Every cook will tell you so : a good dish starts with good ingredients. I know budget doesn’t always allow us to do so, but there are a lot of steps you can take without increasing your budget too much.
There is, first, the place you choose to shop at.
I know supermarkets are usually the easiest choice for most of us, but more and more alternative options are coming up. If you do choose to buy from a supermarket you can try
- to prioritize fresh over canned
- to check the ingredients list and make sure you understand all of them
- to buy frozen fruits and vegetables to have on hand
- to minimize packaging (buying in bulk or a big tub of yoghurt rather than six small ones)
- to look at the origin of your food, the closer the better
2) Markets and the likes
While I don’t expect everyone (I know I don’t) to have time to either grow their own food or have access to local producers, farmers markets are popping up everywhere. You can easily find them by looking it up online.
It’s also the easiest way of knowing you are at once buying seasonal local food, and supporting your local community. It’s also a good way of discovering produce you might not be used to and learning from the one who produces it how to best preserve and cook it.
CSAs (AMAP in France) are a great alternative to farmers markets if you can afford to commit yourself to a certain amount of food you do not choose every week of the year. It means you are supporting a farmer directly, creating a social bond as you become part of a community. It also means having to get creative sometimes to use up the unexpected produce you might get.
Try bringing your own bags so you don’t have to get any new ones there.
3) Ordering online
More and more options are available, organic produce deliveries, things like La Ruche qui dit Oui in France, an online platform where producers and consumers are connected.
The advantages are similar to the previous option BUT you can place your order and pay online to all different producers at once which makes it, lo and behold, easier and more convenient than the supermarket.
Those options are not necessarily cheap, but some are, since you are only paying the producer and not all of the middle-men regular circuits involve.
4) Local shops
Local commerce has been experiencing quite a come-back. Butchers, bakeries, fish shops, or fruit and vegetable shops are popping up, as well as finer epiceries, italian and greek delis, cheese shops etc..
While a lot of them put quality forward by and try to work traditionally it is not always the case so do check before.
However, there is no better way to create bonds, get the best tips, and build a neighborhood life.
Once the matter of where has been solved, there is the matter of how, and what ?
I tend to shop in smaller amounts more often than not, first because I live in a city center and therefore shop by foot, but also because it allows me to get fresher food. Of course that is not always possible, so while I do recommend getting as much as you can fresh, frozen fruits and vegetables are also a great option to extend shelf life and finish the week with something else than sad rotten fruits.
This will largely depend on what you are used to eating of course, but here is a general guideline of things that make cooking every day a breeze. Of course, I wouldn’t get all of those every time, mix and match depending on what you feel like and are used to eating.
Fresh fruits and vegetables : in season and locally sourced preferably
- some cheap filling things like potatoes, apples, pears, bananas
- basics like garlic and onions
- greens (spinach, herbs, a salad, cabbage)
- and other seasonal things like citrus, tomato, eggplant, parsnip, squash, kiwi, peaches…
- lemons (always, always get lemons)
Frozen fruits and vegetables
- A vegetable mix
Grains / nuts / seeds
- Pumpkin and sunflower seeds
- Good bread from the baker
Animal products (organic if possible)
- Feta, parmigiano are good to have on hand, but any cheese you consume
- Fresh milk
- Meat from the butcher / Fish from a fish shop if you consume them
- Eggs (at least free range…please ?)
- Tomato passata
- Cooked beans (chickpeas, white beans, red beans, lentils..)
- Coconut milk
- Non dairy milk
- Vinegar (a good balsamic is my usual go to)
- Soy sauce
- Nut butter (tahini is my favorite and cheaper than most)
In general rules, if I have eggs, passata, some grain and a few vegetables, I consider myself able to survive a few days.
Having some herbs, spices, lemons, capers, toasted seeds and a cheese is, to me, what takes all of my every day meals from okay to really good. Use those, or find the ingredients that you really love and put them on everything : maybe it’s sriracha, cinnamon, mayonnaise, gouda…
What you should get out of this is that you need to identify your « staple ingredients », things you know how to cook and love (for me that would be rice, oats, eggs, rice milk, olive oil, onions, passata...) and your « hero ingredients » (for me lemon, capers, nuts and seeds, pickles, feta cheese…), those to always have on hand. Add seasonal fruits and vegetables, and maybe some animal products if you eat them and you have a bunch of good easy meals figured out already.
Your life might get just a tiny bit better from it.