Cooking Off-Script: Part I

Tonight, I went to the grocery store. It was a very different experience than usual, so I’ve decided to use it as the starting point for a series I’ve been toying with for a while. But first, a word of explanation:

The hardest part about learning to cook might be shopping for it. Chefs talk about “being inspired by ingredients,” but for a neophyte cook that sounds like a pipe dream. So what if I find lamb chops on sale? I don’t know what to do with them. I don’t know what I ought to buy to go with them. I can bring them home and put them in storage, but there’s an ease that disappears when you cook from a recipe. When things go bad in my fridge, it usually happens because I wasn’t confident about how to use those things, and I didn’t have the energy to follow someone else’s directions.

So shopping can be a real problem. You can’t just buy everything you think you might need with no plan. Nor can you plan out your entire week and then buy everything related to it. I’ve tried both, and neither one works. How do you strike a balance between what you’ll actually eat and other factors such as time, energy, and money? In this post and the next one I’ve decided to let you look over my shoulder to see how I’m trying to resolve this question for myself. It could be a monumental failure, so in the following post (posts? we’ll see), we’ll try to draw some conclusions about whether there are any lessons I’ve learned that could be adapted to someone else’s needs.

What I Think About When Preparing To Shop

I go to the grocery store a lot, and this trip began like the others. Before I left, I consulted my cookbooks and my kitchen. I made note of what I still had that I would need to use up, wrote out the ingredients for some recipes I wanted to try, and looked for gaps in my planning (have I forgotten about breakfast, or about my husband’s lunches? if I’m having a smoothie or an experimental salad with radishes, which he hates, what is he going to eat while I do that?). Then I left for the store.

Now, it is worth stating that we have been on winter break up to this point. Arkansas State University starts up on Tuesday, making this the first week in which our mealtimes are going to return to something resembling a schedule. And I am walking into it with three distinct goals:

  1. Do not eat refined carbohydrates (pasta, cereal, homemade, biscuits or pancakes, etc.). I’ve been cutting back on this over break and have noticed that I have more energy, just as all of my healthy cookbook authors have been promising, so my goal is: just try it, one hundred percent, for one week.
  2. Do not eat out this week, at all (except maybe for sushi, just once). I have noticed that I have a tendency to get tired towards the end of the day (see Goal 1, above), and when this happens I have a habit of looking piteously at my husband when he asks about dinner. But I invariably feel better after dinner when we’ve prepared it at home, and it’s an awful lot cheaper than eating out. It seems to me that I can solve this problem by doing less à la carte cooking and more advance meal prep: Goal 2.
  3. Stick to a budget. And make this budget less than what it normally is, by about twenty to thirty percent.

So in short, the goal is to eat more meals at home while spending less money and without purchasing the cheaper “filler” foods such as pasta and rice and that would normally make this possible. In addition, I have the following perishable items in my fridge, which must be used up this week:

  • Four hamburger patties
  • One bacon-wrapped filet steak
  • Leftover sausage
  • One fennel bulb plus fronds (more on fennel in a future post, in case anyone reading has no idea what it is)
  • Goat cheese with fennel pollen and lavender, not yet opened but making me nervous
  • 1 avocado, hopefully still good as it’s been in the fridge
  • 1/2 small container of salad greens
  • 2-ish lemons (strictly speaking, there are something like 2 1/2 lemons, but two have already been zested)
  • 1 grapefruit
  • 1/2 onion, stored in fridge
  • 1 small portion of a leek
  • Various fresh herbs, particularly cilantro and some mint
  • Pesto

After considering these variables, I hatched the following plan of attack:

  1. Purchase a spaghetti squash because I have everything minus the squash for a delicious-looking recipe in one of my cookbooks. Making this recipe would use up two of the hamburger patties, and there would probably be leftovers enough for a lunch.
  2. Use the other two patties to either cook meatballs with zucchini noodles or make stuffed peppers.
  3. Make a lot of smoothies for myself, because I’ve been doing that the last few days now that we have an upgraded blender, and it’s been a major relief in terms of energy spent on meals.
  4. Purchase chicken, tomatoes, and kefir (and possibly skewers?) because another recipe in the same book has likely-looking recipe for skewered chicken.
  5. Rely upon eggs with vegetables for most of the breakfasts.
  6. Try to find ingredients for some of the salads in my cookbooks, which include canned fish and should be easy enough to throw together.
  7. Make the sausage hash that my husband loves for some sort of meal during the week, maybe even a dinner. Only missing ingredient is an apple.
  8. Go shopping again in the middle of the week, which means not spending all of the cash on this trip. (Yes, cash. See goal 3 in my original list.)

So with all this information knocking around in my head, I began my expedition. Although I do most of my shopping at Kroger, I usually start by scoping out my favorite of the two organic grocery stores in our area, to check for sales. So this is where I began.

