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Jane Roper is the author of the memoir Double Time: How I Survived–and Mostly Thrived–Through the First Three Years of Mothering Twins and blogger at JaneRoper.com. Her writing has appeared on Babble, Salon, The Huffington Post, The Rumpus, and the upcoming anthology The Push: Birth Stories for the 21st Century. Jane lives in the Boston area with her husband and twin daughters.

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The Art and Science of Grocery Shopping

By Jane Roper |

Every family has its own little division of labor: in our household, it’s Alastair who takes care of laundry, dishes, yardwork and the majority of household repairs (which frequently means calling a professional to take care of household repairs). He also does the majority of childcare Monday through Thursday.

Me, I have the “real” job — the one that pays the lion’s share of our expenses. I also manage our household bills and the girls’ wardrobe needs, and I do the cooking and (most of) the grocery shopping.

Occasionally, Alastair does the food shopping, but this requires my writing up a grocery list with sentence-long descriptions of half of the food items. On my list, for example, I could write  “Chick peas (2)”  but for Alastair I’d have to write “Two 15 oz. cans chick peas, (canned veg. aisle), Goya, not store brand.”

So it’s generally easier if I just do it myself. And I don’t mind it. Sometimes I even like it — it’s a nice break. Even meditative, in a way. The only sucky part is putting groceries away — which is right up there with emptying the dishwasher and vacuuming on the list of chores I hate.

Food shopping is a funny thing — weirdly personal. When you get into a regular groove with one store, it can be frightfully disorienting / annoying to go to other ones. (Why is the bread across from the dairy section instead of the frozen food section?! And what the hell is the meat section doing right next to the produce section?? It’s insanity!! And why do they not carry multi-grain English muffins? Haven’t they heard of fiber?!)

Anyway, there are several stores that I frequent. (This list may or may not be meaningless to anyone outside of New England.)

Stop & Shop. This is our go-to store. It’s five minutes away from our house, there’s ample parking, and — big plus — they’ve got the little hand-held scanners you can carry around with you to scan and bag food as you go, which is a huge time saver. Or at least it feels like one. PLUS, it makes it a great place to go with one of the girls: she can help scan (Or, as Elsa says “scab”) the bar-codes. Big fun! No toys or snacks needed to keep your child riveted!

And I’ve got Stop and Shop down to a science, man. I even have this blank grocery list form I adapted from this template, and the categories of foods follow the order of the store layout. It’s fucking awesome. Ask me where any item is. Come on: give me your best shot. Prepared horseradish? Next to the fresh sauerkraut, just to the right of the bacon. Slivered almonds? Baking aisle or between the coffee/tea section and the candy section in the second aisle from the produce section. Bam! I own that place.

2. Shaw’s / Star Market. Like Stop & Shop, but 10-15% more expensive. To be avoided.

3. Whole Foods. I don’t go to Whole Foods (aka “Whole Paycheck”) that often. But it’s en route to and from the girls’ preschool, so sometimes I stop there to pick up a few things we’re running low on. And occasionally I go there for special occasion stuff (cheese, baked goods, etc.). But I’d never do a “big shopping” there. Hells no!

Whenever I’m in Whole Foods I feel a little like Annie, in the Warbucks mansion for the first time. (Have I mentioned that Annie is a strangely large presence in my life?): The beautiful organic produce! The tantalizing baked goods! The environmentally responsible, cruelty-free and surely delicious grass-fed, college-educated beef! The free samples everywhere!

It’s like I’ve died and gone to grocery heaven, except…. 1.) Dear GOD it’s expensive and 2.) Can I just get some freakin’ Thomas’s English Muffins, instead of twenty-two grain sprouted spelt crumpets? Or some non-organic soy sauce? I mean, it’s SOY SAUCE people!

4. Trader Joe’s.

I don’t really understand Trader Joe’s. I know that a lot of people looooooove Trader Joe’s. They are cultish in their devotion to it. But whenever I go there, I feel slightly disoriented. I mean, yeah, I get that they have some cool snack foods and cookies. It’s a good place to go if you want decent convenience foods. I like the frozen potstickers. And the people who work there, in their wacky Hawaiian shirts, are generally nice. But I kind of feel like I’m shopping in a foreign country. And the produce sucks. And no Thomas’s English Muffins. Next!

