your foods in a logical order for freshness; that is, use up the ingredients that will expire soonest. For the most part, this means looking first in the refrigerator, then the pantry (for potatoes, onions, flour, opened cooking oil, and other items with a shelf life in the weeks-to-months range), then the freezer, and finally the stash of unopened canned goods.

4. Get creative about using up all your dusty old spices and definitely-still-good (if you're not sure, just throw it out now) weird condiments. Flip through your cookbooks (or search the endless world of free online recipes) and think about making fun substitutions for ingredients you don't already have (a jar of salsa instead of stewed tomatoes? that exciting curry powder in the back of your cupboard instead of plain garlic powder?) to use up what you do have. This is not the time to fret about how old your Mrs. Dash has been in there. A decade? Who cares? If it's not as flavorful as it used to be, just put in a little more and get on with your life. These are Amy Sedaris times, not Martha Stewart times.

5. Try to save your frozen and canned easy heat-and-eat meals for last. You'll want those on hand if you get sick, hurt, or have what our grandmothers used to call a nervous breakdown.

6. When it's time to go shopping again, commit to cleaning out and reorganizing every single food storage space you possess before venturing out. That's your fridge, your freezer, and all your pantry shelves. Even relatively organized kitchen owners will rediscover spice jars, cans, and nut butters they forgot they had. Take everything out and put it back in as tidily as those couponing trailer park ladies as-seen-on-TV before you write up your shopping list. Then pause even longer to reflect upon whether there were any foods you ended up throwing out, getting sick of, or wishing you'd had more of over the past few weeks so that you can stock up for the next few weeks like the boss of your own household that you are. If you need more guidance, see this helpful resource by the Washington Post.

Cover your face and hands and try to shop at a less busy time. When you get back home, follow the procedures below to bring in your new groceries safely. Good luck!

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