Four ways to improve your grocery shopping

 

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An oldie but goodie: My haul during one grocery trip in which Cherry Coke Zero was on sale.

I take grocery shopping seriously. I’d often join my mom when I was a kid, following her around Kroger, grabbing things on lower shelves, checking out the latest Little Critter book in the magazine aisle.

Then, I became a grown up. I had to buy my own food. I learned a valuable lesson during my first trip to Kroger on my own during my first summer internship away from home: Food is expensive. I lived on chicken and potatoes that summer, mainly because they were filling and relatively inexpensive.

It’s been *gulp* 12 years since my first solo grocery shopping trip, and I’ve honed my habits like an athlete. By doing so, I’ve been able to save a lot of money for the Thompson Wolf Pack (aka me, Rob and Roscoe).

And the truth is, I love to shop for groceries. I like surveying the selection of food, imagining all the things I will cook and how we won’t have to eat out and, therefore, will save money. And for someone who loves food as much as I do, being in a store full of it is heaven. And I think I’ve turned it into a personal challenge in which I have to figure out which items to get at which stores for the best value.

Sift through your cookbooks and Pinterest boards

Before you get your grocery list together, you need to decide exactly what you want to cook. Yep, I’m talking meal planning. DON’T PANIC. It’s really not as hard as you think.

Take some time the day before your grocery trip to sift through your favorite recipes or look on the internet for something new. Don’t forget to take your own schedule into account when you’re planning your meals for the week. If you have plans most nights of the week, forgo tedious recipes for simple ones that you can make ahead of time and/or quickly. Hint: breakfast for dinner aka brinner aka some bacon and fried eggs is always a good option.

Bring a list or GTFO

Forgetting my grocery list is amongst the worst things in life, right up there with making a sandwich with the end pieces of bread or your DVR clipping off the end of your show. A list keeps you on task. It’s like a set of rules when you go to the grocery store. True story: I’ve been known to turn around and go home if I pull into a grocery store parking lot and realize that I’ve forgotten my list.

I picked up this little tip from The Kitchn blog: I created a template of the basic groceries I get (not name brands just types of products). I organized the items on the list by where they are in the store (yes, I know the layout that well). But I also leave some blank spaces.

A list centers me. It’s easy to get distracted by everything going on in a grocery store, especially as they keep getting bigger and bigger to load in more merchandise that has nothing to do with eating.

Order of operation is key

Remember when you had to learn which order to solve math equations – everything in the parenthesis first, exponents, etc.? Well, there’s a rigid order I follow when it comes to which stores I visit first. I always start with the basics, so Aldi is my first stop. I tend to do the bulk of my shopping there (my love for this store runs deep, y’all), but it’s a good first stop because it’s the cheapest place to get staples like flour, sugar and canned goods. But as much as I love Aldi, I know I can’t get everything there, especially personal hygiene stuff I like, certain cleaning supplies and good coffee (no offense, Aldi). That’s when I head to other grocery stores such as Trader Joe’s, Lucky’s, Paul’s Fruit Market and Kroger to fill in the blanks. And we’re also dipping our toes into farmers’ market season, so keep that in mind, too.

Over time, you’ll eventually learn what you like from particular stores and whether or not you’re willing to make a special trip to get it. For example, the Italian sausage from Lucky’s is HEAVENLY, but I only stop there if I have other items to make the best use of my time and gas money.

(Blogger’s Note: For those who follow me on Twitter, you know a post about grocery shopping across Louisville is coming. I just needed to crank this one out first.)

Decide what’s important to you

Some of you might be giving me some mean side-eye right now. Lists? Planning? Multiple stores? I get it, y’all. Time is a limited resource. We’re all super busy. Take a moment and decide what matters to you and your household when it comes to groceries. Is saving money the priority? Buying local? Organic only? A combination of all three? None of the above? Once you have your grocery priorities in check, it will be easier for you to develop your own game plan.