5.  Market Basket.

This place  — specifically the one I occasionally go to in good ole Somerville, MA, the Paris of Boston — is nuts. Everything is 20-30% cheaper than at your average grocery store, and they have pretty much everything, PLUS a huge array of “foreign” foods and exotic fruits and vegetables. (You wouldn’t believe the tuber selection!) And it’s a virtual microcosm of the city. Slumming hipsters shop side by side with Haitian and Brazilian immigrants and Irish-Americans who’ve lived in town for generations. It makes you love America.

BUT the aisles are exactly two shopping carts wide, no more no less, and the place is always packed. So what you save at the register, you pay for in general stress and annoyance.

6. Hy-Vee. Actually, there’s no Hy-Vee anywhere near here. It’s a chain we shopped at when we lived in Iowa City (where I got my MFA). Nothing special about it, but they had a whole section of the salad bar devoted to jello, pudding and other mushy desserts, and the biggest durned pork section west of the Mississippi. It felt very exotic to east coast moi when we first moved there.

So, what’s your g0-to / don’t go-to store? And, fine, Trader Joe cult members, feel free to tell me why I just HAVE to spend more time in your temple of offbeat foods. [insert eyeroll]

 

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About Jane Roper

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Jane Roper

Jane Roper is the author of the memoir Double Time: How I Survived–and Mostly Thrived–Through the First Three Years of Mothering Twins and blogger at JaneRoper.com. Jane lives in the Boston area with her husband and twin daughters.

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29 thoughts on “The Art and Science of Grocery Shopping

  1. Betsy says:

    LOL at the Hy-Vee shout-out. I

  2. Betsy says:

    LOL at the Hy-Vee shout-out. Iowa City is my hometown. My Virginia-born husband LOVES Hy-Vee and always wants to go when we’re in town. My favorite thing is being able to drive up to the curb & have them load your groceries into the car. I’ve never seen that anywhere else.

  3. Rosstwinmom says:

    Are you saying the groceries I bought after taking the boys to school this morning should be put away since it is now dark out? It won’t just magically happen?

    I had 2 favs in Texas-Target and Market Street. I could never get everything at just one. Which is crazy. And annoying. Why must I be so brand-loyal and in a food rut since 1993?

    In Poland, I shop at 3 different places, all with their own problems. Mostly that everything is in Polish, there’s no ranch dressing ANYWHERE, and there are way too many pickles and cabbages for my taste. And I’m scared of the meat counter. Don’t ask.

  4. Blair says:

    Such a great topic! Being a former Whole Foods manager, I can tell your that if organic is your priority, then shopping at WF and Trader Joes is the way to go. WF competes with TJ and will always match their prices on milk, eggs, and oddly, brie. Insider info most people should know. THey will also match prices and quality on things like peanut butter, bread, shelf stable non-dairy milks oatmeal, (all 365 brand of course). I have found that TJ is the best place for cheeses, nuts, fish, (limited selection), and some cereals. For the regular day to day, S&S is the way to go and self scanning/bagging rocks my world every time.(Yes my life is clearly lacking in excitement) However, I used to live in Maynard, and went to the Market Basket in Westford every Sat am at 7:30am because of their price, selection and its the ONLY time to shop in peace. Bottom line, getting the most for your money is all about strategy, timing, and commitment to not being ripped off.

  5. Papa two twin girls says:

    Trader Joe’s gets much props for their wine selection here. If we want a very good wine we go to a local wine shop. But for your basic “the girls have been sick for three weeks and I need two bottles of wine tonight to forget about my day and I don’t want to drop $75″ (or just because it is Tuesday and I want the same thing) you can’t beat their prices and selection.

  6. renee says:

    If the dark-chocolate-with-sea-salt-and-turbinado-sugar coated almonds can’t convince you to love Trader Joe’s, then I certainly can’t either, but I’ll tell you that my quality of life has vastly improved since TJ’s opened here a year ago–and we go out for dinner less, with all those frozen doodads easily available. And oh, how I loathe Whole Foods–the tangible smugness, the outrageous prices, the libertarian wacko CEO who has figured out that the way to extract money from liberals is to appeal to their sense of superiority. Ugh, ugh, ugh.

  7. Dee says:

    Give the Trader Joe’s multigrain english muffins a try. They’re really good. I don’t know about out your way, but in Western Massachusetts, our Trader Joe’s is so small that I can let my girls walk around the store and grab things for me from other aisles (or go hang out at the sample table and gorge). The staff there are really friendly and because we go there weekly, know the girls and let them scan the groceries themselves or put prices on the food that their shelving. But alas, the produce does suck.

