Congratulations. You’re the one in charge of food. Maybe your parents are sick or out of town. Maybe you’re in your first apartment or dorm alone. Maybe you’ve gone on vacation. Maybe it’s your item on the chore list with your family or roommates. The point is, the chips are down (or gone) and you’re staring at the kitchen with a growing feeling that there are live eels taking an ice bath in your stomach and every “rule” about “doing this right” fighting for superiority with MONEY and TIME and I DON’T KNOW HOW TO DO THIS. Your hand is on the phone, about to press speed dial and cry out “Help me, Pizza-Wan, you’re my only hope!”
This can be done. Even by you. I’m going to break it down.
These are the basics; the stuff that you should always have on hand. If you don’t have them or run out, just automatically add them to your shopping list for the week -
DRY GOODS: Lentils, rice, an assortment of pastas, flour, white sugar, brown sugar, salt, baking soda, baking powder, a basic set of herbs and spices (salt, pepper, and the kind of “16 herbs and spices starter set” carousel you find at WalMart), nuts, raisins or other dried fruit, saltine crackers, oats/oatmeal
WET GOODS: Peanut butter, apple cider vinegar, vegetable oil, olive oil, shortening, vanilla, honey
CANNED GOODS: Tomato sauce, tomato paste, canned veggies, tuna or canned fish, canned fruit, canned cooked beans, canned soup
PERISHABLES: Garlic, potatoes, onions, celery, carrots, bread, milk, eggs, butter or margarine, jam, soy sauce, ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, hot sauce if you like it, 1 or 2 salad dressings
See, not so bad. No, you don’t actually need sun-dried tomatoes, capers, and saffron in your basic pantry. Those are for cooks. If you’re reading this honestly because you need to learn, you’re not one yet.
Get a piece of paper. You’re putting together the week’s menu. Seem daunting? Not really. Let’s start with breakfast. A container of oatmeal or porridge costs almost nothing, is incredibly healthy, lasts forever, keeps you full, and tastes really good, especially with some fruit. If you want to mix it up a little, have toast or yogurt or eggs some days. Don’t go with cold cereal, pop tarts, donuts, etc; other than being not so great for you, they’re also expensive and don’t keep you full very long. Hey, look; the only things that aren’t on the pantry list are fruit, so write those down for your list.
Now let’s move to lunch. Sandwiches with a side salad are always easy; especially pb&j and especially if the salad comes in a bag. Lunch meat tends to be deceptively expensive, but you have tuna and mayo and mustard. Canned soup is another great lunch, and leftovers from the previous night’s dinner are the easiest and best lunch. So, nothing to write down for lunches except salad; potato or macaroni salad from the deli counter if you need something a little heartier.
For snacks, you don’t need - and your body doesn’t need - the “snack aisle”. Do yourself a favor and stick with fruit, single-serve yogurt, or a handful of nuts. So you only need to write something down if you want yogurt.
Dinner! Ah, the scary part. But not so much. Google is your FRIEND, and so are cookbooks at the library. Search “3 ingredient meals” or “4 ingredient meals” or “super easy dinners,” and then just see what looks tasty to you, putting priority on things that 1) have a lot of fruits and veggies, 2) don’t use a lot of super-processed foods or stuff you’ve known is unhealthy since you were six, 3) use mostly things from your pantry list, 4) doesn’t look like it’s a difficulty level for actually making that’s beyond your skills, and 5) don’t use things that are out of your price range like lobster. It can help to peruse these with the local grocery store adds in one hand…if you find a recipe that looks good for something that’s on sale, that’s a winner!
Write down seven of these, adding ingredients to your list as you go for things that aren’t pantry items. Now, the fun part: dessert. You could be super-healthy and go back to our old friend, fruit, but this isn’t a diet program, it’s a don’t eat crap and know how to shop like an adult thing. So add one carton of ice cream, package of cookies, or bag of mini candy bars. Just pay attention to the serving sizes. There’s nothing wrong with having a treat for dessert…it just gets kind of skeevy when you accidentally have eight treats…three times a day. Really, you should be paying attention to serving sizes in general. It can be super eye opening. It’s kind of amazing how much weight some of my friends have lost just by actually eating for one.
So now you have your list: pantry refills and specific needs for the week. Go to the store. Buy it. Come home. Put it away. Congratulations! You just did the grocery shopping!
You already know what you’re eating, and you may have noticed that nothing in breakfast, lunch, snacks, or dessert involve a degree in Culinary Arts. Seriously, the hardest thing there is the oatmeal, and that’s just add water and boil. Instructions for dinner came with it when you chose them; so that’s pretty demystified as well.
The only real “Protip” here crosses back to planning. If you’re super busy all week, pick things that can freeze, like casseroles, soups, spaghetti, or anything else you’d see in a TV dinner: and make your own tv dinners. Take just one day of the week, make your list, shop, then come home and cook like a crazy person for like three hours, wrap up your meals with plastic wrap on disposable paper plates or in tupperware, and for the rest of the week, you, your roommates, your family, or whoever can just open the freezer and grab the plate that has WEDNESDAY sharpied on it, nuke it, and go.
WAY cheaper, WAY healthier, WAY better all around than living on ramen and take out, I promise…and see? Surprisingly easy.
I told you not to panic.