 

Aldi comes to the East End, so use these tips to get ready

This is going to sound like poppycock, but I don’t care. I might not ever leave the East End of Louisville. The grocery stores on this end of town keep me in their orbit, and now my favorite is setting up shop.

Aldi will open at Westport Road on March 5, according to Business First of LouisvilleFor those who haven’t been blessed with an Aldi in their vicinity, this European discount grocery store chain is Trader Joe’s brother in price, operations and origin. I’m a huge fan, as I’ve written about on the blog here, here and here.

My fellow East Enders need to check out my blog post about navigating Aldi for the first time. Your grocery budget will thank you for visiting a grocery store with inexpensive cooking staples and so much more.

Don’t sleep on Aldi for your holiday baking needs

Pineapple thumbprints were the first cookies of this holiday season in the Thompson house.
Pineapple thumbprints were the first cookies of this holiday season in the Thompson house.

Three years ago, I started a Christmas tradition by accident.

It was a bittersweet holiday season. I had just started a new day job, but the first paycheck hadn’t come in yet. I was also freshly married, so my family tripled in size. I didn’t have a lot of money, but I wanted to do something nice for my relatives.

That November and December, I baked and baked and baked. Batches upon batches of sugar cookies, oatmeal raisin cookies, chocolate chip cookies and double-chocolate cookies filled my freezer. Cookie sheets and parchment paper were my faithful companions, along with a dog eager to catch batter that flew out of the mixing bowl. And bless my poor oven’s heart — that thing really earned its keep that winter.

Fortunately, the cookies were a hit. And to keep up with my annual holiday baking, I’ve turned to one of my favorite retailers — Aldi.

I’ve shouted my love of this bargain grocery store on the blog before. This year, I realized Aldi is the perfect place to stock up on baking essentials at low prices. The center aisle at the Dixie Highway location was filled with Christmas goodies and odds and ends, like a bag of teeny Andes Mints for cookies or a whole pumpkin pie kit.

Here’s a look at some of the baking goodies I snagged on my last visit:

  • Molasses for my gingerbread men*: $1.99
  • A four-pound bag of sugar: $1.39
  • A bag of pecans for my shortbread cookies: $2.99
  • A tube of Betty Crocker icing for aforementioned gingerbread men: $1.99

Now that I have all of my ingredients, it’s time to get back to baking. If you’re interested in hitting up Aldi’s baking supplies, Aldi is located at 3442 Preston Hwy., 5109 Dixie Hwy. and 4301 Bardstown Rd. in Louisville. There are also southern Indiana locations at 3131 E. 10th St. in Jeffersonville and 3118 Grant Line Rd. in New Albany.

Just remember to bring your quarter.

*Gingerbread people? I’ve watched all of Transparent on Amazon Prime, so I want to use the preferred gender identity of my cookies.

There’s a potato chip in my bra, and other confessions of a messy eater

I felt the crumb from my crinkle-cut kettle chip fall down my blouse. I stared into the dark space between torso and shirt.

That salt-and-pepper chip was lost. Only an act of untucking and reaching under my shirt was going get the morsel out.

But I wasn’t finished with my lunch.

So I stayed at my chair in the breakroom and ate the rest of the chips, along with a turkey sandwich and a Coke Zero.

It wasn’t my proudest moment, letting a lost crumb lie in wait until I finished my meal. Going to the ladies’ room to get up close and personal in my underthings dampens the lunch hour.

That’s just the type of eater I am — messy, yet determined to finish a meal.

Other lowlights include (but are not limited to):

  • I once saw a mouse in the house while I was eating lunch. Naturally, I jumped on the bed to wake up my husband and screamed — all while I held my Aldi-brand Hot Pocket. The Mister became Mouse Hunter while I stood on an armchair and ate my Southwest Bean and Corn pocket. I also paused to grab some chips during the  commotion.
  • Taking 15 minutes to attempt to covertly eat an orange at my desk. Did I mention my oranges always have at least a dozen seeds? The cleaning folks should just replace my recycling bin with a spittoon.
  • There are crumbs on my face, a stain on my shirt or something green in my teeth approximately 87 percent of the time.

