Thursday, February 25, 2010

Checking Out of the Checkout Line: 5 Tips

Can you get all your food without shopping from the industrial food chain? Or is there something that you just can't live without?

I loved watching people sign up to try it on the 100 Mile Diet show on Planet Green. And though I did something similar in 2008, it wasn't the harsh, cold turkey,"Now you have to eat only local food" approach. For me, that idea seemed a little too Puritanical. I needed something more flexible. I needed some essentials before the year started. Is that like eating a hot fudge sundae before dieting?

I made one major shopping trip in March 2008. I bought what I considered indispensable "basics." I kept my original list, thinking I was going to write about it someday. Looks like someday has arrived. Gazing at the checkout receipt, I wondered about my indispensable food definition. Here are a few entries:
  • Shelled pecans
  • White truffle oil
  • Amy's frozen burgers
  • Coconut milk
  • Organic cashews
Really? I couldn't let go of any of those for one year?

For a year I shopped farmers’ markets, farm stores, and small-scale bakeries. When I visited family and friends in other cities, I stopped at farmers’ markets and searched for local foods. In Phoenix I got great salsa and I stuffed bags of grapefruits and oranges into my carry-on. In San Francisco, I bought jars of olive oil and almond butter and bags of rice. Then I dragged my heavy bags all over the city since we hadn't rented a car and were walking. In Austin, I found salsa to die for at the farmers' market. I bought two cases and shipped them home. I worried that my fresh Texas tomatoes might not make it home in my carry-on, but no one stopped me and unbelievably not one of the tomatoes got bruised. What a treat in early spring!

Over the year, I had a gift of 52 hours to spend any way I wanted. I was shocked when I realized that I'd wasted at least an hour in grocery stores every week. I'm amazed when I realize other food bloggers also spend a lot of time in grocery stores. I think we just like being around food.

I didn’t have to spend time writing obsessive grocery lists, perusing mostly useless ads, trolling grocery aisles, or standing in line with a loaded cart. I didn't even miss those impulsive buys that somehow just slipped into my cart each week. Well, maybe Theo's Chocolate. I had shopped in grocery stores up to four times a week.

I also discovered pantry staples at farmers' markets that I’d never paid attention to previously. Rockridge Orchards' vinegar, Gathering Together Farm's pickled jalapenos, Massa Organics almond butter are just a few things. Beans and grains are available as well as herbs, dried fruit, butter, jams, pickles and this year in Seattle--flour from Nash's Organic Produce.

At the markets, I made connections with farmers that I wouldn't have made without leaving the industrial food basket behind. I also discovered dried beans get pretty old and tough after a year, and packaged soy milk isn't worth the price.

I liked my freedom so much, I now stock up with pantry staples twice a year. If you want to check out of the dreary checkout line, here are a five tips I learned:

  1. Stock up twice a year, paying close attention to expiration dates. Typically mayonnaise, especially natural varieties, are only good for a few months, but mustard may be good for over a year.
  2. Purchase ten basic herbs or spices, and only buy enough that you can use in a year. You don't really need oddball spices like Cajun seasoning or the latest exotic curry blend.
  3. Read labels to find out where processed products come from. Even organic grocery stores stock bottled ginger from China or frozen organic juice concentrates from China and Brazil.
  4. Pay attention to what you eat throughout the year. How many pounds of beans or grains do you consume? In our house one vegetarian and one omnivore who is too lazy to cook most of the time go through 1 1/2 pounds of dry beans a month in winter and 1 pound a month in summer, and about 2 pounds of grains. (FYI: Store whole grains in the freezer for long term storage and use within 6 months.) Also what are your favorite condiments? Check the farmers' markets for options.
  5. When you shop in grocery stores buy only what you can't get locally and that you just can't live without. Meyer Lemons comes to mind. I can't really grow them where I live. I have a 10 item a month limit. I'm in and out of the grocery store in less than 15 minutes. My tiny post it note list typically includes, lemons, oranges, avocados, and sliced whole grain bread.

The one thing I totally can't live without is Mama Lil's Peppers . Howard Lev used to sell his fantastic peppers at the market. He contracts with eastern Washington farmers for the peppers, supervises all the pepper bottling and sold them at markets. He wore a wide brimmed panama hat and a shirt with with peppers on it. I used a lot of Mama Lil's Peppers in my cooking classes. But Howard grew tired of selling at markets and now you can only get these spicy gems in natural food stores or his Web site.

Funny thing about my pantry now--it's looking more and more local every year. Here are three of my pantry favorites. I think Finn would choose the almond butter.

What's in your pantry that you just can't live without?

1 comment:

Kathy said...

Thank you! I love the idea of freeing myself from the check-out line. Thanks for the tips!

Your post made me realize I that if I support farmers markets and local options, I can increase the chance these options will be available for me in the future.

I love your stories of seeking out local foods.

You are helping all of us to realize that if we want farmersa and local produce to be available, we all need to look for ways to support this model.

As for me, I prefer shopping at the farmers market whenever I can.

Thank you for sharing your tips.