Now that Chickadee is fully vaccinated, and the Christmas rush is over, she’s back to being my grocery shopping buddy!
Grocery Shopping During a Pandemic
I keep recommendations about keeping a journal during the COVID-19 pandemic. I haven’t done that, although the topic does come up in many of the things about which I write, but today I thought I would look at one of the biggest impacts this event has had on my life: grocery shopping, something that I have to do tomorrow.
I have always enjoyed grocery shopping. As shopping services have become more and more popular, I have continued to go the store myself. I actually like taking my time to select produce and cuts of meat, and I like doing a bit of impulse shopping here and there, picking up a new item or something that looks interesting or that I think my family will really enjoy. In the past, I would go to the store once a week and buy most the items we’d need, but I always left the door open to the possibility of running out to the store to pick up something I forgot, or even buy the ingredients for a whole new meal I decided I wanted to make.
But now, everything has changed. Because we are trying to limit our exposure to the outside world, I now go grocery shopping once every two weeks. Do you have any idea how challenging it is to shop for enough food to last a family of seven two full weeks? Writing a list that long is exhausting in itself, and I usually start on it a full week in advance, in an attempt to not forget anything, but the actual grocery shopping process is something else altogether. It involves two carts, (and blisters on my hand when I’m through from pulling them both…I wonder what the total weight of two overflowing carts is?!?), which is a neat trick when you’re shopping alone (although a helpful Walmart employee who is my new hero showed me how to hook two carts together like a little train last month, and that is a lifesaving technique!). And those two carts are always completely full by the time I hit the checkout.
It takes about two hours to complete a shopping trip that large, and that’s with me being in line outside the store when they open. I usually buy six gallons of milk, and about 25-30 pounds of various meats. I’m sure that other shoppers think I’m a hoarder (and I have actually seen people laugh at my antics!), but there are SEVEN of us at home, four of whom are teenagers. This is simply the food we need to last two weeks! I haven’t run into purchase limits on food yet, but I fear that’s coming…three packages of meat or two gallons of milk certainly won’t last our family very long!
I’ve started buying a lot of extra produce, partly because I’m afraid that eventually, the supply line for fruits and vegetables will break, and I want to make sure we’re eating them while we can, and partly because I want to make sure we get all the extra vitamins we can right now. And I spend extra time in each aisle, making sure I can’t think of anything I forgot to add to my list while I peruse the shelves. I imagine this is also annoying to people, but I’m beyond caring.
Once I get home, it takes me at least another hour to put everything away. If you think fitting enough food for all of us into the carts is an impossible task, imagine trying to find room for it all at home!. I have perfected my refrigerator and freezer Tetris game, (although I’m still working on my pantry Jenga game!), but something is still likely to leap out and attack whoever has the nerve to open the doors. And while I’m thankful that our pantry is well-stocked, it is a complete disaster, because it’s just not big enough for everything I try to cram in it!
Sometimes I dream about the day I can go to the store and buy only what I need for one week. Without having to wear a mask and deal with my glasses fogging up. Or just run to the store to pick up that missing spice, or the ingredients to bake something. Or even to bring a helper with me to push one of the carts, because even with the train technique, pulling two fully loaded carts is hard on the shoulder by the end of the shopping trip! But I also wonder if I’ll ever really feel comfortable shopping again, if I’ll ever really enjoy the process of grocery shopping like I used to. I know there will be a new normal, but I’m having a hard time imagining what that will look like at the grocery store!
A Month Without Walmart
At the end of 2013, Ryan and I decided that we were going to make a commitment to stop shopping at Walmart, and start shopping at a local grocery store, instead, and see what happened. The reasons were varied, but they boiled to one point…you just don’t feel good about yourself when you’re at Walmart.
So, we’ve been a whole month without setting foot in that giant store (New Year’s Eve morning was the last time I was there). And, for the most part, it’s been very liberating. I like shopping at Schnucks…the employees are friendlier, the store is calmer, and, for the most part, the quality of the items is better.
I say for the most part because I’ve run into one problem at Schnucks…buying meat. From beef to chicken to pork, the meat is quite a bit more expensive, which I figured it would be. But, we’ve also found that surprisingly, the quality is less, and I can’t even get all of the cuts of meat I was used to purchasing (frequently) at Walmart.
The meat department is the only one that I can say that about. The produce department has better quality fruits and vegetables, and, for the most part, the prices are comparable. Same goes for dairy and frozen, and even when the prices are higher, I don’t mind it, because I feel that I’m getting better quality food.
But the meat department leaves something to be desired. So what do we do?
I think we’ve decided that once a month, I’ll go to Walmart and buy all of the meat we need for the month. The beef brisket I make every year on the Fourth of July is only available at Walmart, anyway, so I already knew I’d have to go there and buy meat at some point…it wasn’t ever going to be a complete divorce from the store (I also knew that I will continue buying the girls’ tights there, because they honestly have the best quality, most durable tights I’ve ever found). This is going to further change how we budget and shop, because I’m going to need to figure out what we need ahead of time, or base our meals on whatever it is that I’ve already bought. I think it’s a good compromise though…I’ll still be shopping at Walmart very rarely, and still patronizing Schnucks as much as possible, but I’ll also be able to get the things we need.
I don’t mind paying more for better quality and better service. Even though we had to rework the grocery budget a bit, and change what kind of things we buy, I was happy to do that to receive those things from Schnucks in return…and have the knowledge that I was supporting a local business. But I can’t see paying more money for something of a lesser quality. So, Walmart hasn’t completely released us from its grasp. But, if I ever find a store with higher quality meat (that is in the realm of affordability), you can believe that I’ll be shopping there instead!
