A few weeks ago, I asked some of my Facebook friends for thoughts on posts and Laura, who writes the blog Shaped by My Life (a fellow IC writing alum) suggested posting a sample shopping list with an eye towards cooking with whole foods. I thought this was a great idea. So often, people don’t buy whole foods because they aren’t quite sure what to do with them. Also, I really love grocery shopping, and making lists, so this is post will be particular fun for me.
I thought I’d start with my general grocery shopping philosophies for whole foods trips.
First, don’t expect to get everything all in one place. I know it seems inconvenient at first, but the massive corporate chain grocery store that stocks everything does so to the detriment of other features like locality, quality, and health. Cheap products that can sit on shelves for months at a time are highly processed — if you want to begin avoiding corporate foods, processed foods and to prioritize local and organic foods, you’re going to have to go outside the big box. The good news is, you will likely quickly develop a routine that is not inconvenient: produce at the market, bulk grains and legumes at the co-op, meat at the local butcher, all in the same amount of time you’d normally spend weaving your way through the fluorescent aisles.
Second, don’t be scared off by the higher price tag. You will spend more in a single trip on whole foods than you are used to at the grocery store. But again, there’s a silver lining here! A single trip to the co-op will stock you up with more food that will last longer, and needs only to be supplemented with weekly produce additions. When you shop at the grocery store, you’re buying food that is pre-packaged to make a single meal. When you buy whole foods, you’re buying the pieces for lots and lots of meals, instead.
In general, a good method for figuring out what to buy involves thinking of the big categories of whole foods, and choosing the individual parts you like in those categories. This will give you lots of options for mixing and matching ingredients into many different meals. I’ve provided a list of the categories here, with a sample of what I would normally buy in each — but keep in mind that’s limited to my tastes, so the categories should be your guidelines.
You can buy grains either in bulk (where you fill your own container) or pre-packaged. Some of my favorites are:
- Israeli & French couscous (Israeli for deconstructed couscous salad, french for Parmesan couscous)
- Arborio rice (for risotto)
- Pasta! (I usually get a smaller shape that holds sauce for baked mac n’ cheese and a longer pasta for tossing in lighter sauces)
- Orzo/wild rice/brown rice (for pilafs, stir fries or beds-of kind of recipes)
This is where a normal person would buy lots of bulk lentils and legumes. But I don’t like those, so I spend most of my energy here on nuts for snacks or meal garnishes and seeds for salad topping.:
- Whole or slivered almonds
- Sunflower seeds (great on spinach salads)
- Walnuts (for crusting oven-baked chicken)
- Pecans (for chicken salad)
I’m not a fan of canned vegetables, and frozen veggies don’t have as much flavor for me, so I try to buy mostly fresh produce. The few exceptions I make are:
- Frozen fruit for smoothies (though you can just freeze fresh fruit)
- Frozen corn and peas
- Canned refried beans if I’m in the mood for Mexican
- Dried fruit for salads and granola
For fresh produce I always try to get a mix of:
- Leafy greens
- Green stalk veggies, like green beans, asparagus (or again, for normal people, broccoli)
- Tomatoes and a variety of peppers
- Carrots and celery
- Lots of onions (I always get at least one red, white and yellow) and garlic!
- Portable fruit like apples, oranges and bananas
- Berries, watermelon or pineapple for chopped up snacks/cooking
And then I toss in a few extras depending on what’s there and what looks good seasonally, like cauliflower, zucchini/summer squash, red cabbage, or alfalfa sprouts. Obviously, the possibilities are endless here, so I suggest you figure out your most used veggies, and pick those up each time, and then supplement that with one or two other veggies each trip. This way, you have variety but don’t overwhelm yourself and end up throwing lots of produce away as it’s spoiled.
Meat is a lot like produce for me — I pick up the same few things each time, and then add in a bit for variety. I try to get a mix of meat types so I’m not consuming a ton of red meat, and to work in some seafood. My staples are:
- Chicken breasts (not a fan of the low meat content of other chicken parts, but wings and thighs are best if you like dark meat)
- Pork chops and/or tenderloin
- White fish like tilapia or cod (this is a purely Marissa-picky thing, as it’s the only kind of seafood I really like)
- Ground beef or lamb and/or some fancy form of these like ground buffalo, lamb shanks or sirloin steaks
- Meats you can use for deli sandwiches. If you’re lucky, your co-op will sell nitrate-free ham, or sliced chicken and turkey. But if not, it’s really easy to buy and cook a chicken or turkey breast and slice it up yourself!
Dairy covers a lot, and those things have variety in them (like cheeses!) so here’s a breakdown of what I buy:
- Milk and/or soymilk. I usually get regular milk for drinking and cooking, and soymilk for smoothies
- Butter (which I always get in stick form because it measures easier for baking, but can still be used on toast, etc.)
- Sour cream for sauces
- Yogurt (I get a large, vanilla container for smoothies and then smaller individual packages in flavors for midday snacks!)
- And cheese galore! I try to get one or two hard cheeses that work for both sandwiches and grating, like sharp white cheddar and Gruyere or another Swiss, plus fresh mozzarella for salads, Parmesan for pasta, plus some orange cheddar or something else that will melt into a cheddar sauce well.
Now, by baked goods, I don’t mean cookies and snacks. I make those myself! I mean things that are made in an oven, mostly forms of bread. I usually keep:
- Whole grain bread sliced for sandwiches
- Wheat tortillas (for enchiladas, lunchtime quesadillas and wraps)
- English muffins or bagels for breakfasts
The only things not considered in these categories are sauces, condiments and drinks. Once I’ve stocked up on the basics, I assess the recipes I know I have in my cart and get the corresponding condiments (mayonnaise for sandwiches, mustard for everything, BBQ sauce for pulled pork, vegetable broth, peanut butter, etc.). I basically don’t buy drinks at the store because I consume pretty much exclusively water and milk, but I know that co-ops often stock really delicious local root beers or soda waters, as well as adult beverage treats.
I’ve also not included the things I have in my pantry on a regular basis that don’t need to be purchased on each trip to the store: baking goods like flour, sugar, baking soda and powder, etc; spices and seasoning, like dried herbs, lemon juice, balsamic and other vinegars; honey, and lots and lots of olive oil. Never run out of olive oil.
I know that changing your shopping habits might seem daunting at first, but I promise you that lists become routine very quickly. And you’ll really enjoy getting to spend time creatively piecing together different pieces to make your own meal.
Cooking with whole foods means more than cooking in a more healthy way — it means learning to think about how foods fit together. I know that can seem overwhelming, especially for people who want cooking to be easy, something they can do at the last minute. Once you get the hang of it, and get used to stocking your house with a variety of whole components, it will be easy! I usually take some meat out of the freezer in the morning, and then decide what to do with it when I get home, depending on what I have, and how hungry I am/how fast I want the cooking to go.
The pride I feel when I can open the fridge and freezer and think: Hmm, I’ve got walnuts, chicken, spring green mix, orzo — hey! I can make that walnut-rosemary crusted chicken on a bed of orzo pilaf with lemon-sprinkled salad greens! is unparalleled. Give it a shot!
Ok — what did I forget? What are your whole food staples, and what are your favorite recipes to go with them? Leave a comment and share with readers, as I know my taste and cooking style are limited!