  8. Lauren says:

    Not to be too earthy-crunchy, but 2 awesome things to buy organic are cotton and soy products, because both take up a lot of land for their yield. Also, a LOT of TJ’s products are main brand with the TJ’s private label, so those English muffins may well be Thomas’. (Incidentally, their offices are near where I grew up, on a street called English Muffin Way. True story.)

  9. Blue says:

    Hooray for the Somerville Market Basket!

  10. EG says:

    Trader Joe’s is more like a tourist destination. You couldn’t possibly do all your shopping there, unless you really really like frozen wontons. But they do have some really great products at great prices.

    Here in VA my go-to is Kroger. We also have Food Lion, AKA Food Dawg, with worse selection and higher prices. But it’s really close to my house so if I run out of baking soda or whathaveyou, that’s where I go.

  11. Camilla says:

    What, no Foodmaster for you? They’ve actually got an unexpectedly nice meats there, and you can always park easily.

    TJ’s is my place for big bars of eating chocolate, dried blueberries, tart dried cherries and macadamia nuts. Their cheese always molds by the time you get it home.

  12. Donna says:

    I find Trader Joe’s a bit iffy as so much of the fruit and veg are rotten on the shelf there. I’ve picked moldy items up and handed them in to staff many times. Also the selection is weird (no cinnamon?!) but do go there if I need salmon pinwheels and mini-quiches (not often). I’m also annoyed with Shaw’s because the chicken that my kids will eat is twice the price there than at Wholefoods. S&S is a bit off my radar now that I don’t work near the one in South Bay Mall, but that is so busy it didn’t do good things for my stress levels. All in all I’m not a good shopper.

  13. Rachel says:

    Why is it that Thomas’ English muffins are so good? None of the others compare. I feel the same way about Matthew’s brand bread.

    I go back and forth between Shaws and Stop & Shop, mostly because of convenience. Shaw’s is right downtown, close to our temple and ballet school, so it’s easy to drop off Evie at Sunday School or ballet and then do some shopping without having to drive and repark the car, but it is more expensive. If I know I need to do a big grocery run, I’ll go to Stop & Shop to get better prices. I know both stores like the back of my hand (an odd source of pride for me, too), but occasionally I am stumped. The two items I can never find in any grocery store are toothpicks and breadcrumbs. There is no logical place for either item, and I don’t buy them often enough to remember where they were the last time I bought them.

    I sometimes go to Hannaford, too, because diapers are cheaper there. I steer clear of Market Basket because I hate crowded shopping. I admire the person who posted that she shops there at 7:30 am.

    I like Trader Joe’s, and although I’m not a devotee (nor could I possibly purchase everything I need there), I go to Trader Joe’s occasionally to stock up on things that are cheaper there (nuts, olive oil, Morningstar Farms products, Barbara’s cereals, cheese), as well as some of their specialty products that I like (cooked lentils, cooked baby beets, cornbread mix, pumpkin muffin mix). They also carry kosher meat and challah, which most stores near us don’t, so that is helpful for us, too. But the produce there is usually TERRIBLE – it’s never local, and it is often rotten within a day of buying it.

    I love Whole Foods and would shop there all the time if we could afford it. I find the whole experience satisfying – the brightly colored, beautifully arranged produce, the delicious looking meats, the bulk dry goods, the desserts and fresh baked bread, the prepared foods bar…

  14. Rachel says:

    Forgot to say that I loved your description of the list you would have to make for Alastair. I do our shopping for the same reason.

  15. Jane Roper says:

    @Rachel Toothpicks are strangely hard to find, aren’t they?!
    As for Thomas’s English muffins, apparently it’s one of the most closely guarded recipes in the world. Many have tried to imitate, but not have succeeded. They just can’t do those nooks and crannies right!
    @Camilla — I almost mentioned Foodmaster! I go there occasionally; the one nearest to us, on the Somerville / Arlington line tends to have sort of iffy produce and not always the freshest dairy goods. But they do have damned good prices, esp. on meat.

  16. Felicia says:

    I feel exactly the same way you do about Trader Joe’s. There is one right across the street from my office, but I rarely step in their doors. I go to Kroger in my neighborhood because it’s old and small and I can find everything I need in record time. It’s not one of those we-have-everything-in-the-world-AND-patio-furniture kind of grocery stores. Get me in and get me out already!

