Gill Stannard

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

How to shop

Unlike many others of the species, I wasn’t born with the shopping gene. However, as I like to cook and eat, I’ve created some rituals that make maintaining a full pantry and fridge a more pleasant activity.

Every person with an ounce of knowledge about wellbeing will tell you to be healthy - learning to eat well plays a major part. While most of us know the basics, one of the keys to putting good eating into action is a bit of planning. No food in the house means either going out or going hungry.

Here are some tips on how to shop:

Be prepared

In my house, I’m famous for my lists. Scribbled on torn envelopes and other reclaimed pieces of paper, throughout the week words are scrawled to build a shopping list. The fact my partner can’t always read my writing can sometimes lead to odd purchases being bought but I’m working on that!

The evolving lists are for the supermarket (cleaning items, milk, pantry basics, non-perishables etc) and market/fresh food shopping (fruit, vegetables, nuts, fish, eggs). Not everyone has the luxury of a double shop; so obviously one list can suffice. As basic foods run low or are used up, they go on the list. If a recipe’s been found that seems enticing, the missing ingredients get added.

Taking a list when you go shopping means saving time and money. No having to make a dash for forgotten items and pay convenience store prices. It also is a pact between the intention of eating well and the action needed to put the plan in motion.

In a large, working family sometimes shopping begins with making a meal plan for the week. The uber-organised might even have a month plan, which makes shopping and cooking even easier.

Know your basics

If you have the time it is a good idea to do a pantry, freezer and fridge audit to get to know what is lurking in the recesses and find what has gone missing in action. I like having dried and canned beans, tinned fish, tomatoes in various forms, nuts, seeds, crackers, seaweed, noodles, rice, oats, quinoa and other grains in the cupboard to form the backbones of breakfast, lunch and dinner. Less used items like flour and some spices need to be thrown out once they’ve gone past their peak. So a spring clean every six months or so is a great idea.

To turn a meal from boring into delicious, condiments and flavours are useful to keep on hand. Chillies, spice mixes (curry powders, zataar, garam marsala, mixed herbs and the like) and herbs (eg: cumin, coriander seeds, fennel, mustard) all get a good work out in my house. Assorted jars and bottles of relish, chutney, tobacco, Dijon mustard, tamari, fish sauce are also handy additions.

Not being a meat eater – having a block of tofu or some eggs in the fridge or the legumes in the cupboard guarantees a meal at any time for me. Noodles, rices and other grains do likewise. While checking your basics think of what your healthiest fall back meals are and make sure that you keep multiples of the essential ingredients in stock.

Freezers can be useful if you like to make stock, do large batches of soups and other one-pot meals or keep a stash of better quality frozen vegetables like spinach and peas for some emergency greens. Packs of frozen peas also make great first aid ice packs. Mine stores cat food, homemade fish stock and some dairy-free ice cream at the moment.

The perishables

Having a good supply of fresh fruit and vegetables mean doing a regular shop. While some frozen and canned varieties are fine – a diet without fresh ones lacks texture and fragrance.

I always keep garlic and onions on hand. The alliums can turn a plain egg into an omelette, a bag of rice or quinoa into a pilaf and are the foundations of most of my favourite savoury recipes.

Like potatoes (if stored in a cool dark cupboard), onions can last for weeks or months if you buy them at their best when they are firm and unblemished.

Other root vegetables that can easily see the week through are parsnips, sweet potatoes and carrots. Solid vegetables like pumpkins, turnips, kohlrabi and celeriac store well in the fridge. Leafy greens tend to be more fragile, though cabbages and other Brassica’s are less so.

If you are doing a big fresh food shop, it’s a good idea to eat the Chinese greens, fresh herbs, mushrooms and leafy salads first when they are at their best. Corn and berries also should take priority, when in season.

