A Great Meal Starts At The Grocery Store

There are those who can’t wield a knife to save their lives, those who can follow a recipe to a tee but feel uncomfortable whipping something up, and then there are cooks. You know, professional ones. If you fall into categories one or two, you probably think the folks in category three were born with some sixth sense that tells them which flavors pair well with chicken and how hot to make the oven when you want to roast carrots. But the truth is, a lot of being a good cook comes down to having the right ingredients at your disposal. Which means you have to be a good grocery shopper.

“I think being a good grocery shopper is really, really difficult,” explains chef Hawa Hassan. She recently came out with her first cookbook In Bibi’s Kitchen, which is inspired by her Somalian heritage and filled with the kind of intuitive, flavorful dishes you’ll want to cook every night. (For a taste of Hassan’s cooking style, you can download a couple recipes digitally published by LG here.) “When you’re grocery shopping, you have to consider a variety of factors,” she adds, citing health, cravings, what’s in season, what’s on sale, what’s in your budget, and what your roommate or partner is into as elements that might sway your cart. “Being able to consider just two or three of those things is already a major accomplishment.”

The question then becomes: if being a good cook is contingent on being a good grocery shopper, how the heck should one be shopping? Hassan has a few ideas on that, too.

What to have on hand

A well-stocked kitchen can help turn any ol’ meal into something delicious. It’s all about the seasoning! And, a store of things that add oomph but don’t quickly spoil also helps bulk up weeknight meals. These are the items you purchase either once a year or every few months—not every time you go to the grocery store.

At least for me, it’s hard to figure out what’s going to be versatile (especially since sauces and spices tend to be pricier). Here are the things Hassan thinks you should buy now and use whenever:

  • Fish sauce
  • Soy sauce, or coconut aminos if you’re sensitive to soy
  • Salsa, hot sauce, and condiments: if you have a Trader Joe’s nearby, Hassan recommends their salsa verde, garlic chipotle salsa, and spicy ketchup
  • Spices: cardamom, cinnamon, cumin, and berbere are the ones Hassan uses most
  • Legumes: lentils (green lentils hold their shape, red lentils get soft once cooked) and black beans are Hassan’s favorites
  • Frozen vegetables like lima beans and corn
  • Dried coconut
  • Dates
  • Nut butter
  • Popcorn kernels

What to buy as needed

Then there are the things that spoil quickly, like fresh produce and meat. On a week by week basis, this is where Hassan thinks you should be directing most of your food budget. “A general rule I aim for is spending the most on fresh produce, and buying one or two forms of protein,” she explains. Most things in this category will last at least a week or two, so you don’t have to buy every ingredient, every week. You’ll use flavor boosters like fresh ginger root and garlic quickly. But things like berries, leafy herbs, and some cheeses can go bad overnight when you’re not looking. All of that is stuff to consider when you’re…

Making a plan to shop

Hassan likes to start on Pinterest to get inspiration for things to cook during the week. It’s not about following recipes verbatim—you really just want to get a sense for what ingredients or flavors go well together. If you’re not on Pinterest, you can also flip through cookbooks, scroll the New York Times Cooking app, or check out what’s being shared on other social platforms (I do the same thing on Instagram, and save things that look good to a “food” folder).

Next, you’re going to take all those recipe ideas and figure out a basic idea of the things you want to cook for the week. Leave room for spontaneity. “With a general plan, you can be on the lookout for specific items but still remain flexible,” says Hassan. That way you don’t end up with a cart full of food you don’t need, but can also take advantage of seasonal opportunities. “For instance, if I go in with a list, but find that a certain fruit or vegetable is on sale or looks especially delicious, I might switch my plans and focus on centering that item.”

Before you actually write it down, think about how many stores (the farmers market counts as a store) you want to visit. Which products do you want to buy where? “As a New Yorker, I make small purchases at a few stores that offer the best prices on certain types of food or have specialty items,” Hassan explains. She also tells me that it’s worthwhile to explore a store they’re not familiar with—you might find new ingredients you love, learn about a different culture’s culinary quirks, and explore different flavors. Once you’ve figured out where you’re going, then go back and start writing out your list by aisle. “This is the easiest way to stay on track and move quickly, because it allows you to get what you need all at once without going back and forth throughout the whole store.” Organize your fresh produce items in one chunk of text, dairy and eggs in another, and so on. Especially right now, when we’re all trying to spend as little time in the grocery store as possible, this will massively streamline your shopping experience.

Using what you bought

Once your kitchen’s stocked with staples and fresh produce, you can play around with different flavor combinations. Instead of worrying you don’t have the exact ingredients a recipe calls for, improvise! Legumes and frozen produce bulk up simple carb-based dishes or can be a full meal on their own, if you’re feeling lazy. Nut butters make a protein-rich breakfast topping, snack with bananas, or crafty candy alternative: when Hassan has a sweet tooth, she loves “placing dark chocolate into dates and drizzling nut butter on top for a super caramel-y, salty and sweet snack.” Another no-brainer when you have the munchies? Make some popcorn and top it with spices—Hassan’s favorite pairing is salt and berbere.

The main takeaway here should be that eating like a chef can be just as simple as whatever you were doing before—it’s just about elevating the flavors with the right cooking components. Everyone knows the best jobs are done with a full tool kit.

—Ali Oshinsky

Photo via ITG

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