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Grocery shopping is easily in my top five all-time list of favourite activities. At least, the kind of grocery shopping that was possible once upon a time.

I’d have a list of non-negotiables to restock, but otherwise would stroll through the produce section looking for seasonal stock that looked bright and plump, and that smelled fragrant against the nose. After produce inspiration had hit I’d go up and down every aisle and around the perimeter just to see what sales were on and to select the rest of the elements that would play off of the fresh stuff over the following day or two. Sometimes a double-back here or there because it’s easy to forget what you’re looking for in an aisle when you’re tipping cans of mango nectar into the cart when they’re $0.89 apiece instead of their usual $1.09. We’ve all been there.

A few trips a week was how it went most of the time. I loved going to a few different spots just to see a different selection or to snag a few extra ingredients for a dish. This regular grocery shopping almost acted as momentum maintenance for my relationship to cooking and meal planning. It was easy to plan a couple of days in advance, do the research and pick up ingredients, cook and eat, then get to do it all again with a fresh slate of possibilities. Everything was fresh and I got to cook things right away, which felt like it satisfied a reward centre in my brain. Call it instant gratification. It never felt necessary to do weeks’ worth of planning and shopping all at once, much less have to totally commit to the roster of ingredients with no backsies when it was time to cook.

That was truly the golden age of grocery shopping.

With most kinds of in-person shopping being decidedly Not Fun Anymore, and also not aligned with being a leisure activity any longer, I have been considering how to bring the sparkle back. Some things I miss terribly but that cannot happen right now are:

  • Rolling citrus fruits between my hands to choose the one with the most juice inside. Bonus points for smelling it afterwards, since rolling and squeezing motions release some of the beautiful essential oils from the peel. SubLIME.
  • Weighing bunches of greens to get the biggest one
  • Holding cucumbers like a sword to check firmness
  • Knocking on all the melons to find two that harmonize
  • Produce mist machine facial
  • Selecting the cheesiest cheesy bread
  • Finding a yam that’s bigger than my nephew
  • Daydreaming at the fancy cheeses

That being said, all hope is not lost. Lifehacker’s Senior Food Editor Claire Lower suggested choosing one new-to-you ingredient every shopping trip to keep cooking monotony at bay each week:

The ingredient can be a condiment, a vegetable you’ve never seen before, or a new grain. Heck, it can even be a big ol’ fish. A big ol’ fish would give you a nice little project to distract you from things, particularly if you’ve never prepared a whole fish before. Don’t put too much thought into it—just grab something that strikes your fancy, and throw it into the cart with the rest of your essentials.

Don’t forget, she says, that this is not an excuse to hang out at the store any longer than you would with a strict list. Do a little research ahead of time to decide what your new ingredient will be, then get in there and pick it up like all the rest. No dawdling! In and out! 2 metres apart!

My advice for shopping further in advance is planning what to cook based on the life expectancy of your ingredients. Make a list of what you want to cook, then organize it by how long the ingredients will last in the house before they’re no good to use. Since you will always have the most fresh produce when you’re just home from your grocery shop, use them first because they have a shorter lifespan than the rest. Same for meat and fish. Freeze the pieces that don’t make the day one or two cut, then pop them in the fridge to defrost overnight the night before you want to use them.

The further into the week you get, the more you get to integrate new ingredients without compromising on their freshness. I’ve found that this method makes a huge difference in keeping meals tasting their best because each ingredient is used at its peak. You’ll never be stuck with slimy greens or a moldy tomato at the end of the week, but avocados or bananas that were too green on Monday are perfectly ripe by Thursday, and the more resilient staples like root vegetables, apples, and grains can be used through the whole week and beyond.

Stir fry with mushrooms and red peppers? Seems like a day one or two meal. Baked potatoes with lentil gravy? Get your end-of-week comfort food on.

This is also super handy for deciding whether to go for fresh or frozen ingredients, which will add some flexibility to your cooking schedule and you’ll likely get more uses out of the ingredient over time.

This method might take a few more minutes to plan, but it’s been a great tool for structuring what the week will look like, not to mention the added anticipation of getting that new ingredient into the mix and the deep satisfaction of finishing the week with no food waste.

Have a peek below at my very real shopping list for tomorrow and the week of dinners I have planned:

Ingredients:

  • cabbage
  • pasta
  • ginger
  • red pepper
  • broccoli
  • okra or jicama (my new ingredient of the week!)
  • bananas
  • greens (spinach or kale)
  • feta
  • eggs
  • soy milk
  • fish
  • green beans
  • hummus
  • old cheddar
  • mushrooms
  • mango
  • canned whole tomatoes
  • basil
  • fresh mozzarella

Monday – Slow roasted fish with ginger green beans and mini potatoes (to buy: salmon or steelhead trout, green beans, ginger; at home: potatoes)

Tuesday – Veg and peanut stir fry (to buy: mushrooms, okra or jicama, red pepper, broccoli, ginger; at home: garlic, onion, peanut butter, soy sauce, sriracha, other sauces and spices)

Wednesday – Creamy mushroom and herb pasta (to buy: mushrooms, pasta, greens; at home: panko, herbes de Provence, parmigiano reggiano, garlic, shallot)

Thursday – Margherita pizza (to buy: basil, fresh mozzarella; at home: EGS pizza dough, canned tomatoes, parmigiano reggiano)

Friday – Deconstructed vegetarian cabbage rolls (to buy: cabbage, canned tomatoes; at home: rice, garlic)

Wishing you safe shopping out there. Remember: only touch what you buy, be patient with others, and tell essential workers how much you appreciate them.

Your friend,

Nat