October 31, 2012

Shopping Supermarket Savvy -- Part 3

Welcome to part 3 of Shopping Supermarket Savvy, a series designed to help you navigate grocery stores in ways that will help you save money while buying real foods, avoiding overt processed junk, and outsmarting processed junk marketed as health food. In part 1, I talked about the strategy of “shopping the perimeter” – sticking mostly to the outer aisles because that’s where the whole foods are concentrated – meats (including poultry and seafood), dairy, and produce.  Part 2 introduced the earth-shattering concept of reading price stickers. An obvious thing to do, maybe, but it’s less obvious what to look for on those stickers. (Hint: it’s the unit cost, and not always the price for an individual item.)

What’s another simple way to save money at the store? Again, it’s a pretty obvious one, but maybe one you haven’t been employing much. (Picking up on a theme here? If you’re thinking this is “not rocket science,” you may be on to something!)

Buy in bulk.

Yes, it’s that simple. BUT – there might be more to it than you think.

First, I should define what I mean by “buying in bulk.” Most health food stores and some better-stocked supermarkets have sections where you can buy things like nuts, beans, oats, various flours, trail mixes, and granola by the pound. (You know…where you get to use the cute little plastic or metal scoop and pour the amount you want into a bag, and where there are signs everywhere alerting you to the fact that you will darn near be arrested if you dare to help yourself to a sample.) This isn’t what I’m talking about. When I say “buy in bulk,” I mean buying more than you need at one particular time and keeping a stash of whatever it is on hand, be that in the freezer, fridge, or pantry.

Of course, some things are better to buy in bulk than others. Canned tuna? Load up your cart! Strawberries? Not so much.

So let’s start with the obvious items: canned, jarred, and dry goods. Things that generally won’t go bad for ages and that you could theoretically hand down to your great-grandchildren (although that would be a pretty sorry inheritance). Canned tuna, salmon, sardines, coconut milk, tomatoes, fruit (in their own juice, please, not syrup), vegetables, jarred pasta sauce, and any kind of bagged or boxed rice, beans, or grains—provided your digestion and blood sugar control are good enough that you’re “safe” to consume those last three. (Not sure if you fit that description? May I recommend a nutritionist to help you find out?) Canned fish is a fantastic, budget-friendly source of protein. As for vegetables, I prefer fresh over canned—forget the nutritive value; from a flavor and texture standpoint, there’s just no comparison—but there are most definitely worse things you could eat than canned veggies. There is one item that deserves special mention. It’s the single most underrated canned good in the entire supermarket:  pumpkin. Not the pie mix, just straight-up pumpkin. (The pie mix contains yummy spices like cinnamon and clove, but also lots of sugar.) You can find it in the baking aisle, and they have it all year long, not just around Halloween and Thanksgiving. Forget pies and quick breads. It is an amazing dessert all by itself. I may or may not be speaking from experience that it’s pretty delicious eaten with a spoon right out of the can.
Most sources of fat are not good to buy in bulk because they tend to go rancid and develop “off” flavors and odors—not to mention that once they are rancid, they’re basically toxic on a cellular level. (I’ll spare you the geeky biochem on this…for now. I will most definitely get my geek on in a future series all about fats and oils.) However, the exception to this are fats and oils that are mostly saturated. The best one is coconut oil. Coconut oil is over 90% saturated and is therefore extremely resistant to oxidation/rancidity from heat and light. When it goes on sale, stock up! And even though it is highly shelf-stable, I still wouldn’t store it on top of or near the stove. Keep it where you should keep most oils – in a cool, dark place. You can buy butter in bulk, too. Yep, it freezes well—both sticks of butter and whipped butter in a container. The texture doesn’t change upon coming back to fridge or room temperature. (Note: on the other hand, margarine does not freeze well. Why? Because it’s not saturated like real butter. It’s mostly hydrogenated soybean oil. [Not that any of you out there are still using margarine, right? Right?!]) What you don’t want to buy more of than you’ll use in a reasonable amount of time are soybean, corn, or safflower oils. (Actually, you don’t want to buy those ever – not even small bottles that you’d use quickly. Why not? Wait for the geekyness to be unveiled. I promise I’ll answer this question.)

What else can you buy in bulk? How about meat? Well-packaged meat lasts a long time in the freezer. Some supermarket meat departments mark down meat that’s close to its “sell by” date, to try and get rid of it before they would have to dispose of it. There’s nothing wrong with this meat; it’s just near the date the government and food safety bigwigs tell them it has to be sold or gotten rid of. Buy it. Stick it in the freezer and stick it to the man at the same time. (A good way to prolong the freezer-life of meats is to vacuum seal them. Or if you don’t have a vacuum sealer, simply unwrap the original packaging and rewrap in a plastic bag or whatever vessel you prefer, as long as you can remove as much air as possible before sealing it tightly. What causes frozen foods to develop freezer burn isn’t necessarily the amount of time they spend in the freezer, but how much air and moisture they’re exposed to. (And if something does get freezer burned, it’s still safe to eat. The color might change, and you might get a hit of that lovely, distinctive freezer burn taste, but there are no safety issues there.)

