Even as states lift their lockdowns, minimizing trips to the grocery store is still a smart idea both for safety and for saving money. Every time you run out to the store, that takes time and gas (not to mention the possibility that you catch COVID19). And each grocery store visit means more temptation to buy more than you need. Grocery shopping during COVID-19 means trying to reduce your grocery store visits. Here are 15 ways to do just that.
My tips are based on avoiding situations where you might need to run back to the store. The keys are avoiding running out of things, keeping essential foods fresh for as long as possible, and improvising if you want something that you don’t have at home.
1. Get Your Basics
The most important first step in reducing your grocery store trips is to make sure you have the basics you need to prepare all the things you need to cook.
For baking, that list likely includes flour, yeast, baking powder, baking soda, sugar, salt, eggs, corn starch, and vanilla extract. It’s often also good to have shortening, butter, evaporated milk, chocolate chips, and brown sugar. If you have these basics, you can make cakes, pancakes, biscuits, bread, frosting – you save yourself For cooking, you will always need oil, salt, pepper, vinegar, lemons, and whatever sauces and spices you typically work with.
It’s always good to have fresh meat and produce, but frozen works as well (see the tip below) and canned works in a pinch. Don’t turn up your nose on canned sardines, canned tuna, or spam (Spam is still one of my favorites). Also canned black beans are a great and versatile source of protein and don’t require cooking.
As for carbs, I always keep rice and ramen on hand. And a little bit of pasta.
2. Have Fun Extras
How does having fun extras save money?
I love having fresh interesting spice blends and toppings – they can make a meal more colorful, flavorful, and crispy, particularly leftovers. These include toasted sunflower seeds, furikake, crispy onions, bacon bits, fried garlic, flavored salts, cilantro/parsley/dill, green onions, sesame seeds, etc. (I know some people would probably use cheese, but as an Asian person, I really don’t know much about dairy. Go ask someone else. =P).
I also love this SOS recipe – in place of cream of soup for delicious marinades or to make a delicious creamy sauce.
3. Always Be Keeping a List
Once your pantry is stocked, keep it stocked. Running to the store to get something you’ve run out of is taboo during the lockdown. Make sure you get everything on your trips.
Whenever you notice that you’re running low on an ingredient staple, write it into a grocery list on your phone. I use Out of Milk, which helpfully sorts all the ingredients into categories for me.
Also when you have a recipe you want to make, put all the ingredients into the app. You can create your own categories, so if you’re making multiple recipes, you can make categories for each ingredient so you make sure you have everything for each recipe. Also you don’t have to wonder if you made a mistake putting an ingredient on that you don’t need.
4. Buy in Bulk
You don’t have to go crazy with it, but it saves a lot of money and will reduce your grocery store trips. The key for this is only to buy things you KNOW you’ll use before they go bad. For some things, Costco portions seem crazy – but you aren’t supposed to buy everything in that kind of bulk.
Before you buy in bulk, make sure you have enough room to store your items properly. I bought a 25 pound bag of flour (ridiculous at the time, but a lifesaver when flour became a hot commodity during the pandemic). Before bringing it home, I found this Montana Jar from Target (the largest, cheapest, most safe-spacing, and best-looking of other storage options) and various old coffee grounds canisters to fit all this flour. When you make bread often, the flour actually goes by quite quickly.
I also live on eggs. They’re cheap and versatile. An oozy egg on the top of a dish makes a meal for me.
5. Use the Freezer to Keep Things Fresh
You’re always going to have a use for celery, onions and carrots. But it’s hard to keep those constantly stocked – especially celery. So whenever you have a little extra, chop them up and freeze them. They’re great for throwing into stocks or mirepoix without making an extra trip just for celery. Also, don’t be afraid to use frozen chopped vegetables. I know frozen onions seemed like a weird thing but it saves you so much time to have them on hand and not have to peel and chop.
Tomato paste is so annoying. You only use a little bit of it, and then the rest goes bad. Your choices are – skip using it altogether or buy smarter. (Skipping it is fine. I know people who do it, and their tomato sauce still tastes great!). You can also consider buying the tomato paste tubes or freeze whatever’s leftover from those tiny cans into ice cube trays. Then you’ll have some on hand for the next time.
Also keep your yeast in the freezer. I bought a giant jumbo package of yeast from Costco (gave some to the my sister and mother) and stored the rest in the freezer. Yeast is still hard to come by during the pandemic but I have had no problems.
6. Use Shelf-Stable Substitutes.
I keep powdered milk in the pantry. It works just as well for most things (just not drinking). If you’re like me and don’t drink milk often enough to have it around, powdered milk, coconut milk, or milk alternatives can work in a pinch for baking and or for adding some creaminess to sauces.
I keep ghee in my pantry in case I run out of butter. It’s expensive, but it’s saved my butt on more than one occasion.
7. Store Produce Properly.
A great way to save money and reduce grocery trips is to store your produce so that it lasts a long as possible.
For green onions, store them upright in a glass of water and remember to change out the water often. Even with the blackest of thumbs, your green onions will grow so long as you chop off the green parts, but leave the white intact.
For many herbs, store upright in a glass of water in the fridge and cover with a plastic bag to maintain moisture.
8. Buy Whole Products Whenever Possible
I know I said up above to buy frozen chopped onion, and that’s a great hack. You’ll use it up quickly and you likely won’t notice a ton of difference. But lots of other products you should buy whole so that they’ll last longer. This will include coffee and spices, which might sit for quite awhile before being bagged and then being used. I like grinding spices right before using them to get the freshest taste.
