First things first -- plan out what you need to buy every week.
- What do you have leftover that needs to be used? Anything in your pantry need refilling?
- What’s on sale or in season at stores this week? Make a rough list of the things that interest you.
- How busy will you be? How many days can/do you want to cook?
- What do you feel like eating this week? Chicken, beef, vegetarian? Mexican, American, Chinese? That will help guide you in the direction of flavor profiles and ingredients.
- Bring reusable bags and shopping list – common items to buy each week: bread, herbs, 3 main vegetables, 1 protein, 2-3 types of fruit, carton of eggs, milk/soymilk
- Be adventurous and seek out artisans in your city. Farmers market, a good butcher, cheesemonger, fish monger can all offer better quality of service and selection that you may not find at your local grocery store. See my list for my top favorites in Dallas.
When shopping at the grocery store it's important that we use our natural senses: sight, touch, smell, taste.
Ingredients are the most important part of cooking -- always go for quality, not quantity.
- Our eyes are especially important when it comes to picking out ingredients at a market or grocery store. Look for bright, rich colors in fruits, vegetables and meats and avoid brown spots, mold, deformities, soft spots and holes.
- Touch can be very helpful when it comes to shopping for fresh ingredients. Squeeze fruits and vegetables to test for softness, firmness and familiarize yourself with the textures. Weight is also a good factor when picking fruits and vegetables as the heavy weight usually means a ripe and juicy fruit. You can even touch meats to see if they're fresh or old -- fresh meats are typically firm (not tough) to the touch while old meats are soggy and soft.
- Your nose always knows. Smell will always guide you towards a tasty pick and away from a nasty one! The more aromatic and fragrant the aromas, the better and more flavorful the produce will taste. If the odor is ever rancid and funky, put it down and step away (especially for meat!).
- Taste taste taste. Something you should always do from start to finish when cooking. Many stores will allow you to taste your produce, all you have to do is simply ask! Before tasting anything, make sure it's clean.
- Shop with an open mind. Don't go to the market with a set list in mind, learn how to improvise. See what's fresh and on special and adjust your plan accordingly.
How to Pick Fruits and Vegetables and when to buy Organic
- Rule of thumb -- to ensure top quality in your fruit and vegetables buy seasonally. This insures that not only will the produce be at its peak taste and freshness, many times it is cheaper as well. Always pick fruits and vegetables that look strong, healthy and alive.
- Use your senses! (see above)
- The difference between Organic and Non-Organic? Organic food usually means no harsh chemical pesticides are used and no genetically modified organisms or food are permitted. Because of this, organic food is usually more expensive. Here's an overall guide on which types of produce have the highest number of pesticides and which have the lowest.
Get your egg-facts straight -- colors, size, grade and labels.
(Source: Incredible Edible Egg http://www.incredibleegg.org/egg-facts/eggcyclopedia/b/buying 1 Eating Well http://www.eatingwell.com/healthy_cooking/healthy_cooking_101/shopping_cooking_guides/the_egg_buyers_guide 2)
Buying Dairy and great dairy substitutes
- Homogenized milk basically means thoroughly mixing the fat particles consistently throughout the milk. Because milk fat naturally floats to the top, dairy distributors use homogenization as a technique to control fat content in different types of milk. 3
- Organic milk means that the cows were fed an organic diet without antibiotics or hormones (rBST) and are given space to roam around. (Horizon and Costco are two brands of "organic" milk that have been accused of using large-scale farming practices and keeping their cows confined to small pens so consequently, I shy away from these brands.) 4
- Look for milk from cows that are "pastured", meaning the cows spend ample time outdoors grazing on the grass.
- If you are lactose intolerant there's the option of Lactose-free milk. This is milk minus the lactose, a natural sugar that is present in milk.
- There are also a variety of other dairy substitutes like soy milk, rice milk, almond milk, and hemp milk. Buy unsweetened when possible to limit your daily sugar intake.
(source: http://www.takepart.com/article/2010/11/22/dairy-buying-guide-what-know-when-you-buy-your-milk 3, http://www.eatingwell.com/nutrition_health/nutrition_news_information/which_milk_is_best_to_buy 4)
Healthy oils and the best types to cook with
- The most common cooking oils are vegetable, canola and corn. Vegetable oil is a blend of corn, soybean, palm and sunflower oil. Canola oil is extracted from rapeseed and is commonly used for frying. Corn oil is also a good frying oil and can used for baking.
- Healthy oils include sunflower, olive oil and peanut oil. Sunflower oil is low in saturated fat and high in vitamin E. It's used to fry, cook and great in salad dressings. Peanut oil is especially popular in Asian cooking, with a slight peanut aroma it is also high in monounsaturated fats. Olive oil is a great heart healthy oil, high in monounsaturated fat it's perfect for salads and other cold ingredients or a light sautéing that remains under 320 degrees.
- Butter, though high in saturated fats, used in moderation can add a wonderful richness to a dish. There are two main types of butter, salted and unsalted. Unsalted is commonly used in baking recipes while salted is used as a preservative and usually lasts longer than unsalted butter. For the fresher choice, go unsalted.
What to stock in your pantry
- 2 packages of dried pasta: De Cecco is a great brand and comes in various shapes. For a more in depth explanation on the different types of pasta click here.
- 2 types of grain: Quinoa, Israeli Couscous, millet, and rice are all great picks. A pound of each should last you a few months.
- Kosher salt -- a thicker grain and commonly used in cooking and is especially important for searing meat.
- Cracked black pepper
- 2 types of oil -- I typically keep olive oil and peanut oil at home.
- 2 cans of beans -- black, pinto, navy, white, take your pick! They are a great addition to salads, soups or as a side.
- Vinegar -- I like to keep rice vinegar for its slight sweetness. Balsamic, apple cider and red wine are also other popular choices.
- Granulated sugar and brown sugar -- both great for cooking and baking.
- Honey -- opt for local honey to ensure freshness and quality.
- Fresh garlic, ginger and onions at all times.
- Common spices like cumin, paprika, nutmeg, cayenne pepper, oregano, chili powder and cinnamon are good to have around.
- Canned coconut milk -- great for curries, desserts and soups. Also great for those who are lactose-intolerrant.
- Lots of nuts -- pecans, cashews, almonds, walnuts are great picks. Also peanut butter and sunflower butter are great to keep around too for dressings, sauces, or sandwiches.
- Some type of cooking wine -- I often use a chinese cooking wine but white wine and red wine work well too.
- Soy sauce and fish sauce. I'm asian. They're a necessity.
- Freezer basics like frozen fruit (strawberries, mangos, pineapple) and frozen vegetables ( spinach, peas, corn) are good to have around. Frozen fruit can be used for smoothies and desserts and frozen vegetables are great for quick fixes and sides.