Sunday, May 10, 2009

Mississippi Market - shopping co-op on a budget

I am making more of an effort to shop exclusively at co-ops or farmer's markets. Now, I could run off a whole list of reasons why I've recently made this switch, but rather than bore you to death, I'll just give you my favorite one - I like keeping my money closer to home. Most of the products I buy at Co-ops and everything I buy from the farmers is domestically sourced and much of it comes from very close to home if I pay close attention to seasonality. I like keeping the money as close to my community as possible, and I like that it gives me the ability to learn more about my sources, how they raise their products and keeps me more in tune with the local food scene.

Now, shopping at a co-op CAN be expensive. Goods are usually organic or sustainably raised, which usually leads to healthier and better product in MY opinion, but it also makes it more expensive to produce, which in turn makes the goods more expensive to purchase. Thankfully our friends at the Mississippi Market in St. Paul has pieced together a course to help educate folks on how to make co-op shopping as affordable as possible. The class I attended a few weeks ago was both well attended and insightful. I already knew about several of the strategies they taught us, but I also learned a great deal more. I've listed a couple of good take-aways in no particular order:

1.) Arrive organized. OK, so most people are thoughtful enough to whip up a grocery list when they go shopping - no big deal. I'm talking about about putting together an Excel sheet that lists out all the major categories and each item that I typically need in them. It helps me stay focused and I can even type in the bulk item numbers on the sheet so I can be quick at the store. If it didn't make the list, it doesn't go in the cart. If you want to update frequently you can even keep track of pricing. I've found so far that I have less waste than usual using this method. I think the best way to do this is to create one sheet and put it in a transparent sleeve or have it laminated. Instead of writing a list every week you simply mark it up with a dry erase marker and erase when you are done.

2.) Always take inventory. I'm amazed at how many times I've gone to the store and purchased a number of goods only to come home and realize that I still had more than enough, or that I missed something I needed. Taking a solid inventory beforehand can not only save you money in duplicate purchases, but it can also save you time from running back to the store. I always try and build a stock of things I use all the time to eliminate confusion, but taking inventory is simply the best way to help build your list.

3.) Plan meals. Sit down before you go to the store and look at your week. How many meals do you need to plan? Once you've got that nailed down figure out what you want to make. Crack a cook book or hit Epicurious to plan out your meals - the ingredient list becomes your grocery list. I find that if I have my plan ahead of time I end up getting exactly what I need and skip on the non-essentials which are typically more expensive. Make sure your plan is built around perishables and always take leftovers into consideration - nothing is worse then spending money on food right after you've thrown out a perfectly good meal that you left in the fridge too long.

4.) 3 Days 3 ways. Head to Mississippi Market's site to check out their 3 days 3 ways program. Essentially they give you the blue print for stretching a few items across several meals - in the winter I roast a chicken on Sunday and it gives me a solid dinner that night, with leftover meat for sandwiches, salads and another dinner or two later in the week.

4.) Easy on the coupons. You don't really save anything if the coupon persuades you to buy something you don't need. They're designed by the manufacturer to try and get you to buy. Now if it's something you need, stock up. If you don't need it don't buy it.

5.) Hit the bulk section. This seems like a no-brainer, but I mean really study it. I always blew past it or only stopped to get almonds. Once I past it I would go buy packaged whole wheat flower, cous-cous, beans and rolled oats. Then I attended this class and realized I could buy all that in bulk for much cheaper while utilizing less packaging materials. If you haven't stopped by your co-op's bulk section recently, then check it out. You'll be surprised at everything you can get.

Now this isn't a holistic view of all the strategies (shopping seasonally may be the best), but they are simply things I heard for the first time or things I was already doing that I could easily expand upon. I find my total bills are much less then they used to be and I'm eating much better and more creativly then ever before. I strongly encourage you to take up these practices or to keep them up and help support our local producers. I think you'll find the journey most enjoyable.

Happy Eating,



Liz said...

Thanks for the rave review! And great job summarizing the best tips!

kat said...

This is pretty similar to how we shop too. Starting to plan a weekly menu & writing a shopping list has really changed the way we shop & cook. I find we have a lot less waste because I think about ingredients being used in more than one thing which is so important when you are only cooking for two. The other thing that has really been great for us is getting a freezer so we can buy meat on sale & also preserve vegetables we have too much of in the summer.

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