Now that we are three weeks into the school year, I am assuming you have all mastered School Year’s Resolution 1 (More Freezer Meals) and we are free to move on to a very popular cry for help among the DALS readership: I don’t know how to shop efficiently for dinner. This is a little tricky because how and what you pick up at the grocery store is inextricably linked to how you eat, so no two shopping lists for the Piggly Wiggly or Wegman’s or your local Farmer’s Market or Trader Joe’s (where we go) are ever going to look the same. So what I’ve tried to do here is outline a few rules and strategies that we shop by that can hopefully be universally applied. This list also assumes we all want to at least try to have a sit-down dinner at least four times between Sunday and Friday.
Rule 1: Put it in Writing Those of you who have read my book, know that I began this whole dinner ritual by sitting down on Sunday with my dinner diary, writing down the meals I wanted to make in the upcoming week, then shopping for everything we needed to make that happen. This strategy helped kickstart the ritual in a few ways: It got the momentum going; it eliminated those odious late-afternoon back-and-forths (What do you want to eat tonight? I don’t know, what do you want? I don’t know what do you?); and later, when we had school-aged kids, it helped lessen, if only a little bit, the existential dread of lunch-packing. (It’s so much easier to do the first pack of the week with a full fridge than with a fridge that’s been run dry.) Ultimately, the goal here is to take the daily thinkwork out of dinner. If you come up with a plan for the week, you just freed up all that psychic energy to direct towards more exciting pursuits, like watching, dissecting, and ruminating over all four seasons of Breaking Bad.
Rule 2: Squeeze in a Sexy Shop Another reason we hit Trader Joe’s on Sunday is because our farmer’s market is open on Saturdays. Unlike the dutiful, checklisty supermarket shop, this is where we can let the food (as opposed to the list) inform the shop. So we pick up what looks good — almost always fish that was swimming off Hampton Bays just hours earlier and a bundle of Tuscan kale, sorrel, summer spinach, or any other beautiful greens that last us the week and allow us to skip their mediocre bagged counterparts at Trader Joe’s. And there we have Meal 1: Grilled Fish with some kind of greens. I’m not saying your Meal One has to be this. It might be a bolognese made from some good grass-fed beef, or pasta with fresh butternut squash or a kale and feta quiche made with the eggs from your favorite farmstand. The point is: We almost always earmark our Sunday dinners to be market-inspired. (And please don’t tell anyone I just called kale-shopping sexy.)
Rule 3: Make a Realistic Line-up Now, for that dutiful, checklisty shop. It’s crucial to keep it simple — save the Nathan Myrhvold Foamy Broth Number for Saturday night. The loose formula that I sometimes use when dreaming up my line-up is the following:
-1 brand new dinner (so I am constantly expanding the repertoire; this week it will be one of these)
-1 old stand-by (this can be your Aunt’s chili, your signature chicken, whatever you can make without a recipe)
– 1 that just barely qualifies as home-cooked (our example of this is either sausages and baked beans or pre-made organic beef burgers with a tomato and mozzarella salad)
There, we’ve just figured out Meals 2 through 4. Go queue up Bryan Cranston on the DVR!
Rule 4: Make the Right List. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the all-time classic, hall-of-famer Real Simple tip: Write your shopping list organized by aisle. I have no hard evidence to show that this makes shopping easier or more efficient, I just know it’s deeply satisfying to cross things off as I go. (As I write this, I am reminded of a reviewer who that said “learning from [me] to relax already about family dinner is sort of like having a crazy psychiatrist.”)
Rule 5: Involve the family. I know these words might strike fear into the hearts of parents with toddlers or babies and of course, you guys can ignore this for a few years. But as soon as your kids are old enough to push their own miniature shopping carts (another reason why TJoes should win a Nobel Peace Prize), I highly recommend bringing them along. As well as your spouse. This way, it sends a message that it’s not on any one person’s shoulders to do the shopping — and by extension the cooking, because all shoppers inevitably get tangled up in dreaming up dinner ideas. And beyond the more wonky benefits (kids learn how to make healthy choices, they learn marketable skills packing reusable bags!) it cuts off so much tableside trauma at the pass. When my kids add something to the cart, they are much more invested in its consumption than they would be had it just been airdropped onto their plates.
Rule 6: Know your basic template. We’ve been polishing and honing our Ideal Grocery List for fifteen years now so unless there’s a big-occasion meal on the line-up, the List is in fact all in our heads by now. That means we would not dream of leaving the premises without the products that have proven themselves to be the kitchen workhorses. The only way to come up with your own template is by shopping for the week regularly. If there is a shortcut to this, I’m all ears. PS: If the budget allows, always pick up the random ingredient a recipe calls for even if it just calls for just a little bit of it. Once you have that ingredient in your pantry, you’ll start noticing it more (it’s like the SAT vocabulary word effect, remember?) then your overall dinner options expand next time.
Rule 7: Remember the Things You Always Forget. As mentioned several times before, if grocery shopping were a degree, by now Andy would have graduated summa cum laude and been touring the globe giving standing-room-only lectures on the topic. To the untrained ear, this probably sounds like a pretty great deal for me, but the reality is that it can be torturous — particularly when he somehow misses the shopping but manages to be present for the unpacking. Did you mean to get brown rice pasta instead of whole wheat? (No.) Hmmm, did we leave a bag in the car? Where are the snacks for lunches? (Woops.) Huh, so we’re going with whole yogurt for smoothies now instead of lowfat? I’m telling you , it’s brutal! Because of the deep scars of post-TJoe-stress, at the register, I now go through a mental list of four or five things that I always always forget (drinks, snacks, toilet paper, turkey for Phoebe’s lunch). I recommend you do the same — whether you live with a drill sergeant or not.
We are big fans of the reusable bags, not only because we enjoy doing our part to save the planet, but because bringing our own enables us to enter the weekly raffle. The prize? A full bag of free stuff from Trader Joe’s, naturally! In the two years we’ve been playing, we’ve never won, but the girls fight to fill out the little ticket every week anyway.
Abby has become quite adept at identifying the products the family prefers. This includes whipped cream and frozen buttermilk biscuits.
If this blog thing doesn’t work out, you know where to find me.