  17. Catherine Hurst says:

    I really enjoyed this discussion! I shop at Stop & Shop, Whole Foods, Target (for cleaning products, paper products, etc.), Trader Joe’s, and a local store called Eastside Marketplace. I go to S&S every week, Target and Trader Joe’s every other week (there’s only one TJ’s in Rhode Island and the Target is pretty near there so I tend to hit them on the same trip), and Whole Foods whenever my desire overcomes my common sense. I do love shopping there–like it for the produce selection and the prepared foods. Neither TJ’s nor WF sells wine in RI which really bums me out–that’s where I bought all my wine in Santa Fe. Love TJ’s for nuts, Mediterranean hummus, bagel chips, peach juice, peach salsa, and a couple of their refrigerated/frozen specialty meals. Best store in the world, though, is Idylwilde Farms in Acton, Massachusetts. Still go there from time to time even though I moved out of Acton in 1992!!

  18. Korinthia Klein says:

    Our local grocery chain is called Pick ‘N Save, which is a stupid name for a store. But they have good produce (although there was one batch of kale I bought with slugs in it) and bulk items, and they have giant sandwiches at the deli counter that Ian buys to share with the kids if I’m not home. There is another grocery store right next to our Pick ‘N Save that doesn’t seem to have much luck. When we moved here it was a Jewel-Osco, then a Sentry, and now it’s a Piggly Wiggly. There is a Whole Foods on the first floor of the building where we visit our doctor, so after an appointment we may go down and pick out a treat to get over the trauma of a vaccination, but other than that we don’t go. Trader Joe’s is too far from us to be useful. And there is an Outpost on my walk home from work that I stop in sometimes, but they are a co-op and I always ask me if I’m a member at the checkout, so I always feel a little out of place when I stop in to buy my (slugless) kale.

  19. Fairly Odd Mother says:

    I do not understand Trader Joe’s. I mean I “get it” that they have great frozen foods, their sweet chili sauce is to die for and they have great bagged chips, but I can’t imagine finding everything I need there.

    We have a newer Hannaford, a Shaw’s and a “super” Target within a mile of my suburban home. Hannaford wins, hands down, for almost everything, including price, though I will sometimes grab a few things in Target if I’m already there (every other day), though I feel like a traitor. I only go to Shaw’s if I need a couple of things and my car is in front of the store.

    And I also have one of those shopping lists that my husband obsessively made for Shaw’s (before Hannaford opened) but I use it for Hannaford though it is a mess b/c none of the aisles are the same. I really need to remake it but I’m a bit lazy about it.

  20. LauraC says:

    OH MY GOSH.
    I want to die at these comments.

    I worked at a Trader Joe’s so maybe I am a little bit crazy about them. They pay the highest wages in the industry, and provide excellent health care coverage to their workers. ALL of their products have no artificial colors, flavors, preservatives, or additives. It is like a parent’s dream to not have to read labels. I can stock every part of my pantry from TJ’s – canned corn to frozen rice to organic meats to excellent cheeses.

    I do 90% of my shopping there. I buy bread and produce from local farmers but everything else is TJ’s.

    GIVE TRADER JOE’S A CHANCE!

  21. Sally says:

    We have a very very specific list of things that are best purchased at TJ’s, but we buy nothing else there. And the list is totally specific to my family and made entirely of optional, luxury-ish items that we could certainly do without: gluten-free pasta and mac and cheese, almond flour, a specific wine that I really like that is cheap there, certain cheeses, salami, fruit leather, gluten-free beef jerky. I never buy any produce or meat there because if it’s not rotten in the store, it will be by the time you get it home and most of their meat is marinated in junk/gluten anyway. My children call it “the snack store,” which I think pretty well sums up its cheap and fun but totally unnecessary role in our lives.
    Whole Foods is the easiest way for us to get grass-fed beef, which is important to me, but I also always leave there feeling bad about myself, so I try not to go. They do have good samples on weekends and I will admit to having taken the kids there just for the samples, which has had the unintended side effect of having preschoolers with a taste for expensive cheese. That might be why my kids call it the “sample store.”

  22. Donna says:

    @LauraC I’ve given Trader Joe’s multiple chances but their produce is still terrible. And they don’t have half of what I need. While I’m glad they treat their staff well, that’s not enough for me to add the stress of having to shop in multiple places just to support them.