I love to get elbow-deep in food and enjoy the experience of eating a meal. Why waste time on trying to be dainty when there’s a world full of potato chips that need munching?

 

Run to Aldi to get some gourmet cheeses and other fun food for the New Year

Still have some entertaining left to do? Need to bring some goodies to the office? Or do you just have a bone-crushing love of cheese but a disproportionate budget?

Get your butt to one of my favorite stores, Aldi.

For the past few weeks, the discount grocery chain has busted out seasonal specials. These are foodstuffs that Aldi holds back until special occasions, kind of like nice china or lacy underwear.

Anyhoo, with the year drawing to a close, I expect that these items will disappear, along with bundles of ugly Christmas sweaters, until next holiday season, so it’s time to stock up.

A big portion of their winter seasonal items is made up of “gourmet” cheeses. I’m sure there are cheese snobs out there who will turn their noses up at discount dairy, but I can’t turn down 4-ounce logs of goat cheese for $1.99 (in fact, I bought three logs during one visit). Here are some other items on sale:

  • Brie or havarti cheese: $2.99
  • A box of six-cracker assortment: $2.49
  • Brown-and-serve rolls: 99 cents
  • Red or green sprinkles: 99 cents
  • Queen Anne’s Chocolate-Covered Cherries: $1.19
  • Golden raisins: $2.29

For a complete list of seasonal sales, click here.

 

Here’s what I learned about food and money during year of living modestly as a VISTA

I didn't have a lot of this during the past year. Photo courtesy of AMagill via Flickr.

As an AmeriCorps VISTA, I earned a “modest living allowance” while I completed my term of service.

Translate that as you wish.

I was recently hired by the organization where I served as a VISTA for the past year. But the new habits I developed to save money have become a permanent part of my life, even though I make a slightly higher income.

I started this blog as a way to explore how to spend money on good food when I didn’t have much in my wallet. I’ve learned a lot and had fun doing so. But a few food lessons stick out.

  1. There is a huge difference between a need and a want. I need food. That’s a given. But do I need to spend $20 on an entree? Do I need name-brand shredded cheese? Do I need a new slow cooker? Not necessarily. I learned be more thoughtful and strategic in identifying my needs versus my wants and to find an appropriate balance.
  2. Buy more basic ingredients. A stocked pantry full of basics and motivation to cook have helped me survive between visits to the grocery store. For example, I wanted some cornbread to go with some beans I had bubbling in the Crock Pot, but I didn’t have any cornbread mix. I did, however, have a carton of cornmeal, milk, flour, an egg and the Internet. Twenty minutes later, homemade cornbread muffins without having to go out of my wallet. My new favorite staple? Oatmeal.
  3. Cut back on the packaged food. It’s tempting to buy bags of potato chips, granola bars and individual applesauce cups. But convenience items like these get expensive.
  4. Eat more produce. It’s cheap. It’s good for you. Nothing to dislike here. And trips to the farmers’ market are fun.
  5. Cook more. I learned to cook seven years ago when I had my first internship and discovered how expensive eating out is. I revisited my beloved cookbooks (along with plenty of food blogs) and went back to the kitchen to save money.
  6. Shop around. I read Sunday ads religiously to find the best deals around town. If Aldi doesn’t have something at the right price, there’s Kroger. Or Walmart. Or ValuMarket. Be willing to be patient when shopping to find the best deals.

How do you save money on food?

McDonald’s has made oatmeal a hot topic. Here’s how to make your own.

Photo courtesy of nate steiner via Flickr.

It took two minutes and three ingredients for my fiancé to change the way I look at breakfast.

It was a cool February morning. We were hungry and chilly and needed some food that would stick to our bones.

