Most food purchases at the grocery store boil down to one of four factors:
Is it healthy? Is the food low in fat and provide good nutritional quality? Is it devoid of chemicals of mysterious origin? I also include ethical issues here, such as buying from local traders and such – healthy in a different way.
Is it cheap? Is the price reasonable compared to other similar food options? Is this item going to bend my food budget?
Is it tasty? Does this look like an enjoyable item to eat? Could this be part of an enjoyable dish?
Is it quick? Is the preparation time for this food relatively small? Will preparing this food interfere with other activities in my life?
Most people in the first world will take these four factors into account when considering a food purchase, but in varying degrees. For example, I focus on healthy above all when buying food that my toddler will eat, but I often focus on tasty for myself. During my earlier years, quick was the top factor.
However, I like to find items that manage to hit as many of these areas as possible. Here are eight techniques that I use to find home run food purchases.
Read through the sales flyer before going This takes care of the cheap, letting you use the other criteria to make a judgment on the food. For example, if I see produce at a great price in the flyer, I’ll often make a point to look up a recipe for it (making it tasty and possibly quick) – this turns into a home run purchase because produce on sale is already healthy and cheap.
Stock up on herbs and spices Herbs and spices are magical – they manage to turn a bland but healthy food into a tasty concoction. It’s worth an investment in some jars of quality herbs and spices of various types because of their amazing ability to take food that is healthy and make it tasty, too. Here’s an essential collection of herbs and spices to get you started.
Figure out how to make salads you like Salads are incredibly quick to make and are also very healthy (and lettuce is often cheap), but for me they’re often lacking in the tasty department. To make this a grand slam, I spent a lot of time trying various salad dressings and toppings until discovering the things that really make a salad pop for me (mushrooms, a sprinkling of cheese, onions, homemade garlic croutons, and a touch of vinaigrette dressing). It was worth the effort – now I have a staple food that hits a grand slam for me.
Use prepackaged foods as a template Prepackaged convenience foods are very strong in terms of tasty and quick and usually cheap, but they fail terribly at healthy. Instead of grabbing your favorite convenience food, try using it as a template for preparing your own. Match the ingredients with fresh and healthy versions and make several batches at home in advance so you can prepare them quickly when it comes time.
Try unexpected things This usually comes into the cheap realm: look for inexpensive and healthy items and give them a shot. Because of this, I’ve truly discovered the joy of cucumbers and onions – just slice a few cucumbers and an onion into a bowl with one parts water and four part vinegar (plenty to cover the onions and cucumbers), dash in just a bit of salt (to taste, you can add more if you like), and put it in the fridge. This is a delicious quick snack that’s very healthy, too, and it works as an appetizer before meals – my son even loves them and will munch on a cucumber slice before the main meal.
Look for recipes adaptable to the crockpot / slow cooker (or designed for it) This somewhat solves the quick aspect by allowing you to actually prepare the food whenever you’d like. One technique worth doing is to grab one of those frozen crock pot meals from the freezer section, reading the ingredients in it, then picking them up separately (making it more healthy) – in other words, use the template tip in conjunction with the crockpot. Another one is to find some crock pot recipes in advance. Here’s a primer on the crock pot and five great recipes for it.
If you’re picking up a canned item, see if it’s fresh Looking at the canned vegetables for an upcoming meal? See if that vegetable is fresh. The same goes for fruits and for meats as well – if you can get the item sans preservatives, you’re basically making a healthier choice, likely a cheaper choice, and also likely a tastier choice.
Buy lots of staples For me, chicken breasts and tomatoes are the two best staple foods one can get. You can make chicken marinara one night, then have chicken tortilla soup the next. Using such staples is quick (you can often prepare them all at once – making tomato juice or boiling the breasts) and also healthy (you’re starting off with the basic food). Plus, they’re so adaptable that you can make all sorts of delicious dishes from them.
A bonus tip: don’t be afraid of leftovers. Instead, learn how to use spices and other techniques to rejuvenate them.