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Shopping seldomly (without meal-planning)

Simon wondered how I can get away with grocery shopping so seldomly.

Do I have a meal planner? No.

Here is how I do it.

I know a lot of simple (not necessarily delicious) recipes using basically the same ingredients. Flour can make pasta, pizza, buns, or scones. Potatoes can go in the oven or can get mashed or just boiled. Oats can go into overday oats or oatmeal. Beans can go in doughs or as hummus or in stir-fried random. Stir-fried random can go with wheat berries, potatoes, or pasta. Tomato cans can make marinara or pizza or ketchup. Mustard powder can go in a masala or make, uh, mustard.

A couple of drawers of specific spices can give more variety than store-bought masala. Among my fave spices, I also count tamari and vinegar.

I try to have some awareness of what is time-sensitive and what can last a few months. Basically, everything in the freezer (mine is pretty bad) and fridge is time sensitive and needs to be considered every time I’m deciding a meal. “Do I want to use these mushrooms before they go bad?” I live alone and my fridge is small.

I see groceries as either “specials” and “staples”. Staples, in my system, have a long shelf-life. Specials will last a few weeks. Even something I buy and eat very often, like mushrooms, is a “special”, if it’s something I’m gonna have to monitor in the fridge and use in time.

For staples, I have a “buffer”. It used to be two packs. If I open the second pack of oatmeal, time to put a new one on the shopping list. These times all my buffers are larger.

For specials, it’s more whim-based (and looking at what’s in season, what’s a good deal etc). “Hmm, I feel like avocados” or “I wanna get some good celery”. It’s something I have kind of a vague, intuitive idea about how to put together during the next week or so. Is that meal planning? Yeah, kinda… But not written down or scheduled, just whim-based with a lot of slack.

This is good because it means that if my supply line of specials is cut off, I can live for a long time on my staples. (I’m SOL if they cut off the water lines, though. Not currently a good prepper in that regard.)

A lot of my staples can sub in for specials. Like, I only sometimes buy leek but I always have onions. If my potatoes run out, I can make do with wheat berries or I can make pasta.

My “bean” buffer is kind of heterogenous, to give me some variety. It doesn’t have to be all garbanzo all the time, but I don’t need to micromanage myself about it either.

I know my advice is to go single-ingredient over mixes (for variety) but that rule is only for the big buffers. I have a jar of wheat berries premixed with lentils, and I have smaller jars of home-made spice mixes. Saves time.♥ Then I refill that jar from my separate wheat and lentil buffers, and put that amount on the shopping list. Everytime I refill it before I get to shopping, I increment the amount on the list by that much.

Specials don’t always mean “is ready right away”; for example, when I do get avocados I get green ones and let them ripen at home over a week or so. It just means unbufferable food, shorter shelf-life, food that can’t be staples.

The rock story in a new light

What I like about this mindset is that it can handle any kind of dish or recipe. I want a taco night or do a cookbook recipe (an old favorite or a new one) or experiment with some new ideas or even have the occasional store-bought, pre-made thing, I can.

Stephen Covey tells this story about a guy putting stuff in a jar. Rocks, then gravel, then sand, then water. Moral of the story: you can’t fit the big rocks in unless they go in first. Your time is as precious as the space in that jar; it over-flowing is a failure state. Schedule the important things first and let the small stuff fill up around them.

Great story. Love it, live by it.

For groceries, it’s the opposite situation. You want to fill up the jar, since it represents your meal-hours. The failure state is not having enough.

So the way to do that is to have plenty of “sand and water”—your staples, your pantry buffers, your rote recipes—ready.

Your “specials” will go bad if you don’t fit them in, so don’t overshoot with them, but since you have the staples, you have plenty of slack so you don’t have to stress with precision planning out day-by-day, meal-by-meal. You can just back-of-your-mind it.