Eat Well, Spend Less: Simple Bites Goes Shopping

Marché is French for ‘market’, and one of the early words my three-year-old picked up, even though we’re an English speaking household. The open markets in and around Montreal are a pretty big part of our food shopping routine, hence Mateo’s early handle of the French word.

Shopping – conscientious, intentional shopping – is an integral part of eating well while managing to spend less.

Today, in our final post of the Eat Well, Spend Less series, I want to talk about how I stock my kitchen from bottom to top. I’ve already covered homemade pantry staples and frugal dinners in this series, but the ingredients for all that cooking and baking don’t just materialize on their own.

Food shopping is as particular and unique to each home as is their cooking style, taste preferences and health goals. My particular approach may not work for you, but I am confident I can offer a few nuggets of wisdom to help you get the most bang for your buck.

Now, what I am about to divulge might shake things up a little: I don’t use coupons. Go ahead, wag your finger, but just don’t stop reading!

Yes, coupons might be the first trick that comes to mind when contemplating ways to save money while stocking the fridge, but then one would have to shop at the supermarket to use those coupons. On a usual shopping outing, the supermarket is the last stop of the day – and I often don’t even need to stop.

So where do I buy our groceries? Let’s take a little city tour, shall we?

Diver-‘City’: My Selective Shopping Solution

As a resident of one of the top cities in the North American food scene, I am fortunate to have a wealth of ingredients at my fingertips. Spices from a top quality spice merchant, local cheeses, apples by the bushel, and, of course, pure maple syrup are just a few of the choice local ingredients that reside in my pantry.

Because I have options for shopping, I don’t have to stick to the supermarket. Quite the contrary, in fact.  Sitting down to write this post really made me realize how much I jet all over town (and country) to get what I need.

I am convinced, however, that the savings I make when purchasing from the source, far outweigh the time (and gas) spent in seeking the items out. Not to mention the selection offered is wider and the quality of the ingredient are generally much better.

Here is a breakdown of eight places we go to get our food in a typical month.

1. City markets

Montreal is fortunate to boast several year-round public markets which showcase the best products our province has to offer. I live just outside of the city, so in the summer months I also shop at roadside stands and farmers’ markets.

Grocery List Items: Local fruit and vegetables, honey, cheese, organic meat, bread, cured meats, and much more.

2. Costco

My husband ‘converted’ me to Costco. And it wasn’t an easy reform. I loathed the cold approach to shopping the warehouse offered, but Danny, ever the numbers guy, proved to me just how much we could save by buying certain items in bulk. We frequent Costco probably twice a month.

Grocery List Items: organic milk, coffee beans, olive oil, butter, eggs (for now), organic dried fruit, chocolate chips, some organic grains and more.

3. Local Farms

I’ll admit we’ve been lax in discovering local farms that sell directly to the customer, but with a wide variety of farmers represented at the city markets, we are still tapping the local .

It’s not summer without berry picking and an autumn doesn’t pass without several trips to the apple orchards – those farms, at least, are taken advantage of. We also buy half a cow every fall from a small producer we know. We actually visit the farm and pick out the cow; that young Angus on the right? Yep, he inspired an entire series once.

Grocery Items Sourced: Organic beef, cheese, lamb, berries, apples, squash, and more.

4. Ethnic Shops

Again, Montreal has a rich ethnic diversity and we have the shops to prove it. From the smallest Chinatown corner store to the near-Costco sized Kim Phat – these are the places to get basement prices on international ingredients.

Grocery List Items: rice, soy sauce, fish sauce, hoisin, rice paper, noodles of all kinds, tofu, bones for stock, coconut milk, and much more.

5. Health food store

Tau is our chain of health food stores, like a small version of Whole Foods. As it is one of the only “all organic” stores around town, prices are a bit steep, so we shop conscientiously for those critical items we can’t get elsewhere.

Grocery List Items: baking staples, grains, organic ‘dirty dozen‘ produce, natural sweeteners, and more.

6. Supermarket

While I’ll admit to an occasional Sunday night “blitz” for the upcoming week’s menu (due to lack of planning – yep, it happens!), I try to avoid the supermarket as much as possible. Why? It won’t offer the best produce, ethnic ingredients will have sky-high prices, and processed food is rampant. Reasons to avoid supermarkets are a post in themselves (or, if you’re Michael Pollan, a book).

