A Simple Grocery Guide for Beginners

I wrote this blog post in January to reflect how I went from eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner out to eating most of my meals at home. I love cooking, but a hectic schedule and living on my own made it where I didn’t make time to cook for myself and I’m proud that I’ve changed that. I also had no idea when I wrote this post for today that so many people would be forced to change their lifestyles because of the coronavirus. I slowly made habit changes that made me the home cook I am today, but so many of you are forced to make drastic changes during this time. I hope you can get something out of this post for the present time, but also the future when we get back to “normal” and it’ll be your decision to eat at home or eat out.

When I was trying to eat more at home, I would search the Internet for shopping lists, then be discouraged by the amount of time it would take to prep my food or how much food I would toss if I didn’t stick to the plan. So I slowly came up with something that worked for me. Baby-steps into getting back to cooking. I’ll be honest, I’m not categorizing most of these suggestions as healthy alternatives. But what I am saying is if you get comfortable in this step, you are much more likely to start making healthier decisions in the future. This isn’t an overnight process. It is also not a step that you will leave and never come back to. When I’m busy or travelling a lot, I go back to these suggestions. It reduces my waste, saves me money, and easily pushes me into the habit of always having food at home.

I feel like there are not enough honest posts like this. I love eating and I love cooking. I want to eat as wholesome and healthy as possible. But just as much as that, I don’t want to throw stuff away. I don’t have an hour every single night to cook, and I really dislike meal prepping for some reason. There are weeks when I’m only home for a couple days, but I still want to eat at home to save money and feel healthy. And I would rather have a frozen Indian meal then go out and get chicken tenders every time I don’t have something prepared for myself. Not that I don’t love chicken tenders, it’s more that I want to crave items then seek them, instead of feeling like fast food and takeout are my only options. I started this shopping list a couple years ago when I wasn’t home consistently, was only cooking for myself, and worked weird hours. Today, I buy a lot more fresh items and tend to do two small grocery trips a week. But the weeks where I’m traveling, busy, sick, have a lot of evening events or whatever, I stick to the concept this post is about.

The basic idea is to have enough food for 5-10 meals over the course of a week easily available in your home. You can adjust this to how often you eat at home. So basically even just starting with having breakfast available to you every day. Or if you’re not a big breakfast fan, having at least one meal made at home most days. The plan is to get you to make 1-2 meals at home a week that take around 30 minutes. Then the rest can be made in 10 minutes or less, mostly in the microwave.

Step 1: Pick two cuisines you want to cook at home and try to stick with those until you get more comfortable menu planning. Try to choose two cuisines that overlap some in their proteins, veggies, or grains. I have been defaulting to Mediterranean, Korean, lots of different curries lately. As you are making your list, make sure what you’re buying to make for lunch and dinner is in line with the two cuisines. Otherwise, you’re going to end up with fresh products that are mismatched. Try to choose as many fresh ingredients as possible that can be used for multiple dishes. I can make cabbage, sweet potatoes, and carrots into both Mediterranean and Korean inspired meals, so even though these two cuisine don’t seem similar, I can use different spices and sauces and create completely different dishes with the same base ingredients.

A quick, throw-together curry made from mostly ingredients in my pantry

Step 2: This shopping list is meant to last about two weeks for one person getting started.

