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Chris Amirault

Shopping for Dinner Tonight: Tips, Tricks, Tics

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My recent move to the suburbs coincided with a very busy stretch at work, meaning that both weekdays and weekends have been full, and it's thrown me out of my shopping rhythm. Thus I have found myself repeatedly in the position of leaving work on a quick break or en route to home, shopping for the night's dinner. With two kids, I'm often looking for something I can make in under an hour when I get to the house.

Tonight's no exception: I'll stop by the Cranston Whole Foods, hit the store, grab a few things, and zip home to get food on the table. Nothing is prepped at the house.

My methods are pretty rudimentary. I typically aim for meat and fish to find a protein on sale that I can cook quickly, then double back to produce thinking about sides. The kids are big on rice and bread, so I'll either get the rice cooker going as soon as I hit home or pickup a baguette.

This routine is getting pretty stale, though, and I'll bet that there are some Society members who can school me in new tricks. When you're hitting the store for dinner that night, what do you do?


Chris Amirault

camirault@eGstaff.org

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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I'm in the same situation you are most nights. If it is a week day I rarely get home from work till after five, then have to run to the store and buy food to cook for dinner. This not only leads to late dinners with less than amazing food, I think that it is a lot more expensive then if I could pick up stuff in advance, possibly in bulk. I'm definitly going to keep an eye on this thread for advice.

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A thought would be to pick a theme either before you enter the market or once you see what looks good. Once the "themes" are known to the kids you can even call ahead and ask if they have a request. Things like taco night, spaghetti night, Kraft dinner night with some nice sausages on the side, stir fry night, breakfast for dinner night, etc. Rounded out with a nice salad you are good to go. Thinking outside the box keeps things interesting as well. The vegetable or salad can be a giant fruit salad that the kids can prep while you do the rest of the meal. They can easily become pros at garlic bread in various incarnations.

Having a good sense of what is in the fridge at home is also essential. Example: you know you have cold rice so fried rice is a natural.

On dire days refrigerator soup (with the homemade stock you surely have stashed in the freezer) with a salad and bread (pesto bread v. garlic, v. cheesy, etc) works well.

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As to tackling the market itself, I am a left to right person with a list in my hand, written accordingly. Very rarely do I have to double back but when I do I am motoring like a mad woman because I know exactly where the item is- so knowing your market layout is a huge timesaver.

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I have 5 or so dishes that I rotate through, not really intentionally but just because they are quick and simple to make and still taste pretty good. Off the top of my head I can list: spaghetti with a meat sauce, Grilled chicken with whatever vegetables are on sale, shrimp scampii, chicken or eggplant parm, a simple stirfry with bell peppers, onions etc.

I normally go for the proteiens first, see what's on sale and try to figure out a dish and sides incorporating it. It normally comes out to be a adapted form of the dishes that I am very comfortable making.

I'm also restricted on the weekdays because I'm cooking for my mom, who describes the food at any resturant other than TGI Friday's as interesting lol.

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Whatever fish looks best and a quick sauté on some veg. Healthy, quick, light and delish.


---------------------------------------------------------

"If you don't want to use butter, add cream."

Julia Child

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Just about anything (look at a state fair) lol. Seriously though, I've fallen back on fried boneless chicken breast many times. I normally serve it with reheated collards and rutabagas from grandma's for a nice southern meal.

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I tend to do things in themes too when I'm doing this, but its more like a general idea of what I want. So maybe I go to the store looking to have some pasta dish with tomatoes, salad on the side. If cherry toms look good, I might grab some spinach, whole wheat pasta, the tomatoes and make a pasta dish out of that. Or if not, I might get canned toms and a can of tuna to do spicy tuna spaghetti. Or I might have sausages in mind-if the bratwurst I like are in, I'll grill them with a salad on the side. If not, I'll get Italian sausages and some peppers, and do that on a roll. Thinking of sausages might lead me to orechiette with rabe and sausage though. Or maybe I'll go looking for something Chinese, say chicken and sugar snaps with black bean sauce--I might leave making Imperial shrimp but the decision process was easier. Having some rough idea that you're willing to let guide you through constructing your dinner helps make it less overwhelming.

Also, I find on nights I have to produce something quick I like to double up some aspect of the plate. I might do protein alone and a salad that combines veg and starch, or protein and starch with a standalone veg, etc.


nunc est bibendum...

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I go to the market, see what looks good and plan accordingly. Of course, I have the luxury of being single with no dependents. :wink:

Would it help if I blogged a sample "walkthrough"?