Grocery List Items: sour cream, yeast, some baking ingredients, fresh baguettes.

7. Specialty Shops

Montreal is known for its bagels, so why bother buying the sugary, doughy supermarket versions when I can stop off at St-Viateur and get a couple dozen straight out of the wood burning oven? Bagels are just one specialty item that I am willing to drive out of my way for.

Grocery List Items: bagels, spices, tortillas, coffee beans, SAQ (our local liquor monopoly)

8. Homegrown

We are working towards having our own garden produce and fresh eggs. Hopefully in a matter of weeks it will be a reality! Since we recently moved to the third acre we now call home, we are starting from scratch, and as anyone with a garden will concur, these things don’t happen overnight.

Everything in good season.

The Equation

If there was an equation that could quantify how to best do your shopping, while factoring in the extra time to shop at multiple places (time is money), the extra gas dollars spent getting there, but also the increased quality of food as well as the savings – then I’m sure it would rank right below Angry Birds on the App Store.

Although not for everyone, there are ways to make selective shopping work for you. Do you have the time it takes to visit a butcher, bakery, ethnic corner store and the farmers market each week? If you (or hubby) can incorporate it into your day, or make it a weekend outing, then this could be possible for a family with two working parents.

Do you have the means of transportation to get around? Groceries get heavy fast, which can limit foot travel. Is it realistic to cross town to get condiments from Chinatown?

If you can

  • a) source the cheapest versions of your grocery staples
  • b) take the time to gather them from their various locations and
  • c) easily transport them back to your kitchen

then you are going to be eating well and spending less.

Dollars and Cents

We spend about $150 per week on groceries. I’ll be the first to say that, yes, it is somewhat high for a modest family of four, but here are a few reasons why we are willing to spend that much.

I entertain frequently, everything from casual lunch play dates to parties of up to 50 people. I also cook for others often, participate in bake sales and church social events, and edit two food blogs. It all adds up!

In fact, considering the amount of food that passes though my kitchen, $150/week is actually a fairly low number. Certainly, selective shopping helps keep it as low as it is, as well as these ten ways to conserve grocery coin.

We eat out perhaps twice a month, never order take-out, and watch our ‘impulse buys’. If we didn’t take care, those three actions could quickly gouge the budget.

Shopping Tips for Saving Money and Sanity

  • Make a List. And don’t leave home without it! I keep a running list in plain view and add items as they are close to being depleted. Sticking to a list helps avoid impulse buys as well as ensures you only purchase what you need for the week and no more. Less waste means more money in your pocket.
  • Stock Up. A well-stocked pantry means less shopping trips, inspiration for last-minute meals and helps maintain a diet of healthy, natural food. You wont go ordering take-out if you have the fixings for a great meal in your pantry.
  • Don’t Rush. Admittedly a hard rule to follow when were all so busy, but when I slow down during a shopping trip, I am able to correctly cross-check prices, read and understand labels, select properly ripened produce, and spot the shrinking packaging scams.
  • Bring those Reusable Bags. Its embarrassing to admit, but upon a recent tally, I discovered I owned twenty-one reusable bags – and I still occasionally forget to bring them with me on shopping trips. Doh!

Final Tip: Read flyers online

Just because I don’t use coupons and check grocery store flyers, doesn’t mean they aren’t helpful to many, many people. But here’s my tip: read flyers online!

I detest the flyers that pile up outside my door. At Smartflyer Canada you can shop coupons for your city, just head to the grocer & drink section and pick the store. Also Taya over at Simply Frugal brings Canadians the best freebies, coupons, shopping deals and money saving tips daily.

Have a question about my grocery shopping strategy? Ask away! Feel free to offer your own tips as well.

About Aimee

Cooking has always been Aimée's preferred recreational activity, creative outlet, and source of relaxation. After nearly ten years in the professional cooking industry, she went from restaurant to RSS by trading her tongs and clogs for cookie cutters and a laptop, serving as editor here at Simple Bites. Her first book, Brown Eggs and Jam Jars - Family Recipes from the Kitchen of Simple Bites, was published in February 2015.

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