  • Fruit: Frozen, one package if you like smoothies, oatmeal or other things to mix fruit with. I usually do a tropical or berry mix. Fresh fruit: 2 different kinds, 8-10 pieces total. Obviously if you eat more fruit, get more. But the idea is at least every other day you are eating fruit from home. In the beginning, stick with fruit that holds up well, like apples, oranges, pears, and grapes. If you don’t prep a lot, avoid larger pieces of fruit you have to cut, like melons.
  • Vegetables: 2-3 frozen veggies for side dishes (broccoli, sweet potato fries, green beans), 1 frozen vegetable that goes well mixed in a main dish, like frozen peas. 1 onion. 2 hearty fresh vegetables like potatoes, carrots, cabbage. These vegetables I suggested usually are large enough or bagged where you can easily use for 2-3 dishes. 1 small amount of a perishable vegetable you really like and know you’ll eat. I usually go for mushrooms, grape tomatoes, or a red bell pepper.
  • Carbs: 1-2 kinds of pastas or noodles (I usually go with spaghetti because you can use it in several different cuisines), 1-2 side-dish grains (can be dry or in pouches), 1-2 bread or tortilla that are plain and can be used with different ingredients (i.e. don’t get sweet bagels then realize you need something to make sandwiches with). 1 breakfast carb, like cereal or oatmeal if you like those.
  • Dairy: 1 container of milk that will last 2+ weeks. 1 kind of cheese if that fits in with your cuisine. My favorite right now is feta. It lasts awhile and has a strong flavor where you only need a little. Goes well with pasta and on top on veggies, and crumbles well to mimic some Hispanic cheeses. If you like dairy, add one more, like yogurt, cream cheese, a meltable cheese, or cottage cheese.
  • Protein: Half dozen or dozen eggs, if you like them. Not only good for breakfast, but they are easy to make for dinner, boiled or fried to top a dish. 1 frozen meat that’s easily thawed. 1-2 cans of beans (I think pinto, cannelinni, or chickpeas are the most versatile), 1 meat that will last 2+ weeks, like deli meat or sausage. 1 perishable meat that will either be eaten week 1 or put in the freezer.
  • Frozen meal: 2-3 frozen meals. I suggest picking ones with heavier sauces, like curries, Italian or Hispanic tomato sauces. If you like spice, go for that. Those heavier flavors will help mask the typical boringness of frozen meals.
  • Spices and sauces: Add 2-3 spices to your collection, and 2-3 sauces or condiments. Stick with what you know you like.
  • Other flavor boosters: 2-3. Olives, raisins, sesame seeds, peanuts, Parmesan cheese, lemon and limes (or at least lemon or lime juice). Again, go with the cuisines you like, but stick to items that will last almost a month.
  • Snacks & Other Quick Meals: Sometimes even having a few snacks in your kitchen will get you in a better mindset to actually use your kitchen. You’ll end up saving money overtime if you have something to tie you over instead of always getting food delivered or picking something up. I always have a couple different kinds of crackers and nuts, a backup cereal, and a couple packs of cheap ramen for the times I don’t want to cook but I’m not willing to get takeout.

Then replenish every two weeks or so. This first trip might be large, but you’re likely to have stuff left over. I would recommend to add 2-3 new items in the flavor category (spices, condiments, sauces, and other flavor boosters) for your first several trips. These items will be what take your same staple ingredients and make them taste like completely different dishes.

Tip 1: The freezer is your friend. Stock up on ‘healthy’ meals to pop in the microwave. I used to lean toward frozen breakfast sandwiches, but now I tend to keep 2-3 frozen dinner options in my freezer. My favorites are frozen Indian dishes. They are the most consistent to me. All the brands I’ve had are good. I personally really dislike frozen noodles (like spaghetti or pad thai) and I avoid bland dishes, because frozen bland dishes are not going to keep you eating at home. I also keep 2-3 different kinds of frozen vegetables and one frozen fruit (usually a mixed berry or sliced overripe bananas). I almost always have peas and cauliflower rice, then rotate between frozen green beans, broccoli, a veggie blend, or whatever Trader Joe’s has that catches my eye.

Frozen dumplings are my favorite, quick lunch or dinner

Tip 2: Fresh Fruits and Veggies. If you almost never eat at home AND you don’t often snack on fruit, please do not set yourself up for failure by buying fresh berries, bananas, avocados, etc. Stick with fruits that last two weeks: apples, oranges, kiwi.. And if you don’t prep a lot of food, don’t go and buy a whole pineapple or watermelon. I don’t love the plastic use, but if you do really like these, buy the precut and eventually you can buy the whole product. For vegetables, same concept, steer clear of items that wilt quickly and pick items that can hold up for two weeks. Avoid fresh herbs, delicate greens (spring mixes, spinach, cut salad mixes, arugula). For greens, go with kale or some form of cabbage. For other vegetables, stick to root veggies, like potatoes and carrots. That way even if you’re busy, you still have two whole weeks to eat all your produce.

