I’m 29 Years Old and Just Learned How to Grocery Shop
03.28.18

I am 29 years old and don’t really know how to grocery shop. You can relax; my mom knows about this.

The woman, speaking of, markets like a European: as a verb, on foot and almost daily for fresh produce. As a sleepy teenager growing up in San Francisco on top of a hill, this became a unique brand of punishment. I accompanied her, although I would hardly call myself engaged during it. It was my job to push the cart and sort of stay awake. As such, I never paid attention, but unlike the naps I took in high school trigonometry and ethics, this disengagement turned out to be to my detriment.

To her ultimate credit, my mom is a true chef, not just a good cook. Her pantry and fridge reflect this, as do her leftover meals; there’s always “a bit of” something in the freezer that can, with a splash of juice and a meditation in the oven, be turned into a gourmet experience. She has every spice, every sauce, every pinch of whatever it is that you could imagine. Though I never mastered much in her kitchen beyond eggs and carbs in a pan (French toast, grilled cheese, pancakes), the abundance of culinary powders and potions made cooking easier. Chances were, if you wanted to make it, the basics were there.

My kitchen is the opposite. It has never once been stocked. How do I eat? A considerable portion of my paycheck goes toward delivery, restaurants, a lot of scrambled eggs and very sad salads. You might remember that once, while working from home during fashion week, I had to resort to eating a dry sleeve of sick-day saltines for breakfast because I had nothing else. Not even a jar of pickles.

On the very rare occasions I decide I’m going to “cook” or “bake” — both words in quotation marks given that “edible” is in the mouth of the beholder — I have to buy every single thing, from pinch of salt to block of butter. What should be a cheap meal to make at home suddenly becomes an expensive grocery-store run. It’s never convenient; there’s never anything to thaw and “throw into last night’s dinner.” Whenever I do decide to make a change for the better — to finally shop for a full kitchen — I panic halfway through. There are so many aisles, so much to buy, so many tinctures with exotic names that I think might be important but can’t be sure, that I end up grabbing my usual lame menu (eggs, mostly, plus ingredients for oatmeal and smoothies) and vow to finally start saving the extra soy sauce packets that come with sushi delivery just in case I ever need some in an emergency.

But enough is enough.

My 30th birthday is one and a half months away. Upon realizing this, I moved “learning how to grocery shop” from hypothetical task to urgent priority and did what any self-respecting adult would do in my time of need: I called my mom. I told her I needed the bare-bones grocery list — bare bones meaning my kitchen cabinets because somehow I didn’t even have cinnamon.

She bestowed upon me what is, essentially, a How to Market (as a Verb) Starter Pack, which I will share with you momentarily should any other questionably old adults be reading this who are equally ashamed that they steal extra things of ketchup from burger joints to keep in lieu of buying full bottles.

Take with the following grains of salt, which you’ll also need to purchase (apparently you can’t rely on the little airplane packets that make paper napkins smell like pepper):

1. The list is written by my mom specifically for me, but she made it as general as she could because I told her I was probably going to publish it. As such, it’s a bunch of stuff I eat/that can be combined in a few different ways, but it’s not recipe-specific.

2. The non-perishables (Aisle 1) are meant to last a year at least. As a non-cook, a shaker of garlic powder can outlast its owner.

3. Fresh produce should be purchased weekly unless you’re savvy about freezing stuff for future smoothies and using old bananas for banana bread, in which case you sound advanced and I don’t think you need to keep reading.

4. Meat, if frozen, can last for a while, but remember: It will need to thaw on the day you want to use it. Please consult your mom.

5. The below list, minus the “kitchen essentials” portion, cost under $200. It has so far lasted me for over two weeks’ worth of breakfasts and at least three dinners for two. And again, a large majority of these items will not have to be purchased again for quite some time.

6. Eggs can last at least two weeks if you buy them fresh, but because they taste better fresh, if you eat a lot of eggs, you’re better off buying them more frequently in smaller portions.

7. She is gluten-intolerant and suspects I am too, though I refuse to get tested, hence some of her notes.

8. The sweet spot to grocery shop is right when it opens, if you can swing a weird schedule.

And with that, I give you Amelia’s Mom’s How to Market (as a Verb) Starter Pack, annotations and text entirely by her.