While apples and oranges can survive a long time off the tree, the process of picking green, cool storage and gassing can take a toll on their shelf life once you get them home. Though a case straight from a farm gate shop is a good investment. If I have apples, pears or stone fruit that demands eating faster than I am able I will often stew them with a scant amount of sugar or rice syrup and a dash of water in a pot on low heat. Stored in a sterilized glass jar with a good lid or a well sealing plastic container – stewed fruit can see you through to the end of the week and tastes great on cereal or as dessert with a spoon of natural yoghurt.

A simple way to add a splash of fresh greens to your meals is to grow your own herbs. They tend to grow well in a pot on a sunny windowsill or balcony. If you have the luxury of even a small patch of earth a mere square metre of backyard can be home to some easy to grow silverbeet and a parsley plant. Instant vitamin C, iron and fibre.

Get into the rhythm

While a one-off shop to restock your basics after a spring clean is a great place to start – it is regular shopping, including a frequent supply of fruit and veg that is the key to ongoing kitchen and health happiness. Keeping the same spot in your diary free every week to replenish your stores is more reliable than doing the shopping ad hoc.

The markets – Queen Victoria, Prahran, South Melbourne - attract fierce loyalty for good reason. While operating hours are less flexible than your nearest open all hours food barn, market shopping is an alternative to impersonal monopolies telling you what you want to eat. Developing a relationship with your favourite traders often gives an opportunity to try new flavours, get a heads up on what is really fresh and learn new ways to cook.

Of course there are other options that might work better for you. Many conventional and organic grocers, local stores or large supermarkets offer weekly boxes of perishables or online shopping and delivery. There is nothing like getting a box of seasonal produce every week to provide an incentive to cook and eat at home more often. If you hate supermarkets, then consider investing an hour in\ setting up an online account with one that offers home delivery. Once your preferences are in the system, future orders can be entered quickly and your goodies are then delivered to your door.

Do it with a friend

Whether it’s the lack of the ‘shopping gene’, transport issues or feeling unsure what you really need to buy – having a market or shopping buddy can be a great way to get into the groove. A friend/neighbour/housemate/relative who likes to cook is often a great person to ask if you can tag along with on a shopping trip. People who love food tend to be the ones that enjoy the modern equivalent of hunting and gathering.

Or perhaps both you and your closest pals are pressed for time to catch up on a regular basis but still need to buy mundane items like toilet paper and cat food? Having a chat while pushing the trolley down the supermarket aisles together is a nifty way to multitask. If you are social by nature but slack on the shopping front you can cleverly restock your fridge while catching up on the goss.

Of course men don’t gossip, do they? But you’d be surprised how many family guys have started synchronising their weekly shopping trip with the same night as a mate. Especially, when the shopping centre is opposite a cosy pub, using a quick pot as a reward for getting the groceries done, then off home before the frozen foods thaw.


Solemama forum: shares local, sustainable ways to buy food. Includes box delivery schemes, farm gate sales, farmers markets in many Australian cities as well as recipes and other food related discussions.

Melbourne community farmer’s markets keeps you up with the dates of the four inner city regular Saturday growers markets. A good idea for a shopping date and catch up with a friend.

Farmers and growers markets in Victoria.

Garden Organics at Queen Vic market also does deliveries. It’s my favourite organic store at the markets. I eat, I drink, I work also does a weekly podcast from Garden Organics, keeping you in touch with what’s in season and tips of how to cook the produce.

Market trading hours, locations etc: Queen Vic, South Melbourne and Prahran.

If you can’t beat them, join them – the leading supermarket monopolies both offer shopping from the comfort of your keyboard: Coles online and Woolworth/Safeway homeshop.

What are your shopping tips?

The 3RRR radiothon begins this Friday. As a thank you to all subscribers and clients - over the next week I will be posting more articles on simple strategies to eat well and live a healthier life.

1 comment:

Lucy said...

Wonderful, sensible and, most importantly of all, practical advice!

Lists are invaluable. Can't stress that enough. How irritating it is to find out halfway through the recipe that all the tins of tomatoes are gone...

Can't imagine life without the alliums either - they make eating a pleasure.

Love it. Excellent.

Off to update my supermarket list right now!