What Actually Happened When I Went to the Store

Right away, certain of my plans went out the window. Bell peppers were on sale. Most of the other produce I wanted was not. Spaghetti squash was nowhere to be seen, but butternut squash was. I found tuna fish on sale and bought an extra can; scrapped my plans to purchase canned mackerel since I couldn’t find it; abandoned my plans for skewered chicken because the kefir was full price but the yogurt was discounted and I wanted one or the other but not both; and rummaged through the frozen meat section until I found four likely-looking chicken drumsticks for around $6. Since that’s a much higher price than I would pay at Kroger but has the quality to match, I decided not to buy any other meat besides the drumsticks and instead to rely on what I had at home. So now my plan of attack looked like this:

  1. Pray that Kroger has a spaghetti squash but make meatballs if not; definitely use two of the hamburger patties for stuffed peppers.
  2. Look for zucchini if no spaghetti squash because I will need it to go with the meatballs.
  3. Smoothies are going to have yogurt and not kefir, but so far no fruit to go with them except 1/2 frozen banana at home. I found a nice beet which goes well in a smoothie with blueberries, so those would be preferable.
  4. Forget the skewered chicken; instead look for things to go with roasted drumsticks, which maybe includes roasted vegetables.
  5. Still need to buy some vegetables to scramble with eggs.
  6. Forget the salads from the cookbooks for now and concentrate on finding good-quality greens to go with the single red pear I decided to buy.
  7. Make arugula-squash salad with the butternut squash, which can function as a standalone meal if I include lentils. This requires baby arugula.
  8. Buy an apple to round out the sausage hash.
  9. Go shopping again in the middle of the week.

My purchases at the organic grocery store wound up at twenty percent of my weekly budget and gave me a good idea how to move forward. I went to Kroger with a much more definite menu in mind.

Grocery Store no. 2: Filling in Gaps

At Kroger, I learned that spaghetti squash is simply not available right now. (Actually, I bet the other organic grocery store has it, but at any rate I scrapped the plan with the squash.) I grabbed six apples since I can use them for snacks/salads/smoothies/hash, then got lucky when I found that blueberries were on sale. I also found a winter melon, which I thought would make a filling salad if tossed with feta cheese and olives (and hopefully the mint in my fridge, if it’s still good), and fresh apricots, which I decided I could roast to go with the drumsticks (I’ll need to do a little bit of research on that). I could not find smoothie-worthy bananas in the discounted section so I decided not to buy them at all, but I did find four tomatoes for $0.99, which could go in the stuffed peppers and also in the egg dishes. Now my plan looked like this:

  1. Forget the spaghetti squash. Replace with meatballs/zucchini noodles.
  2. Stuffed peppers now contain hamburger meat, tomatoes, and probably onion; need something else.
  3. Smoothies are a problem without bananas; substitute avocados since those are more nutritious and find greens to make apple/greens/avocado blend.
  4. Putting apricots with the chicken means it probably isn’t necessary to buy anything else until I have more of an idea what I’m doing.
  5. Vegetable/scrambled eggs situation is remedied with the tomatoes but is still a little bleak.
  6. Add a melon salad, which needs feta; still need greens to go with the pear.
  7. Need baby arugula for the squash salad but going to use pecans, which I have, instead of cashews, which I don’t.
  8. Sausage hash is in good shape.
  9. Go shopping again in the middle of the week.
  10. Don’t forget to buy food for the dog.

As a result of this inventory, I added avocados, arugula, Swiss chard, romaine lettuce, zucchini, and yellow summer squash (for the stuffed peppers) to my cart. I grabbed an extra clove of garlic and a carton of feta on my way to buy chicken and frozen vegetables for the dog. I also got an extra carton of eggs. It was at this point that I remembered I could still use more berries (and I had no luck finding frozen berries), so I doubled back to the produce section and found that blackberries were also on sale. At this point I realized that we might be in trouble where breakfast was concerned, especially if I wanted to expend less energy on cooking, so I did some quick math and decided I probably had enough left in my budget to make a quiche. I bought broccoli, a chili pepper, and the least expensive block of cheddar I could find. I was delighted when the total came in under budget, leaving me with an extra $20 to make a midweek run to the store.

So at this point, our household is loosely committed to the following dishes:

  1. Meatballs with zucchini noodles and probably some tomatoes
  2. Stuffed bell peppers
  3. Sausage hash
  4. Melon salad
  5. Green salad with pear
  6. Drumsticks with roasted apricots
  7. Broccoli-cheddar quiche
  8. Butternut squash salad
  9. Scrambled eggs with vegetables, which probably means leftover leek and Swiss chard
  10. Bacon-wrapped filet, which I’m going to let my husband eat since I already ate the other one
  11. Lots of smoothies, including probably two with beet and blueberries

We also have tuna fish for backup, in case we need something quick, and all together that’s a lot more concrete ideas than I had in my original plan. Better yet, the only ones I’ll have to improvise on are the meatballs and the apricots. Stay tuned…

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