Earlier this week, I got a question from a summer intern reader that really “spoke” to me:
I just moved to (name a city) for an internship. My summer sublet is an apartment downtown. I don’t have a car. My apartment is either walking or bus distance to pretty much anything. The nearest big grocery store is 15 blocks away. I’m trying to figure out how to efficiently buy food so that I get everything I need but don’t break my back carrying a ton of food for numerous blocks. Do you have any suggestions for me? – Summer Intern
Dear Summer Intern,
First of all, congrats on landing a job and an apartment. Don’t feel overwhelmed by the emptiness of the shelves and refrigerator in your temporary home.
You can make great food with simple ingredients. The key is planning and an organized approach.
Here are three hints to get you started.
- Stock your shelves and refrigerator sensibly
- Find a farmers’ market
- Ue your freezer
Stock your shelves and refrigerator sensibly
It’s a bit of challenge if your living situation won’t be long term because you don’t want to have lots of food left over after the internship ends. Still, you can buy small quantities of staple foods such as rice and spices.
One decent sized shop may be all that you need for the summer. If it’s too much to carry by walking home or taking the bus, maybe a co-worker or friend with a car will help – hint: in return for a meal – or perhaps you could take a cab or Zipcar. Be realistic about how often you will eat at home, but also consider whether you need staples like peanut butter and dried fruit for making lunch and snacks to take to work.
Hint – Eating breakfast at home and taking lunch at least a few days a week will save you a lot of money, perhaps enabling you to have nicer meals when you do eat out.
Before you shop, make a list of what you like to eat and the recipes/dishes you can make or learn easily. Then build a shopping list from there, so you buy only food that you will eat in the near future.
Find a farmer’s market and fill a backpack with veggies and fruit on the weekend.
You can use the U.S. Dept of Agriculture database in my recent post on farmers’ markets to find one or more near you. Because you never know what you will find at a farmers’ market in any given day, decide what to make with your haul after you see what is available at a reasonable price. As a general rule, fresh fruits and vegetables need minimal “dressing up” to taste wonderful. If you come upon fresh herbs at the market, consider buying one or two types that appeal and experiment – or ask me a question about what to do with them.
You may be surprised how long fruit and vegetables will keep if properly stored. I have lettuce in my refrigerator right now, that I bought five days ago at the farmers’ market and it is still in great shape.
At a farmers’ market, you can ask a vendor to point you toward items that need a few days to ripen. Also, ask about the best place in your kitchen and the best way to store (and ripen if need be) the items you are buying. Patronizing a farmers’ market gives you the chance to ask lots of questions. There is no fee for asking and a smart vendor will use your inquiries as a way to interest you in coming back to her or his particular farm stand, so don’t be afraid to ask even the most elementary questions.
Use your freezer
If you eat meat, buy chopped meat and boneless chicken breasts because they are easy to divide into single servings. Make the chopped meat into patties and separate the chicken breasts. Put each patty/chicken breast into a zip lock sandwich bag and put those bags into a freezer bag labeled with the date the meat was purchased. Here’s an easy recipe for chicken breasts that you can use to bread the cutlets and freeze them ready to be cooked and eaten in less than half an hour any day you want one.
You can also make dishes in larger quantities than you would eat for a day or two, and freeze the rest in individual containers for meals in a week or two. Chili (with meat or vegetarian) and other recipes with sauce freeze well.
Coming up – Essential items for a pantry/first shop
Your question got me thinking about what items are essential for a pantry/first shop. I’ll start a series on how to stock your pantry and refrigerator soon. Here are the categories for the first shop:
- non-refrigerated foods that can be kept on a shelf in a clean dry pantry or cupboard;
- herbs, spices, condiments, sauces and similar seasonings;
- refrigerated foods; and
- non-food items like storage containers and wraps.
If you have ideas or have recently set up a kitchen in your own apartment/house, I’d love to hear from you – or just chime in as a comment below – on what should be on the list for stocking a kitchen in a new place.