Tomorrow is market day at USGM -- I plan on getting there early in the morning contrary to my usual practice of arriving at 12 noon. Temps in New York City are supposed to reach 98 by midday; with the humidity, it will probably be over 100.

As of right now, I have no plans on what to cook for the next few days. I usually have some idea within half an hour of getting to the Greenmarket.

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Mind you, I haven't actually tried this, so YMMV, but we thought of this idea to solve the dinner problem when my husband and I were both working ridiculous schedules and neither of us could really devote much time to meal planning or shopping or cooking. Basically, you assign each night of the week to one category of food, so for example:

Monday: Pasta

Tuesday: Rice

Wednesday: Chicken

Thursday: Pizza

Friday: Takeout!

Or whatever. The idea is, within whatever categories you choose, there are lots of variations you can apply. Build up a repertoire and let the kids advocate for one or two options within the category, depending on what's available and in season. We're not big meat eaters, so we would probably have fish instead of chicken, but it just depends on what you and your family like to eat. Friday could be a wild card, so it could be breakfast for dinner, or takeout, or anything else that seems special.

When I was growing up, every Friday we ordered in pizza for most of us, and my mother made hamburg-and-macaroni for my father, which involved a can of Campbell's tomato soup and Prince spaghetti. It was based on a recipe *his* mother used to make for him, and was probably clipped out of a newspaper sometime in the 1930s. Anyway, Friday's were very special, because of this tradition. It doesn't take much to get a kid excited, you just have to be consistent.

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Strange shopping trip, as I didn't grab any protein to focus the meal around. Got to the store and saw some beautiful artichokes and shiitake mushrooms, and I remembered I had some homemade pancetta in the fridge. So I grabbed those two things, some eggs, and some shallots, and made fresh pasta with the mushrooms and pancetta and steamed the artichokes to serve with butter.

The idea of going to the store with a preset plan just doesn't work for me, I think. I need to react to what's there.


Chris Amirault

camirault@eGstaff.org

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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I go to the market, see what looks good and plan accordingly.

Exactly what I do.

Of course, I have the luxury of being single with no dependents. :wink:

Well, me, not so much, but I do all the cooking, and my wife eats just about anything I make that doesn't involve bananas, and our toddler who is going through a picky eating phase is unpredictable pretty much, so his wanting or not wanting to eat what I make has more to do with his mood than with the food and whether he likes it or not. I figure, he'll be hungry eventually and he'll eat something.

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I err towards fish in that situation, just because you get to eat it that night. Fish is probably underrepresented in our cooking in general, because we are more once a week shoppers and so tend towards proteins that don't mind some time in the fridge.

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Publix puts their weekly ad online and you can even build a printable shopping list from it. I check it out before leaving work, choosing a protein and some produce, so I'm set to buzz in and out of the store quickly. Sometimes I grab a rotisserie chicken or pork loin and something for a side, then use the leftovers for fried rice or tacos/quesadillas a day or two later.

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Mind you, I haven't actually tried this, so YMMV, but we thought of this idea to solve the dinner problem when my husband and I were both working ridiculous schedules and neither of us could really devote much time to meal planning or shopping or cooking. Basically, you assign each night of the week to one category of food, so for example:

Monday: Pasta

Tuesday: Rice

Wednesday: Chicken

Thursday: Pizza

Friday: Takeout!

In another lifetime, before moving to the farm, we used to make a 2-week menu ahead of time, while allowing any changes that we felt like making within the time. We still eat breakfast, when together, according to a kind of menu. Ed is the short-order cook in the family and Wednesdays and Saturdays are bacon and eggs.

As for the grocery list: I have worked out a grocery list over the last few years and it's on computer. I simply generate a bunch of copies, 'magnet' it to the fridge where there is a red pen hanging, and we circle what we need. It works very well.


Darienne

 

learn, learn, learn...

 

Life in the Meadows and Rivers

Cheers & Chocolates

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Strange shopping trip, as I didn't grab any protein to focus the meal around. Got to the store and saw some beautiful artichokes and shiitake mushrooms, and I remembered I had some homemade pancetta in the fridge. So I grabbed those two things, some eggs, and some shallots, and made fresh pasta with the mushrooms and pancetta and steamed the artichokes to serve with butter.

The idea of going to the store with a preset plan just doesn't work for me, I think. I need to react to what's there.

What you described is the same way I operate also. Despite my suggestion, I am incapable of planning more than one day ahead. I may have a general concept in mind when I go to the store, but it really comes down to what looks good when I'm there.

Chris, I don't think you should change anything. Your kids will grow up remembering what an amazing, creative cook you are, and with any luck, will learn the same skills. Maybe you just need to cut yourself some slack, stretch the boundaries a little bit about what a "meal" consists of, and take a night off every week.