The Thanksgiving Haul
We did our annual pre-Thanksgiving grocery shopping today. This is always An Event. The children really look forward to us all going together, which probably sounds crazy, but it’s one of our family traditions, so I love it. We’ve learned to go to the store early on Saturday morning, before the mad rush, and it works for us.
This is what groceries for Thanksgiving, plus a regular grocery trip, and extra baking supplies, looks like for a family of seven (or at least for our family of seven):
Yes, we go two turkeys, that total about 45 pounds together. One for Thanksgiving, and one for…later. We’ve had turkey for Christmas, Epiphany (Ryan’s birthday), and just because in the past. I don’t know yet when we’ll make the second one, but I know that I’ll be happy that I bought it on sale whenever that day is!
The shopping trip required two fairly full carts, and a lot of Tetris-like arranging once we got home and realized that everything needed to be put away somewhere. We did manage to get everything in fridge, freezer, pantry, or cabinet, but I’m not sure what’s going to happen when the actual cooking begins, and even more stuff needs to go in the already full refrigerator! It’s a good problem to have though…I am very thankful that we don’t have to worry where our next meal is coming from!
Chickadee was my shopping buddy again today:
She makes going to Walmart infinitely more fun, because she’s just so goofy!
It’s amazing the difference just a few weeks can make. We went from short sleeves, to long-sleeves, and even fleece, practically overnight! (Yes, Chickadee wore feetie jammies to the store…nothing better than a cozy baby!)
The Bread Aisle
While doing the week’s grocery shopping, I started pondering the placement of aisles in the grocery store, and how accessible things in those aisles are.
What’s the one thing that almost everyone who frequents a grocery store needs to purchase on a regular basis?
Bread, in one form or another.
Whether sandwich bread, hamburger or hot dog buns, speciality bread, bagels, English muffins, or even, gasp!, Hostess snack cakes, most people need or want something from this aisle, even more so than the actual bakery. And the choices! Do you want 7-grain, 9-grain, or 12-grain bread? White wheat, honey wheat, or whole wheat? Hearty rye, soft rye, or pumpernickel? Kaiser rolls, sesame rolls, or just plain old buns? Egg, New York, or everything bagels? And the list goes on…
Obviously, the bread aisle is a very busy place. People surveying their choices, searching for their favorite product, debating over whether they should put that box of Twinkies in their cart, and then guiltily doing so.
So why is it, then, that Wal Mart, a store that’s busy on a slow day, and completely frantic on a busy one, has chosen to make the bread aisle the narrowest aisle in the store? Pillars block a good deal of the aisle, making an already small aisle smaller. It’s nearly impossible for two carts to pass each other in many places, so you can imagine the back-up that ensues, and yet, it’s not like most people can just turn around and skip that aisle–no one in their right mind would even venture into that mess if they didn’t need something, and let’s face it, everyone needs bread!
I don’t understand why, in this carb-centered culture, (have you looked at the base of the Food Pyramid lately?!? It’s all carbs!), grocery stores haven’t caught on that this is an area of the store that needs to be accessible. Perhaps they should make the candy aisle difficult to navigate, instead…as much as people love sweets, I never see the masses shopping there like I do in bread!
The Rising Cost of…Cows?
If anything is going to send us to the poorhouse, it’s going to be the increase in the cost of dairy products.
Even just a year ago, it was not unheard of for me to pay $1.99 for a gallon of milk. Sure, that didn’t happen every week, but if I was flexible in what kind of milk I was willing to get (usually either skim or 1%, we don’t really like anything richer), I could get it at that price for two weeks or so out of the month. But milk prices have been climbing steadily. When it was regularly $2.39, I started to get a little worried. And then it was $2.59, and $2.89, and I wondered how much higher it could go. Before I knew it, a gallon of milk had gone up to $3.09 (at Wal-Mart, no less!), and I thought for sure that it wouldn’t go any higher than that.
I was wrong.
For the last two weeks, I’ve paid $3.29, and I’m left with a kind of morbid curiosity as to just how expensive it will get before this is all over. Maybe that doesn’t sound so costly, but our family goes through 3 gallons of milk a week without blinking. We’d really rather have 4 gallons, to be honest. And if I’m cooking or baking something that requires a lot of milk, we can use up 5 full gallons without any problem.
And now I’m noticing the rest of dairy is going up, as well. Not surprising, but annoying. Cheese and yogurt have both gone up in the last week. And I buy one big brick of cheese for lunches, plus sliced cheese, plus around 24 cups of yogurt (and often more than that!) every week. Add in butter and shredded cheese, and a good quarter of my grocery budget is shot before I even get out of the dairy department, and that’s with buying only store brands (unless, of course, I happen to have a coupon that makes the name brand cheaper!).
I always considered dairy cows to be something of a renewable resource, so I’m a little baffled by this. If beef prices had gone up (and maybe they have–I spend so much less money on meat than I do on milk that I don’t really track the cost), I would understand that since the cows do have to be slaughtered. But dairy cows keep producing milk, so I just kind of assumed milk prices would stay rather steady. I guess maybe their feed is getting more expensive? Or the cost of transport? Either way, I’m looking at a roughly 60% increase in cost in the last year, which is a huge jump, and I don’t particularly care for it.
I never thought I’d see the day when I’m more concerned about the cost of a gallon of milk than I am a gallon of gas!