Monday, August 22, 2011

More with Less at the Grocery Store

My grocery store looks nothing like this, but I wish it did.
Before spring wildflowers, autumn pecans, dinners with friends, the Brazos River, Homestead Heritage, Baylor--even before Calvary Baptist Church--the grocery store made central Texas feel like home.

Learning to shop for groceries was one of the happier adjustments I had to make to "real" adult life. Especially during my first year after college, when I often felt caught in a world too big for me, the grocery store was a place I felt competent and creative.  Even at my lowest points, when I hardly had the spirit to cook the lovely meals I planned while pacing the aisles of the HEB, I would survey my shopping cart with a smile, thinking that the groceries inside would give onlookers the impression of a wise, coherent, healthy life. Food became an emblem for the life I wanted my scattered, trembling new adulthood to become.

I no longer need the grocery store to be a haven from anxiety, but I do still enjoy shopping for food. In fact, I find that grocery shopping is one of the best places to begin experiencing the joys of "living more with less." In my last post I discussed a book on this subject and spoke in rather general terms about how this book has challenged and inspired me. Today's post is a more practical look at some of these ideas.

After several years of learning what I will and will not eat, how to cook various dishes, and the kinds of demands different foods take on global resources (soil, water, animal feed, fuel for transportation, etc.), I have developed a flexible but coherent set of principles for my spending and consumption. 


Like the woman in this picture, I too enjoy wearing
a satin robe to the grocery store.
Staples are goods I always keep in the kitchen. These are the items that are most frequently required in the recipes I use, many of which come from the More with Less Cookbook. I keep most of these things in large glass canisters or jars; I have learned from experience that if ingredients are out of sight, I simply forget I have them.

whole-wheat pasta
split peas
brown rice
dried beans (any varieties)
flour (all-purpose, whole-wheat, bread)

sugar (regular and brown)
dried milk (for cooking, not drinking)

olive oil


I am usually generous with my produce budget, although for the past year and a half I have been trying to buy fresh produce only when it is in-season and, if possible, local. The "local" part is difficult in supermarkets, but at the very least, I can usually find produce from within Texas. I also usually keep some cans of diced tomatoes and a few bags of frozen broccoli on hand.

Luxury Goods

These are items I buy sparingly; usually I will only purchase one or two of these items on my every-other-week grocery trips.

dried fruit
pre-made foods, including breakfast cereals, bread, instant foods, canned soups, etc.
fancy condiments like maple syrup ,jams, jellies, Nutella
snack foods, such crackers, pretzels, or candy

A small feast to celebrate a friend's visit:
tea with cream, scones with dried cranberries and lemon curd.
As you see, most things one could buy at the grocery store fall into the "luxury" category on my list. While some have accused me of unnecessary deprivation, this system has enriched the way I understand and enjoy food.  First, having a set cupboard of staples means that I know how to cook a wide range of meals using those ingredients as my foundation.  Thus, I can cook a meal on short notice without fretting.  Carefully designating staple-goods also keeps my grocery bill small.  Lentils and dried beans are beautifully cheap.

The luxury goods, meanwhile, have become elements of occasional celebration, rather than consistent guilt.  Candied ginger, nuts, and dried fruits seem lavish and exotic, so when I buy them in preparation for Christmas I affirm the rich delight of that season. Because I buy meat so rarely, purchasing an Easter ham last year felt like slaughtering the fatted calf. In financial terms, it was a real sacrifice to spend so much money, but I consecrated the expense as a gift to the people who shared it with me.

It would be disingenuous to say that I always follow these practices perfectly, but they provide a helpful structure for my food purchases. Buying and eating less, I have experienced gratitude and abundance in surprising ways.

These habits also provide a foundation for building even better practices at the grocery store. Small disciplines have taught me to desire even better ways to "do justice, learn from the world community, nurture people, cherish the natural order, and nonconform freely" with my grocery budget. I want to become a better gardener, eventually producing most of the vegetables my household consumes. I want to learn more about preserving food (I dream of root cellars!), about the kinds of farming I should and should not support, and about the markets I can help create with my money and advocacy. I want to be a wise, generous, and grateful steward of the abundant food available to me.  

What principles or habits do you use to make choices about food? How do you order and organize trips to the grocery store? 


  1. Oh, this is an area of my life that needs such attention. :( I could use quite a bit of mentoring in this area, but I believe the key I need to embrace is that each meal doesn't need to be a four-course gourmet offering. Sometimes, grilled cheese and tomato soup is a fine option. Most times, in fact.

  2. I'm a fan of this series (if I may call it that) you have going on. My next question is what do you cook with said groceries? Not necessarily specific recipes, but what does your weekly meal plan look like? If you don't mind me asking, of course.
    Grocery store trips always stress me out: too many options and I can never quite spend as little as I would like. In our household, we don't have a lot of concrete budget or luxury designations. Perhaps for my peace of mind such specific definitions would help lessen stress whilst grocery shopping...

  3. Having grown up in a very meat-and-potatoes kind of house, I've been looking to branch out a bit in my cooking, especially as I watch our grocery bills steadily climb. Dan's cousin has four kids and they're big fans of cooking with bean/lentils/and other non-meat protein, although they aren't vegetarian. I always have all the things you list as staples around the house; the problem is I haven't learned how to use most of them for more than a couple meals so far. Where did you get the Living More With Less book and cookbook?

  4. Kt -- you've inspired my next post. Watch for an entry on "More with Less at the Table" soon. And Rebecca, you can find the More with Less books on Amazon, but you can also purchase them from the websites of the publisher and the Mennonite Central Committee. Try these websites: and