Rob removed a carton of Aldi-brand oatmeal from my cabinet. Then he showed me how real grown ups eat a proper breakfast.

Oatmeal has had its place on my kitchen shelves in every apartment in which I’ve lived. But oatmeal was just an item I needed on hand to whip up a batch of oatmeal-raisin cookies when the mood struck me. Occasionally I would by bags of the pre-flavored oatmeal that’s quick and easy to prepare when you’re in a hurry. But I never looked at those rolled oats in the cardboard carton as food with which I could satisfy my urges to get creative in the kitchen.

Rob got to pouring and measuring and stirring. Less than five minutes later, I was eating a bowl of hot oatmeal with raisins, cinnamon and brown sugar. This humble bowl of oatmeal was the beginning of my adoration of this bastion of fiber.

Oatmeal has become my go-to breakfast. It’s a blank canvas that waits for your personal touches. It’s easy, quick and cheap. It keeps you full until lunch. In a word, oatmeal is wonderful.

Recently, McDonald’s and a couple of oat-loving food writers have brought oatmeal to the front of internet food conversation.

Food columnist Mark Bittman just wrote a widely read article for the New York Times condemning McDonald’s oatmeal, which he said has been altered so much by the fast-food giant that the dish has more sugar than a Snickers candy bar. Bittman’s piece prompted a response from Tom Chiarella at Esquire Magazine based on his own experiences at the restaurant that defends the chain’s oatmeal.

While you decide if McDonald’s has bastardized oatmeal or brought a healthier option to the masses, why not make your own? It takes only two steps:

  1. Follow the directions on the carton of oatmeal. If you use milk instead of water (which is what I do), watch your oatmeal closely and stir often because it can easily bubble over the pot or bowl.
  2. Add your favorite ingredients.

Here’s a breakdown of some possible additions to oatmeal. Choose something from each category and make your own combinations.

  • Something sweet: Sugar, brown sugar, sugar substitute, honey, syrup
  • Something crunchy: Nuts (walnuts, pecans, etc.)
  • Something fruity: Dried fruit (raisins, golden raisins, Craisins, etc.), mashed banana, chopped apple, applesauce
  • Something flavorful: Cinnamon, nutmeg

Do you have your own oatmeal combination? Share the knowledge in the comments.

My favorite posts of 2010: Will I ever burn off all these calories?

 

 

      

    

I felt the regret 10 minutes later.

I should start reading past blog entries whenever I’m feeling unproductive.

 It turns out that I did a lot more than I thought in 2010 – and had a lot of fun doing so.

I had some interesting adventures full of good food and good people. Here are some of my favorites: 

  1. Ashlee versus the Donut Burger: Think I exaggerated about the peril of eating a cheeseburger between two Krispy Kreme donuts? Scarf one down and tell me how you feel 30 minutes later. I could have really used some Tums that day when I ate this monster burger at the Kentucky State Fair.
  2. Chicken Fest and KFC, y’all: A couple of friends and I visited Laurel County, Kentucky, birthplace of Kentucky Fried Chicken and home of the annual World Chicken Festival. The highlight of the trip was meeting a handful of Colonel Sanders lookalikes. I’ve never seen so many white suits and moustaches in one place. The chicken wasn’t what I expected, but you can’t beat eating a KFC two-piece meal in the place where it all started.
  3. Adventures at Aldi: I love Aldi. Every visit is filled with glee when I look at how many reuseable bags I fill for half the price of other stores. Let’s face it, I might name my first child after this grocery chain. It’s not local, but the prices are right for someone on a tight budget. My four tips for shopping at Aldi remains one of the most-read posts on Ashlee Eats.
  4. Some dude named Emeril: Celebrity chef, author and television host Emeril Lagasse stopped by Louisville for the first-ever Fork, Cork and Style event at Churchill Downs. He had some really nice things to say about the city, and it made my heart squeal with pride.