How to Uncomplicate Your Grocery Shopping

Claire Tansey is an accomplished chef, but she's also a busy working mom. In Uncomplicated: Taking the Stress Out of Home Cooking, Claire has figured out a better way of cooking that doesn't take more time than it needs to.

Kara Rota
4-minute read
Episode #217

The hardest part of cooking is shopping. It is the most underrated, unrecognized cooking skill, and I wish there were as many helpful videos on Facebook about shopping as there are about making dinner.

I know making a weekly meal plan and accompanying grocery list would be helpful, of course, but I’ve never been able to do it. Instead, I keep the pantry well stocked and just pop out every few days for fresh ingredients. But I know not everyone lives around the corner from a grocery store, so I recommend creating, and memorizing (or keeping on your phone), a list of ingredients you always need to have on hand and simply supplementing with once-a-week necessities.

Here are my everyday kitchen staples, which are the backbone of all the recipes in my book. From these you can whip up any number of meals. Tweak the list to adapt to your household’s specific likes and wants.

Essentials: Buy these once a week. Two fresh vegetables (such as broccoli and bok choy); carrots; apples; garlic; lemons or limes; parsley, cilantro or thyme; bread; milk; cream; yogurt; Cheddar cheese; feta cheese; eggs; butter

Basics: These last longer than a week. Once you run out, restock immediately.

The Pantry

  • Onions; ginger
  • Flour (all-purpose, and whole wheat if you use it often); baking soda and baking powder; granulated sugar; brown sugar; vanilla; chocolate chips
  • Salt; whole peppercorns; cayenne; chili powder; cinnamon; ground coriander; ground cumin; curry powder; garlic powder; ground ginger; onion powder; dried thyme
  • Canola oil; extra-virgin olive oil; soy sauce; red wine vinegar; coconut milk
  • Pasta; basmati rice
  • Canned black beans or chickpeas; dried lentils or split peas
  • Canned plum tomatoes; tomato paste; tuna

The Fridge

  • Parmesan cheese; mayonnaise; Dijon mustard; maple syrup; Thai and Indian curry pastes; miso paste; sesame oil; dry (white) vermouth

The Freezer

  • Frozen peas, corn or edamame; tortillas; berries

Find a good butcher, and buy good meat. Almost everything that makes meat delicious happens before you even walk into the store. Meat that is raised, butchered, aged and packaged with care and attention simply tastes better, and that’s why I recommend taking some time to find it.

It’s worth it to find a source for meat where you can speak with a butcher in person, and whose offerings are not all pre-packaged. Not only will the butcher usually be able to tell you all kinds of helpful information about the meat, but they will also be able to spatchcock a chicken or cut a two-inch rib-eye for you.

Some supermarkets still have a butcher on staff and a good meat counter. It’s worth starting there. Buy and cook something like a steak or whole chicken and decide how you enjoyed the experience and flavours.

You can also start by asking cooks or food lovers you trust to recommend their favourite places, or by doing an internet search for the best independent butchers in your area. (If you come up with nothing, or if you live in a rural area, research small producers that do a direct delivery of frozen meat.)

Visit the recommended shops and take a good look around. Good butcher shops have some meat on display with much more available in the back, as well as a few things pre-packaged in the display case, and a full freezer of goodies. Strike up a conversation with a staff person. They should be able to tell you the specific farms from which the shop sources its meat.

The final test is in the eating. Buy some bacon, a chicken, a pork roast or steak and serve it fairly plainly. If its flavour doesn’t knock your socks off, you might want to try the next shop on your list.

Shopping at an independent butcher isn’t usually cheaper than the supermarket, but I find that we eat less steak and pork because we savour each bite much more, and we tend to use up every scrap of our chickens because they taste so much better.

As a side note, organic meat isn’t necessarily better. Many great butchers sell exceptional products from smaller farms who can’t afford to or choose not to get an organic certification. For me, it’s all about the flavour.

Finally, I try not to buy anything pre-packaged, except ground meat, because the meat’s surface gets too soggy, making it difficult to brown nicely.

Source good fish and seafood. Most of the butcher advice applies to fish stores, too, although some of the best fish counters I’ve seen are in supermarkets with a discerning clientele and high turnover.

A great fish shop or counter should not smell like fish. The fish on display should look firm, clear and clean. Staff should be able to fillet or skin any fish for you.

It’s also worth remembering that frozen and canned fish are often fresher than what’s on display in the fish counter, since frozen and canned products are packed and processed at sea or right at the shore.

Regardless of where you shop, try not to buy pre-marinated fish or meat. I guarantee you it’s not the shop’s freshest product, and you can add better flavour with a simple squeeze of lemon and some salt.

Excerpted from Uncomplicated: Taking the stress out of home cooking by Claire Tansey. Copyright © 2018 by Claire Tansey. Published by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Kara Rota

Kara Rota headed children’s programming at Chicago’s Green City Market and studied food politics at Sarah Lawrence College. Kara has been a featured speaker at numerous venues including Food Book Fair, the Roger Smith Food Conference, and the Brooklyn Food Conference. She has written about food for Irish America Magazine, West Side Rag, Recipe Relay, and Food + Tech Connect, and is the former Director of Editorial & Partnerships at Cookstr.com.