Buying groceries is an art form, actually let me rephrase that, supplying one's pantry both fully and economically is more art than science. Depending on the diversity of your personal pantry, it can be daunting to keep fresh supplies without breaking the bank. A good grocery expedition is great fun for me, and a newly found store is full of potential culinary discoveries so I feel like a mighty huntress in the urban jungle.
Those giant, soulless supermarkets hold very little appeal anymore with their mood lighting and disappointing prepared foods. They all have the same stuff at about the same price in about the same place as the next super market down the road. And they all have extra crowded parking lots full of people who think that common courtesy has no place in parking lots.
I go in them when I have to, but there are far better places to spend my dollars and I'm going to share some of my strategies with you. I know it seems counter intuitive, but when it comes to groceries, shop small and shop local. Very local, there are probably several great places to buy food within two miles of your home that you haven't even considered.
Such as Big Lots, they are everywhere and have a respectable selection of gourmet and international foods at great prices. From juice to pasta to pet treats, it is worth a few minutes to browse the selection and see what's in stock. Another place I go occasionally is Smart & Final or its cousin Cash & Carry, they are both targeted towards professional food service but open to the public. They are great for disposable goods like paper plates and such, but have a full selection of grocery items.
One of my favorite resources are small ethnic markets, please don't ever buy one of those tiny bottles of overpriced seasoned rice vinegar at the super conglomerate. Go to the local Asian market and get a gallon of it for a third of the price. There's a little place in Sacramento on Broadway with a tiny parking lot that's hard to get into, but it's a hotbed of activity. I can find everything from fresh seafood and ginger to amazing varieties of soy sauce packed into that tiny place at very thrifty prices, so it's worth the trouble to go and stock up once in a while.
Here in West Sacramento, we have a big eastern European community and those Russian markets are a good time. Many of them feature breads, pastries and hot foods prepared on site along regional specialties that are begging to be tried. When I visit my dad out in South Sacramento, I stop in Little Saigon at one of the mom and pop places to get the best damned fresh baked bread in town and browse the endless array of packaged prepared Vietnamese foods. Those pickled mangoes are really good.
Let's not ignore the Mexican grocery stores, the go to place for fresh limes, avocados and coconuts. The best buy is the bulk spices though, don't pay for that useless bottle, buy the bagged spices and save serious money. My local Mexican grocery store is pretty good size and has a whole aisle devoted to herbs, spices and other great finds, generally I can get at least three bags for the same price as one bottle of the big market brands. Of course, I don't go to all of these places every week. It depends on what I need at any one time, but the trick is to stock up on the essentials when the stocking is good.
For the holidays, you might even consider making up gift bags of international foods from ethnic market finds that would impress even the most discerning foodies in your life. Grocery Outlet always has big and affordable selections of high quality cheeses and wines for parties and even premium whole bean coffees perfect for gifting with a festive mug.
We live in the land of plenty, and we should give thanks daily for that, so it's hard not to get overwhelmed with all the choices. Taking control of your personal supply line requires a little practice, but it's worth the time because of the money saved. If you cook like I do, frequently completely on a whim, then it pays to have a pantry that's ready when you are.