After all, isn't that part of the joy of knowing how to cook -- I think it must be like improvisation for jazz musicians. The creative process we apply to finding the best the market has to offer, and transforming it into a meal for the people we love: there's such a rush in that.

- Laura

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The idea of going to the store with a preset plan just doesn't work for me, I think. I need to react to what's there.

I have an idea of a style I want to work with, not a preset recipe of any sort. But style can lead you in so many directions-it's good to have some if vague idea that will structure your choice.


nunc est bibendum...

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Save 3 trips a week - buy for two nights not just one.


"You dont know everything in the world! You just know how to read!" -an ah-hah! moment for 6-yr old Miss O.

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Save 3 trips a week - buy for two nights not just one.

This is my time-saving strategy, too. Except for staples, I don't go shopping with a list either, I like to react to what looks good/well-priced. That said, when it comes to proteins, I almost always buy enough for two meals. Often I'll cook it all that first night and make creative use of the leftovers the next day. During the summer I make a lot of composed salads following this strategy, and in the winter it can be chowders, pastas, etc. It doesn't feel remotely like a sacrifice to have a nicoise salad with summer tomatoes, green beans, and leftover grilled tuna or a chicken pot pie with leftover roasted chicken. So think "two meals" when you do your shopping.



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OK, I just got back from an early morning trip to Whole Foods, trying to keep in mind the multiday suggestions that seem so smart. I also was trying to remember what items I have in the house already.

The four proteins things I left with were bluefish and squid (for grilling tonight), ~2" thick pork chops, and similarly thick ribeyes (those two were on sale). Now that I've got a Sous Vide Supreme (click), thinking through three or four different meals in a row seems somehow less of a hassle.


Chris Amirault

camirault@eGstaff.org

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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I have recently recreated my shopping and menu routine for the summer and fall. First, I created a basic daily theme based on some easy recipe books we own.

Sunday: Best of the Market

Monday: Pasta, Salad, or Soup (Mostly taken from Molto Gusto)

Tuesday: Barbeque or southern (Lee Bros Simple Fresh Southern)

Wednesday: Mexican (Rick Bayles night, mostly Mexican Everyday)

Thurs: Leftovers or flex day

Friday: Nice Shabbos meal night

Sat: Pantry raid/leftovers

Second part of this system involves the farmer's market and pick your own farms. I have two markets I visit, on Sunday as a family outing and Wednesday downtown New Haven. I buy produce for the week and base my menu choices around them. Sunday night I hold the right to make a nice meal based on the best finds from the market.

Part three involves trips to the grocery store on Sunday afternoons and Thursday mornings to buy other ingredients. There are smaller farmers market on Thursday in West Haven on the way home from the grocers and one near Middlefield near the farm where I take my daughter to pick blueberries and peaches. I might hit these markets if the downtown market does not work out or if I'm searching for something.

In the past 6 weeks that I have been working this menu routine, I have cut my food runs in half, cut our food budget by 10-15%, and I have lost around 10 lbs (focusing on healthier meals).

Dan


"Salt is born of the purest of parents: the sun and the sea." --Pythagoras.

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I have recently recreated my shopping and menu routine for the summer and fall. First, I created a basic daily theme based on some easy recipe books we own.

Sunday: Best of the Market

Monday: Pasta, Salad, or Soup (Mostly taken from Molto Gusto)

Tuesday: Barbeque or southern (Lee Bros Simple Fresh Southern)

Wednesday: Mexican (Rick Bayles night, mostly Mexican Everyday)

Thurs: Leftovers or flex day

Friday: Nice Shabbos meal night

Sat: Pantry raid/leftovers

Second part of this system involves the farmer's market and pick your own farms. I have two markets I visit, on Sunday as a family outing and Wednesday downtown New Haven. I buy produce for the week and base my menu choices around them. Sunday night I hold the right to make a nice meal based on the best finds from the market.

Part three involves trips to the grocery store on Sunday afternoons and Thursday mornings to buy other ingredients. There are smaller farmers market on Thursday in West Haven on the way home from the grocers and one near Middlefield near the farm where I take my daughter to pick blueberries and peaches. I might hit these markets if the downtown market does not work out or if I'm searching for something.

In the past 6 weeks that I have been working this menu routine, I have cut my food runs in half, cut our food budget by 10-15%, and I have lost around 10 lbs (focusing on healthier meals).

Dan

Well what do you know, the theme-a-day system really does work!

Dan, I like how your themes are linked to specific resources, both for food shopping and for recipe ideas. Very clever -- thanks for sharing your plan with us.

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