Fresh produce is a little harder to buy more of than you need at any one time. It does grow mold, get soggy, and otherwise become undesirable. But there are still ways to make your money go a little further on fresh vegetables and fruits. Some produce managers offer “seconds” in their departments—fruits and vegetables that got a little roughed up in shipping and don’t look as appealing as their pristine, unsullied brethren. Unless you’re having the queen over for high tea—and maybe even if you are—you don’t need to worry about how the stuff looks. Especially if you’re going to cook with it anyway, and its appearance won’t matter in the final dish. If you’re talking about a salad or some other way in which the foods will be served raw and you absolutely don’t want to compromise on presentation, this isn’t the stuff for you. But if it’s going to get cut up and thrown into a stew, chili, stir-fry, or smoothie, the seconds should be your first choice. (Ba-dump-bump!) Not every supermarket does this, but most vendors at farmer’s markets do—especially those selling apples, pears, tomatoes, and other foods that are often canned or transformed into pies, spreads, and sauces. If you’re gonna cook the bejeezus out of it, does it matter if it was a little bruised when you brought it home? You do yourself and the farmer a favor here – you get the produce at a lower price and you spare them from either having to throw it out and take the loss, or having to box it up and bring it back to the farm or to the next market.

Remember:  there's good mold and there's
bad mold. (This is the good kind.)
The other reason grocery produce managers mark things down is that it’s on its last legs. It’s still okay now, but another few days and it’s a goner. Overripe, mushy, wilted—they’d rather sell it to you at a huge discount than throw it away and get nothing for it. I’ve seen perfectly good vegetables and fruits at ridiculous markdowns just because they only had a couple days’ more life in ‘em and the manager had to make room for the new stuff. The major drawback with buying this older stuff is that it may have lost some of its nutrients, since some nutrients degrade over time. (Vitamins more so than minerals.) So the longer something’s been sitting in the store, waiting patiently while all its buddies were bought and sold, the less of some vitamins remain. Still, I think that’s a small price to pay (no pun intended) if you’re on a tight budget and are trying to stick to real food. Better to buy the discounted stuff and get some fresh vegetables into your body than to skip it altogether because you can’t afford the organic, anointed-by-angels stuff. (Besides, have you ever tried to remove a halo from a red pepper? It’s a pain in the butt.) This might not be the best tip for buying in bulk, but it’s useful for stretching a dollar just a little further. This also works best for foods you’re going to cook, rather than eat raw.
SALE: A good four-letter word!
One more thing you can stock up on when there’s a sale is nuts. With the exception of peanuts—which are not actually nuts but legumes—nuts are pretty expensive. If you catch a good discount, take advantage. The important thing to keep in mind is to store them in the freezer or fridge. They’ll last much longer without turning rancid. Why? Nuts are rich in polyunsaturated fat, which is the most susceptible to going “off.” You can delay this by keeping them cold and as airtight as possible. Yes, we usually think of nuts as being entirely “shelf-stable,” since they don’t technically require refrigeration. But trust me, they’ll last longer if kept in cold storage. (Then again, if you’re anything like me, nuts don’t last long enough to go bad in your house! It’s like telling someone how to best store the leftover brownies. <<Leftover brownies? Error! Does not compute.>>)

Stay tuned for part 4, where I’ll talk about a sneaky way you might be paying more than you should at the checkout counter. (Sneak preview: things ring up at the wrong price. A lot.)

P.S. I would also say you can buy dairy in bulk-ish, but that would require me to confess that if I have a block of cheese that has a little mold on the end, I just cut off the moldy section and keep on keepin’ on. Also, I have eaten many a cup of yogurt (full-fat, of course) long past its expiration date. If you keep them in the fridge, unopened, those things last way longer than they’d have us believe. (Who are “they?” Why, the little factory gnomes who write the sell-by dates on yogurt containers, of course. What? You say they have machines to do that now? Oh. Well then.) What usually makes things go bad is exposure to air, heat, and light. Kept cold and unopened, there’s no reason for things like yogurt, sour cream, or cheese to magically turn poisonous and/or deadly the day after the sell-by date. Once opened, though, all bets are off. Use your nose and your eyes. If it looks or smells bad, it probably is*.

* I am a nutritionist and not a food safety expert. Please do not construe this as advice on what you should or should not consume. I seem to have inherited my father’s iron stomach and have never gotten sick from food, despite having eaten things way older and more questionable than unrefrigerated, day-old pizza and stale beer in my college dorm. Your mileage may vary.

† Don’t hold it against me. I wasn’t always a nutritionist. J

Disclaimer:  Amy Berger is not a physician and Tuit Nutrition, LLC, is not a medical practice. The information contained on this site is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any medical condition. 

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