Kitchen Essentials

· 2-quart pot with lid — you will recognize this pot as the one I use the most
· Large frying pan
· 9- or 12-inch cast-iron pan — get a really good one because you will have this until your kid steals it from you. 😉 Mine is probably 40 years old.
· Aluminum foil
· Baking dish or cake pan — metal or glass, NOT foil
· 1 box quart-size and 1 box sandwich-size Ziploc bags
· A mixing bowl — this is much bigger than a cereal bowl
· Paring knife (that’s the short one) and a 6-8” chef’s knife
· Measuring spoons and a measuring cup
· Spatula
· Strainer

Pantry Essentials

Aisle 1:

· Salt and pepper (ideally in a pepper grinder)
· Red pepper flakes
· Garlic power
· Ground cinnamon and nutmeg (I have an actual nut for nutmeg, but that’s pantry 201)
· Herbs de Provence (there are lavender and non-lavender types — I like it with lavender)
· Dried oregano
· Dried basil
· Olive oil (and I always have organic coconut oil too)
· Sesame oil (keep in fridge)

Aisle 2:

· Good jam, not jelly. I like raspberry or fig. You will use this on more than peanut butter.
· Nut butters — organic peanut, almond and maybe cashew (keep in fridge once opened)
· Raw almonds (keep in fridge)
· Brown mustard
· Ketchup
· Mayo

Aisle 3:

· Organic, low-sodium chicken broth (I use the one in the “milk container,” not canned)
· Can of white tuna in water
· Tube of tomato paste — keep in fridge
· Jar of tomato sauce with no meat and no more than three ingredients
· Low-sodium soy sauce

Aisle 4:

· Butter (usually salted unless you are baking) — I use organic ghee and just keep it in the pantry because it doesn’t get too hot in SF. Here is a good description of benefits. Regular butter has much fewer benefits, but it’s fine if you use it.
· Cheese for grating. I like asiago but parmigiana is good. You can cut into 2” x 2” portions, keep one portion in fridge and freeze the rest. That way the entire block won’t get nasty.
· Pasta — capellini and ziti (brown rice or brown rice quinoa blend are much more digestible than regular)
· Organic basmati rice (long-grain is less starchy and therefore less heavy in the tummy)

Aisle 5:

· Sweet potatoes — small to medium size. Don’t get the huge ones. They take forever to cook.
· Onions (I keep uncut onions in a cool place outside of the fridge and cut ones in a Ziploc bag in the drawer of the fridge)
· Lemon (buy firm but not rock hard) — can live in the fridge in a Ziploc bag for 2+ weeks. DO NOT LEAVE CUT OPEN LEMON ON THE COUNTER. It will attract fruit flies.
· Fruits and veggies. I use a lot of squashes and leafy, dark greens, which last about a week. [Note to reader: I only bought bananas this trip because I was going out of town Friday and also got overwhelmed.]
· Salad greens — wash, shake well and put in plastic bag with a paper towel. Use within two days.
· Choose avocados that are a size you will use in one to two days. If you use only half an avocado, keep the pit inside and put the “empty” side back in place, pressing the skin around the avocado like a blanket. Put in small Ziploc bag and refrigerate. When ready to use, just skim a little off the top layer. Avocados will stay on the counter while ripening but refrigerate once really soft.
· Fresh fruit. Do not wash until you are about to eat. Melons can be cut and tossed with lemon and mint 😉 and kept in fridge for two to three days.
· Fresh mint
· Fresh basil

Aisle 6:

· Six organic eggs — the fresher the better
· Almond milk with as few ingredients as you can find (although you can make this at home)
· Any meat of your choosing. Use that day and/or wrap in foil and freeze the rest (use a Sharpie to label). If you freeze meat in the container you bought it in, it will taste like cardboard when you cook it.

Aisle 7:

· Frozen berries and frozen peaches (not in syrup) in a bag
· Frozen string beans, frozen edamame, frozen peppers
· Ezekiel or sprouted bread (Hint: Keep two to three slices in a Ziploc bag in the fridge and put the rest in the freezer. As you use the bread in the fridge, pull two to three slices out of the freezer.)
· Frozen pizza

Aisle 8:

· Seltzer
· Oatmeal — organic, steel-cut, quick-cook but NOT INSTANT. Can contain flax, quinoa, etc.

Grocery Store Shopping Basics

The outside perimeter of almost every market I’ve ever been in is where you want to shop most. (Think fresh produce, fresh dairy, butcher, bakery.) These items are also the most perishable items because they’re not packaged, manufactured or pre-prepared. An exception to this rule is the frozen-food aisle. While I love fresh fruits and veggies, frozen veggies and fruits are picked and frozen immediately, which means that unless you are going to use it immediately, buy frozen. The frozen things I recommended above are what I have in my freezer all the time. That said, I often buy fresh fruit and veggies and freeze (with a little prep), but for kitchen 101, you don’t need to get into that.

Last but not least, I try to buy organic whenever I can, but know that you do not need organic onions, bananas, avocados, spaghetti squash or any other fruit/vegetable that has a thick skin.

Okay, I’m off to the market!

Illustration via Getty Images. Grocery list by my mom, Sheila McElroy. Check out her blog, Noodling Around SF, and follow her on Instagram.

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