Cheap Eats in Lean Times

Yesterday afternoon, I trekked to the Trader Joe‘s in Daily City for a little grocery shopping. The Westlake Trader Joe’s has long been my favorite local Trader Joe’s since it has plentiful parking, and the store itself is usually relatively uncrowded.

After parking at the far end of the lot, and trudging up the sidewalk, we saw there were no grocery carts to be found. This was the first bad sign. I waited about 5 minutes until someone came out of the store and emptied her cart, thus allowing me to grab it and head in. Inside, the aisles were packed with shoppers. It was similar to rush hour freeway traffic — it was so crowded you couldn’t get past the double parked carts in the middle of the aisles. Frozen food bins were picked clean (but luckily for me they still had some of the "French" pizzas.) Pretty much, it was my grocery shopping nightmare.

We completed our shopping and ran smack into the end of one of the checkout lines…halfway down the spirits aisle. With 12 shoppers in front of us, we spent almost a half hour waiting to pay for our groceries.

I don’t think folks swarmed Trader Joe’s just due to a renewed local focus on fresh fruits and veggies and organic foods. I think they are also now getting a bump up due to folks being concerned about the economy, and trying to cut back on expenses wherever they can. The shopping carts I peered into were not full of the usual alcohol and party food that I typically see people stocking up on. Rather, the carts had many of Trader Joe’s good inexpensive basics (eggs, milk and cheese are all very good buys and made up the bulk of what others were buying.)

Personally, I’ve started going to Costco with more frequency. I’ve found that I can get good deals on meats, produce, bread, and pantry basics. Since our new refrigerator has a slightly bigger freezer than our last one, I am able to repackage the big packages of meat into dinner-for-two sizes, and thus take advantage of the low per unit prices without wasting anything.

When I make soup, chili, or any casserole, I’ve started putting the leftovers in Ziploc bowls and tossing them in the freezer. I slip the frozen container into my insulated lunch sack, and it’s partially defrosted by lunchtime. I used to try just keeping the leftovers in the refrigerator, but inevitably found they would go to waste. Because when you are hurrying to get ready in the morning, you don’t really want to wrestle the leftovers out of the refrigerator, find a container to take them to work in, etc.

Other than a few lunch dates with colleagues, I’ve managed to bring my lunch to work just about every day for the past 6 months. The key for me was making it easy to assemble a lunch in the morning rush:

  • I bought a really nice insulated lunch bag. I used to have to scrounge around for a leftover shopping bag of some sort, and would get to work with room temperature, squished lunches. This is a much better experience. And it’s washable.
  • As noted above, I freeze leftovers in single-serving reusable bowls.
  • I make lunch for my boyfriend and myself every morning. No, this isn’t a June Cleaver throwback moment on my part. Being responsible for his lunch ensures I make my own. It’s easy to skip out on doing something like this for myself. And by us eating the same lunch as each other, we use up lunch items before they go bad, and dinner plans are not derailed by one or the other of us eating the main course for lunch.
  • I try to buy ready-to-package fruit and veggies to slip into our lunches. That’s right — apple slices, cups of diced peaches, baby carrots. We’re eating a lot more healthily thanks to partially prepared fruits and veggies.

Lastly, I’ve started reading food magazines again to give me more ideas for making dinner. We’d gotten a little too used to ordering in from Waiters on Wheels, or going to the many great neighborhood restaurants within walking distance of our place. The November Everyday with Rachael Ray magazine, for instance, has a piece on $10 dinners that gave me soe good ideas. And with many publishers offering great deals on subscriptions, it’s worth the $1 an issue or so just for the inspiration.

Eating well on a smaller budget can be done — you just have to get creative.

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