Every so often, I see people on social media wistfully express a desire to shop like a European. Rather than load up shopping carts with enough goods to feed a scout troop, they long to make daily trips to the store, buying only what they’ll consume at their next meal.
I’m here to tell you that it’s possible, because I’ve been shopping this way for most of my adult life. I focus on finding ingredients at farmers markets and stores within walking distance (or a quick drive away), then I supplement them with the staples I have on hand.
This is my contribution to fighting one of the biggest problems facing the world: food waste. When you buy vast amounts of food, you inevitably don’t eat it all, and that means your hard-earned dollars are getting tossed in the trash. Moreover, it costs money to power that garage freezer full of grocery overflow.
There is another option that’s much friendlier to the earth, and which could revive your interest in going to the store. With organization and planning, you can become a Euro-style shopper. Here’s what you’ll need to do.
First, decide what kind of meal you have energy for
Are you feeling up to cooking a whole meal? Or would you prefer a grab-and-go option? I go in cycles: some weeks, I’m in the mood to buy ingredients and make something when I get home. Other times, I’m hoping the deli counter or prepared meals will inspire me. It definitely saves time if you can decide on a dish in advance, but sometimes you need the inspiration of seeing the food that’s available. You might be more likely to try something new this way, since it’s a commitment of just one meal, rather than something that will stare out at you from the fridge for days or weeks.
Set up your pantry in advance
On these miniature shopping trips, you don’t want to be lugging home five-pound bags of rice or big bottles of fish sauce. You should already have staples on hand. I previously wrote about the things you want in your pantry to transform virtually any leftovers into an imaginative dinner, and that applies even if you’re getting fresh meat, seafood, or veggies to cook right away.
Convenience is key
Whether you are shopping from farmers booths or inside a store, make sure you aren’t going too far out of your way. It doesn’t make sense to sit stewing in traffic, or to wander such a big distance from home that your babysitter has to stay extra time or your partner is tapping their foot impatiently, waiting for you to show up.
In a perfect world, your go-to grocery would be near office or home, and you’d spend minimal time getting there. If your shopping trip fits more seamlessly into your routine, it won’t feel like such a chore.
Only buy what you’ll quickly consume
Calculate what you’ll eat that night and perhaps for one other meal, and only buy that much. Even if a multi-pack of wagyu burgers is on sale, resist it. Don’t justify it by saying you’ll freeze the extra; it may never get eaten. This can be a tough lesson for people to embrace, because in our society, bulk represents value. But, it’s a much better use of your money to eat a delicious meal in its entirety than to stow leftovers from a mediocre one, because in the latter case, you’ll put off consuming them until they’ve expired.
Be flexible (and ask for help)
You’ve decided it will be a night for five spice chicken thighs, only to find out the store is sold out of thighs. Have a mental option or two lined up so you don’t have a supply chain meltdown at the sight of an empty section. A good fishmonger or meat market staff member can be a godsend amid ingredient shortages. I recently chose catfish when shrimp was sold out, and was pleased it was so tasty.
Find appropriately sized recipes
I once asked a chef for a blueberry crisp recipe, only to find out that it made enough to serve 14 people. Your new grocery shopping system requires you to discover recipes that can be made in smaller quantities, or at least match the number of people who will be consuming them. Here are some ways to downsize recipes.
I’m a big believer in eating things that are available for a limited time only. Here in New Orleans, strawberry season is just about over, but the Creole tomatoes have come in. Restaurants are beginning to offer the season’s first soft-shell crabs. You might live someplace with delicious sweet corn or succulent asparagus. Eat lots while they are in season; they never taste as good other times of the year.
Make occasional exceptions
Of course, there are going to be times when you’ll need to purchase mass quantities of beer and chips, like when guests come over. I recently overbought Gatorade for my moving crew, and have been looking at bottles of blue beverages every time I open the fridge. Still, avoid the Costco curse, and revert to your earth-friendlier habits as soon as the crowd is gone. You’ll secretly be gloating that your shopping patterns have changed.