Tip 3: Protein & Dairy. Especially when first getting started in stocking your kitchen, I recommend buying proteins that hold up longer, like beans and eggs. They’re also cheaper. I usually have one fresh meat in my fridge and 2-3 frozen meats. I pick thinner cuts of protein like fish that easily thaw so when I forget to take them out of the freezer, I’m not waiting all evening for something to thaw. For dairy, simple suggestion is to just check the expiration date on products. I lean toward nut milk now for a couple reasons, but one is that they tend to last longer. I usually have 1-2 kinds of cheese (one that’s good cold, like feta, and one that you can easily melt). If you like yogurt, opt for a plain yogurt. It can be used in savory dishes (a sub for heavy cream or sour cream), can be turned into a dip, or turned into a sweet yogurt with whatever sweetener you have around. The main idea is just have ingredients that can be multifunctioning.

Frozen Kungpao chicken and frozen cauliflower rice, topped with a few Asian sauces and green onions for freshness

Tip 4: Sauces and spices. This is it, the most important. Get this tip down and you will open a culinary window that you never dreamed of. Okay, a bit extreme, but this is my best tip. STOCK UP ON SPICES AND SAUCES. Get your basics: salt, pepper, garlic powder, onion powder, something with a kick (red pepper flakes or chili powder), and a couple spice mixes you’re into. Next, sauces. What kind of cuisines do you lean towards the most? Go to that section of the grocery store and pick something each time you go. Make sure you have some kind of cooking oil and some kind of vinegar. Grab a couple pre-made sauces to make your boring meat something great. Pasta sauces, Asian sauces like teriyaki or hoisin, enchilada sauce.

Tip 5: Other pantry staples. Get yourself some ramen, or package mac and cheese. And microwavable rice. This shouldn’t be the backbone of your cooking, and it should be the last thing you reach for. But it’s important to keep a few items that take so little time to make that even when you’re exhausted, it’s something you’re happy to eat.

Here’s my basic shopping list (for 2 people) when I know my schedule won’t allow me to menu plan:

  • Fruit: A bag of small oranges, bananas (that I will freeze if I don’t eat them all and use for smoothies), a bag of frozen mixed fruit (to add to smoothies or even my water), and a container of raspberries or blueberries because I love them and know they won’t go to waste, also no prep.
  • Vegetables: Frozen peas, green beans, cauliflower rice. Hearty: a bag of onions, sweet potatoes or red potatoes or a bag of carrots, cabbage or something seasonal. Perishables: whole white mushrooms, grape tomatoes, an avocado or 2.
  • Carbs: a big bag of rice, 2 packs of microwave rice, a loaf of sourdough bread, oatmeal, spaghetti. Many times I don’t use the exact rice that fits a cuisine and that’s okay.
  • Dairy: Half gallon of almond or oat milk, a large container of plain Greek yogurt, feta cheese, cheddar cheese.
  • Protein: 2 cans of beans (pinto and white beans usually), firm tofu, ground beef for the freezer (portioned out before freezing), veggie sausages, a dozen eggs. I tend to buy less animal protein when I’m not home a lot.
  • Frozen meals: 3 different kinds of frozen Indian meals. Don’t fix what’s not broken. Maybe a bag of frozen dumplings or an Asian chicken or stirfry, especially if I’m shopping at Trader Joe’s.
  • Spices and Sauces: This changes every time, but I always make sure I have something to add spice, like sambal sauce or sriracha. Olive oil and one neutral oil. Soy sauce, lots of different vinegars, etc.
  • Other flavor boosters: I always stock olives, some kind of pickled veggies, sesame seeds, some kind of nuts (usually peanuts and cashews because that pair well with so many dishes), and peanut butter (for sweet and savory dishes).

I know this list isn’t your end goal and doesn’t make you feel like you’re the best home cook around, but I promise it’s an approachable start. It fixes most of the issues we get stuck at: too much time to prep, feeling guilty for wasting so much food, and not having the ingredients to make a quick, simple meal that makes you want to eat at home. You’ll slowly make more time to make dishes from scratch, but that doesn’t have to be every night. Have fun with it and don’t be hard on yourself!

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