Grocery shopping once a month? Tell us how

Dreading the grocery store has never been my burden, but I should have known better.

It was the first Saturday of the month and the day before Easter, so it felt like half of Medford had crowded into Food 4 Less. Amid the milling throngs regaled with customer-service announcements (egg-dying kits are located near the eggs), I heard a woman berating a weary-looking man in the dairy aisle.

He needed to imagine this shopping trip would last him all month! she exclaimed. Predictably, he just looked overwhelmed.

My thoughts immediately went to Krista Eisma, a Central Point mother of four and day-care provider who contacted the newspaper in February about her attempts to shop only once a month. She got the idea from a member of her church and had decided to keep a blog about the experiment. I wondered if the woman in Food 4 Less was a fan.

Krista laughed when she heard the story because, strangely enough, she’s never met anyone in Food 4 Less also shopping for the entire month. She says she doesn’t think the method has a wide following but she’s still keen on sharing her success.

“My family actually loved it,” she says. “They loved what I made.”

My reaction was all too familiar: How is monthly grocery shopping possible? Krista admits it’s not a new concept and even linked her blog to the Web site of a family who’s been shopping this way for about a decade. The main reason is economy. Shopping once a month doesn’t allow forays outside the food budget. And it saves time.

I’m no fan of random grocery trips and limit myself to once a week. If I hadn’t been planning a Sunday meal, I would have toughed out the weekend without going to the store.

The reason I went is pure and simple freshness: I wanted to serve strawberries for Easter brunch, and there was no way they would have survived the week leading up to the holiday. Not when a clamshell reveals a moldy berry in the center the same day it’s purchased.

Shopping once a month, Krista says, doesn’t mean you never eat really fresh produce; it just runs out within about the first week, leaving the long keepers, like carrots and potatoes, and canned and frozen versions.

Krista says she prefers fresh but was surprised how long certain pieces of produce, like iceberg lettuce, hold up in the refrigerator. She also can keep her family in apples and oranges stored in her garage almost all month, at least until the warm weather hits. Then she plans on purchasing an extra refrigerator.

But when she told me she makes an exception to the monthly rule for milk, I thought why not produce? If you can limit yourself to the dairy aisle and a budget there, what about spending a few extra minutes and dollars in the produce aisle?

Shopping and budgeting guru Mary Shaw agrees with me. As culinary educator at Ashland Food Co-op, Mary teaches a popular series called “Pantry Basics.” Like the name implies, the class advocates keeping a list of nonperishable staples on hand — most purchased in bulk (it’s cheaper) — as well as meat in the freezer, and then adding fresh, seasonal vegetables. She recommends a general menu concept but allows herself room for flexibility with the perishable items.

“It takes some practice to look in a fridge or pantry and figure out what to cook.”

Under Mary’s system, shoppers replenish pantry items as needed. But she says she saw no reason why it couldn’t be done monthly. Her approval came with the compromise of weekly trips to a local growers market.

We’re well aware that many people can’t make it to Medford’s growers market on Thursday mornings and that they perceive local produce as more expensive. But I would argue that even if you don’t choose to shop at a growers market, limiting oneself to seasonal produce is a great way to save time and money while ensuring that you’re getting your money’s worth in the first place. Produce is cheaper when it’s in season and hands-down tastes better and is more nutritious.

Yes, it can get monotonous eating strawberries week in and week out in spring, but I’d rather eat really flavorful fruit any day than the totally tasteless. The few times I broke my rule and purchased fruit from the Southern Hemisphere, it was so unappetizing that I threw it out, anyway. Canned and frozen aren’t really an option, in my opinion, because packaging of any kind adds cost, even if it’s not obvious.

And that’s the No. 1 reason I’d never shop monthly, because most produce is already old (relatively speaking) by the time it reaches the store. I don’t need to put age on it at my end.

After talking to Krista and rethinking my shopping strategies and values, it seems we all have our battles to wage. She’s scraping the cupboard bare at the end of the month. I’m braving the grocery store week in and week out in search of the best flavors, even if I eat them until I’m sick of them. The good news about both strategies, Mary says, is that it’s forcing us to be more creative cooks.

I’m curious what other people think. Share your ideas here or on Krista’s blog. As added food for thought, here’s Mary’s Pantry Basics list. Maybe it’ll save a trip to the grocery store.

Pantry Basics

Rice, brown or white

Oats, pressed

Quinoa

Pasta, any variety

Spelt or whole-wheat pastry flour

Corn or flour tortillas

Whole-grain sandwich bread

Baking powder, baking soda

1 or 2 vinegars

Extra-virgin olive oil, plus other oil for baking

Tamari sauce

Tomato sauce

Beans, pinto, black and garbanzo

Lentils

Tofu

Canned tuna

Broth or stock

Dried or fresh herbs: basil, oregano, dill, sage, bay

Dried spices: cinnamon, allspice, pepper, cumin, black pepper, chili powder, turmeric

Salt, including sea salt

Cane sugar

Maple syrup

Almonds

Peanut or almond butter

Onions and garlic

Carrots and potatoes

Lemons

Butter

Jack/cheddar cheeses

Yogurt

Eggs

Meat, poultry and seafood (in the freezer)

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