When we’re talking new shirts and shoes, I would rather not. But my tolerance for finding the best olives, freshest herbs, and weirdest varieties of apples is much higher. The common supermarket, though, can be a frustrating experience when I’m only feeding myself. When on earth will I ever eat an entire head of celery before it wilts away into oblivion? How do I both stay within my budget and buy a variety of foods when everything is packaged for a family of four?
Turning the family-sized supermarket into a workable experience for the solo cook requires a little thought, but it is possible! The best place to start is always in your kitchen– what do you have on the shelves, in the freezer, and in the fridge? What do you need? Make a list. Be sure that you keep a base of staple and non-perishable foods in the pantry for times when you get sick, are very busy, or there’s a giant snow storm. Thinking ahead and making lists helps, but remaining flexible allows you to adapt to changing conditions. Some days the green beans may look bad, or they may be out of frozen spinach. Or maybe there’s a great sale on frozen peas, or fresh cherries.
First of all, accept that you will occasionally have plans go awry. Buy some freezer bags and use freely. Meats, poultry, fish, vegetables, bread, and fruit can all be frozen. (Blanche or cook vegetables and fruit first.) Dairy varies– milk can be frozen, but some cheeses do not freeze well. Keep a bag of bread ends and stale slices for bread puddings and bread crumbs. Start a bag of vegetables for broth or soup. Rescue the celery, half an onion, fading scallions, limp carrot, sad mushrooms, and random bits of parsley before they start to rot. Wash before freezing, and then it’s easy to make broth (post about broth making pending, or see any basic cookbook).
Second, shop the areas of the store where you can buy by pound. Avoid buying the packaged three heads of lettuce; instead, buy a handful of the loose mesclun mix or a small head of Boston lettuce. Salad bars may be a good place to buy things like chopped celery or specialty items like marinated mushrooms. Buy single apples instead of 5 lb bags, unless you like making applesauce or will eat three apples a day (I will…). Buy one fish fillet from the fish counter, 1/2 lb stew meat from the butcher, half a dozen eggs, and a handful of fresh fava beans. Portion out half a bag of cherries instead of the full bag. Feel free to buy 6 loose dates instead a one pound package. If you have the luxury of some disposable income and access to small shops, patronize them. The local cheese shop will happily sell you two or three kinds on cheese in quarter pound chunks. A local butcher will sell you one chicken breast or pork chop. A spice vendor will sell you a tablespoon of ground allspice. A fruit shop may have more variety in loose items.
Third, choose perishable foods that have better staying power when possible. For example, hard grating cheeses last longer than soft fresh cheeses like chevre. Take advantage of sales and buy a full pound of parmesan, for example, but skip the sale on gallons of milk. Root vegetables generally hold better than leaves and fruit (with the exception of cabbages and winter squash).
Fourth, shop heavily in the non-perishables. Canned fruit (in juice!) can be a good option in the winter and spring. Staples like dried beans, pasta and rice can be stored for 1-2 years. Just don’t forget about what you already have when you’re planning your meals! Always use the older packages first. It’s also a good idea to eat down the pantry once or twice a year– whether it’s before moving or traveling, during an especially busy time of year, during spring cleaning, or before a holiday like Passover.
And–finally– don’t forget to try take a risk on something new once in a while. Yesterday I bought four fresh dates just out of curiosity. I may never buy them again (wasn’t all that fond of them), but some things will become favorites (turns out I really like fennel). You can always feed the dog, the compost, or pawn it off on a friend or the hungry hordes at work (typically works best for sweets).