  23. Lucas says:

    Grocery store selection speaks volumes about one’s family, and their belief system. It goes quite deep when you consider the intangibles that need to be weighed when making the decision of which store to hit. How to decide between the (in)conveniences and ambiance of one store vs another? The day is coming when everyday folks will actually start asking themselves with each upcoming purchase: “How do I want to spend my money?” Too often we don’t get beyond “how does it affect me” but it’s probably the most powerful weapon or tool we have in our arsenal.

    We frequent all of the stores Jane mentions, and I like the weird off-brand store Aldi in Medford as a challenger to TJ’s (for fat people); and H Mart (Korean) has stuff you can’t find anywhere, but once you try it (Soy Sauce fan) you’ll never want to buy mainstream again. I just hope I don’t come to learn that their corp parents are doing things I’d be ashamed of supporting down the road.

    Shout out to Alastair’s new CD “These Are My Friends” which I listen to on my own and in mixed company… it’s officially my daughters first music crush. She turns 5 next week, so it took her 4 years and 10 months.

  24. Jane Roper says:

    Great points, Lucas.
    And speaking of the importance of where you shop — hooray for Twinkle Star! (Which Lucas and his wife own) A wonderful place to buy quality (and in many cases environmentally responsible) baby gifts — while supporting the local (Cambridge / Somerville) economy. I bought a friend a super-cute set of corn-based feeding dishes + spoons there for a baby gift recently, which she loved. http://www.shoptwinklestar.com
    OK, I’ll end my plug there. :-)
    I’ve been curious about that Aldi…I have to check it out!
    Thanks for the kind words about Alastair’s CDs. Hope you guys can make it to a show soon!

  25. Camilla says:

    Yeah, Foodmaster just doesn’t have the makings of a tempting salad. But, buying anything they have is rarely a mistake (if you need that item) because what they do have, they seem to turn over fast – for example, they never seem to sell a bag of tired, sad-in-the-middle onions, or a can of beans that’s been on the shelf for a year. (I have only recently come to appreciate stores with limited selection but fast turnover. Market Basket is a killer in this respect, but I still can’t stomach the drive to Union Square and parking headache.)

    The Medford Whole Foods, when it first opened, was a disaster in terms of stocking more variety than they could turn over; the store has improved a bit, but hasn’t quite outgrown that tendency.

  26. snorkmaiden says:

    I live in Los Angeles, where Trader Joe’s is based, and there’s nothing you can’t buy at my TJ’s. But I popped into TJ’s when I was in Boston and found it small, weird, and disappointing (where’s all the stuff I usually buy?) So maybe it’s a regional thing? Because Trader Joe’s is where we buy the majority of our food. We choose to buy certain things elsewhere (like paper goods and soap) and some of our produce is from the local farmer’s market. But our basics (including produce like apples, bananas, carrots, bell peppers, and spinach) are all from TJ’s, and the quality is great.

  27. Katie says:

    I agree with Snorkmaiden that it might be a regional glitch because here in Baltimore, I am able to do ALL of my shopping at TJs and the produce has never been a problem. It took me a while to get over the lack of recognizable brands from my childhood and early adulthood, but once I did, I found that they carried the exact same selection, just with less additives and cheaper prices. And we don’t even have wine at our TJs because of stupid local restrictions on alcohol sales. We usually spend $150 there every 1.5 to 2 weeks for a family of four. I also live within 2 minutes of a Whole Foods, unfortunately, and spend WAY too much money there getting last minute items. I used to shop at our big chains – Giant and Superfresh – but now I find myself overwhelmed whenever I shop at those stores and frustrated that I cannot find peanutbutter that has no ingredients in except peanuts! Is that too much to ask?

  28. Robena says:

    My daughter and husband are both vegetarians, cooking and grocery shopping has gotten so much cheaper and easier since TJ’s came to town. There is some produce and cheese that can be kind of dicey, so I am just really picky about what I buy in those depts. The money I save from TJ’s allow me to buy my produce and dairy products from our local coop that specializes in organic local food.
    And I avoid the whole paycheck at all costs, its beautiful sure, but you pay for it.

  29. Kate says:

    @Lucas, you’re so right about H Mart. Unbeatable on selection and price, and makes me generally annoyed at all other stores. But! I don’t have a car, and I live in Somerville, so it’s not often available. Also, props on TwinkleStar, it’s a great store!

    About Whole Foods, I haven’t found much price difference between organic at Shaw’s and organic at Whole Foods. If you’re just buying produce/dairy/canned, and not any of the prepared/packaged stuff, I’m not sure there’s much of a gap. And given the superior selection and quality of produce at Whole Foods, I can’t turn it down.

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