Whole garlic, mushrooms, and fruit will last much longer than chopped up stuff. You can keep whole peanuts in the pantry and then grind with a little oil for fresh peanut butter. Let canned garbanzo beans and toasted sesame seeds process in a food processor with some oil, lemon juice for fresh hummus.
9. Make Fiddly Tasks Easier
This one goes hand in hand with the above – if you can make the fiddly tasks easier, then you are more likely to buy whole.
Peeling garlic is super annoying without some helpful hints. It helps to put your garlic in some boiling water to loosen the skins. You can also roast garlic bulbs whole and then squeeze out the cloves. This adds more flavor to your dish and saves you the task of peeling and chopping. And if you’re just out of garlic, minced garlic, garlic salt, garlic powder also work. You’re not The French Laundry.
If you hate chopping, like I do, then go ahead and use the food processor. Chop into smaller pieces and then just process to get smaller pieces.
10. Don’t Be Afraid of Substitutions
Too often people will go to the store because they think they need this one random ingredient. They never needed it before and likely won’t need it after – it’s a waste of money and time.
I know a lot of people will go nutso when I suggest this. To them, recipes are sacred. But I love substitutions. Granted, some will be more successful than others – so be careful while baking. But if you google substitutions for certain spices, particularly spice blends, or random one-off ingredients (like buttermilk or powdered sugar) you could save a lot of money and time, as well as space in your spice cabinet.
10. Go One-Pot or One-Pan Whenever Possible
Make cleanup and cooking a breeze by making one-pot wonders. Usually if I’m cooking some meat in a dutch oven, I’ll throw in some grains and boiled water in with the meat. The water will cook your grains and the juices from the meat will give it a delicious flavor. Plus it saves you the time of cooking your grains separately.
How does this save grocery time? Well, you may need fewer spices when you have all your food flavoring itself. You can also throw in all your wilting produce, leftover stock, random pieces of meat. It’s also a way to make cooking easier and come up with new meals. Throw everything in a pot and see what happens.
11. Learn to Cook Different Things
I thought I was super boring because I generally eat some sort of eggs and rice dish every day. Turns out, a lot of Americans are dependent on chicken – so chicken shortages have become a major disaster to a lot of families. You have to roll with the punches though, and it makes sense to me. We are one of the first generations to have ever expected to have whatever we want at the grocery store at all times. Previous generations would eat whatever was local, whatever was seasonal, and whatever had a good crop year.
Chicken breasts – they are hard to cook and quite expensive. I hate that all articles about eating on a budget recommends buying chicken breasts. Chicken thighs are easier to cook, cheaper, and tastier.
12. Get Acquainted with Cheap Easy Proteins
Ok maybe you won’t like this but I think it’s a great hack. My parents have always loved canned fish (this link is just to show you the type we ate but the Amazon price is atrocious. Go to an Asian grocery store instead). Canned fish lasts forever, has a great nutritional profile, and doesn’t need cooking. It’s a great little thing to have around for when you’re starving and tempted to order takeout, but just need a little shot of energy before you make that bad choice.
13. Reduce Waste
Learn some “Plan-B recipes.” What I mean by that is let’s say you buy some fresh food and you get quite busy at work. By the time you remember it, it’s not as fresh as you’d like it to be. I’m not talking about molding food or fish. Instead think about vegetables that aren’t fresh enough for salad, nuts not fresh enough for snacking, fruit and cheese that aren’t fresh enough for a cheese board.
If it’s not great raw anymore, the next step is cooking it. Roasting can be great for soft and somewhat soggy leaves like kale or spinach (kale chips anyone?) if it’s not good enough to be a solo cooked entree.
During the quarantine, I’ve been going through my pantry and I realize I have a fair amount of old but expensive ingredients. I had these very old pine nuts in my pantry. I was slightly afraid to eat them but they weren’t fresh enough for me to eat plain anymore. After checking to make sure somewhat old (not ancient) pine nuts aren’t unsafe to eat, and being inspired by a Netflix cooking show, I just blitzed the nuts in a food processor with spinach, lemon juice, garlic, and oil for a delish pesto. I’m obsessed with it.
I also have some old cocoa powder. Cocoa powder isn’t likely to make you sick if stored properly but it can lose its potency. Totally fine – I actually spilled a ton of it into an ice cream I was making and it gave it a rich dark chocolate taste.
14. Don’t Discard the Discards
I read a recipe for leeks recently that said to use the white part and discard the green part. What?! That’s most of the leek. And maybe the recipe meant to use the green part for something else.
Try not to discard anything! Soup stock and bone broth are pantry staples and they’re expensive! Vegetable scraps can be saved in the freezer to make vegetable stock. Chicken, beef, and pork bones can be saved for delicious stock. Shrimp and seafood shells can be saved for seafood stock. You can reduce the stock to make a great sauce.
15. Use Your Tools
I love my stand mixer and don’t understand anyone who doesn’t use it often. I didn’t think I would get a lot of use out of it, because I’m not a big baker. But I do hate mixing things and I realize that that hatred had reduced my baking. Because the mixer is sitting around all the time, I don’t even need to get it out. Baking gets super easy if you just dump things into a bowl on your counter, turn it on, pour into a pan, and then pop in the oven.
Your food processor and/or blender can help you chop things into smaller pieces – save yourself the effort of chopping all day.
Conclusion – Grocery Shopping During COVID-19 – How to Reduce Store Trips
There are many reasons why you might want to reduce grocery shopping during COVID-19. You have limited time, you don’t want to waste gas or hurt the environment, and now, you don’t want to expose yourself too much to a global pandemic. I hope that this list can help you reduce those trips, save you some time, and help you stay safe and secure.