When I was growing up, my parents insisted that we live below our means. With five kids to feed, clothe, educate, and entertain, they had a lot on their hands, and in hindsight, I don’t blame them for worrying about money. We had many blessings in our lives—good health, a house on a tiny hill (perfect for many hours spent playing and daydreaming), friendly neighbors who looked out for us, a town that we felt safe exploring—but money was not thought to be one of our blessings. Perhaps more than my siblings, I absorbed this sense of frugality and the need to pinch pennies. Money still makes me kinda nervous, even though I’ve been financially independent and stable for over seven years.
One of the areas of household spending that was a perpetual battleground for my parents was the grocery budget. I think we all have this idea that the grocery budget is infinitely shrinkable, that if we just eat less steak and more split pea soup, if we scoop up more bargains and do less splurging, then we can essentially negate the grocery budget. I do not believe this hypothesis, though I can see its allure. The seduction of a larger bank statement in exchange for humble suppers has its appeal. Luckily for me, my mother almost always did the grocery shopping, and she would let me tag along to help her. She’d give me coupons, and I’d run up and down the aisles, diligently hunting down the items we sought. I aided in the grocery shopping even before we left the house by clipping coupons for her for $1 a week, and when we returned to the house with a trunk full of food, I was absolutely required to haul bags into the house. I would often help put things away too. For all my labors, Mom would reward me with a candy bar of my choice, bought while we were at the store. With my sweet tooth, no wonder I got hooked on grocery shopping at an early age.
Today my grocery shopping looks quite different from my mother’s. For one thing, it’s all done on bike or foot, unless Matt is in town, in which case I feel like I’m a lady of leisure, riding to the store in his little black car. I only buy what I can haul back in one trip without the aid of a car, so I usually shop two or three times a week. And I’m not nearly as organized as my mother: I do make a list, but I don’t mind deviating from it when I see what looks good and what’s on sale.
Because I was raised by such frugal parents but have grown into a vegetarian, health-conscious foodie, I have conflicting feelings about grocery shopping. It’s with mixed emotions that I read pieces about grocery budgets and meal planning. On the one hand, I get excited: Maybe I can save more money on food! On the other hand, I get sad: Does this mean I can’t splurge on strawberries if they look amazing, or buy some Mexican chocolate to make that hot cocoa recipe I saw? To me, sticking too closely to the list is a sort of deprivation that makes my heart sink. Yes, I’ll save some money, but at what cost?
Some people groan at the thought of going into the grocery store for toilet paper and walking out with a bag of apples, tomato sauce, tortillas, cat food, and a chocolate bar. I secretly love that part of grocery shopping, or shopping in grocery stores. When I’m not in a hurry, I love to browse, cruise the produce section, examine the different jars of jams and jellies, find out what new non-dairy milks are chilling in their refrigerated compartments. Though I no longer live near a Whole Foods, shopping at that store is part of my agenda for a perfect afternoon. When I’m in Michigan, I love going there with my sister or sister-in-law to pick out the goodies that I’ll take with me on my return trip. Do I want dried cherries this time or dried mango? Roasted peanuts or almonds?
I read some of Tina’s Grocery Shopping 101 posts with curiosity. I wondered how my habits stacked up against her recommendations. In her Meal Planning post, I could see that most of her advice fit right into my household methods: use a list, use recipes, use up ingredients in your kitchen and pantry, learn to love leftovers. But one piece of advice stopped me cold, and I think it epitomizes why I cannot make my grocery budget a lean, mean, money-saving machine: “nix ‘fancy’ ingredients.” I just…can’t. Because I love my fresh herbs and fancy oils, my expensive butter and fresh berries and organic anything-I-can-get-my-hands-on. Cooking with fresh herbs is one of the best sensory experiences in the kitchen; the way fresh parsley smells as you tear leaves into a little pile to be added to your soup or sauce is amazing. Fresh basil knocks my socks off. And fresh sage is not to be missed: it is a key ingredient in one of my all-time favorite stews, one of the top two dishes Matt has cooked for us. And I know that fresh cilantro is on his list of favorite herbs. I don’t blame him for loving its clean, summery scent.
I spend my money on food because it makes my life richer, both in calories and in pleasures. It’s true that I am trying to cut down on the amount of food I waste, so I want to keep expanding my love for leftovers—not just finished dishes like leftover soup but also the fresh herbs and vegetables and stock that didn’t get used up in making that soup. I can embrace the frugal attitude in the kitchen, especially if it saves me from going out on a night when I’d really rather wear slippers and putter around the kitchen. But I don’t plan on shrinking my grocery budget. I want the thrill of finding new things to try, or deciding on a whim to bake peanut butter cookies that night. I need my shopping and my cooking to have an element of spontaneity; it keeps my kitchen experiences fun and fresh. I don’t have a lot of room in my life for spontaneity, so I need to hold onto it wherever it blooms, even if it means that I’m a grocery store spendthrift. At least I’m eating well.