Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Indecisive Grocery Shopper

I always wonder whether the clerks at the checkout stand are judging my grocery selections and perhaps secretly wondering what my criteria are when buying groceries.

The truth is, I have no real criteria.

Okay, that's not true. Given the choice, I will almost always choose organic. Unless I decide to choose local. Or fair-trade. Or plastic-less. Or high fiber. Or delicious. Or low-fat. Or less expensive.

I think most people would agree, the grocery store is a daunting place for us eco-types. I can spend ten minutes easily staring at the cheeses trying to decide if I should go for the local California cheese that's non-organic but is low fat, or the decidedly non-local European cheese that is also organic but also expensive.

In a perfect world, I'd buy all organic, local, groceries and I'd only shop the perimeter of the grocery store or I wouldn't even be at a grocery store because I'd only shop at food co-ops and farmers' markets.

Sadly, the reality is that I spend a lot of time in Whole Paycheck instead. Which isn't the worst place to shop for groceries, but also isn't the best place, either.

So, I'm curious. Does everyone else decide on the fly what to buy organic versus local versus plastic-free versus choose your own adventure? Or do some of you have actual systems and priorities?


hgg said...

My priority is local > organic > fair trade > plastic free >>>>>>> low-fat*.

I've started buying organic fruit & veg online and get home delivery. More expensive, but the quality is so much better than what we get in the average grocery store. Saves me heaps of time too since nearest shop is not exacty in the neighbourhood.

*dependes on product. Low-fat milk is great, yoghurt with fat content below 3 % usually has a weird texture

mary said...

I'm on the fly, much like you, and I'm glad to know I'm not the only one agonizing over these things in the grocery aisle. It's always an adventure. I have a list to work from, but others things seem to spontaneouly appear from time to time. And my priorities seem to vary week to week between no-plastic, organic, fair trade, local, necessity and price. Also, I live in a small southern town, so that also limits choices a bit.

Katy said...

I'm just like you and it drives my daughter crazy. She is probably the only kid in the grocery store telling her mom to "Just pick one already!"

There are some staples like milk and eggs that I will go out of my way to get local and organic. I will be honest though, low cost usually tumps all in a lot of desperate situations. I'll buy local organic, but if there is more than a two dollar price differance, I'm going with the cheap stuff. If I didn't put cost first I wouldn't be eating very much.

Color Me Green said...

i do my grocery shopping at the farmers market and at a food coop that primarily offers local and organic food, so i dont spend as much time pondering as i used to because the options available are all pretty good, although i will say i was dismayed to discover that this "eco-friendly" coop also sells things like regular canned tuna and processed foods galore.

Prairiemom said...

For me it changes week to week or pay day to pay day.
I always do organic milk and paper products, eggs and cereals. I try to do organic canned and frozen foods when I can.
I am in the mid west, so shopping local is pretty much impossible esp. in the winter time, and I do try to eat seasonally if I can.
I also try not to buy pre-packaged if at all possible. That means I bake my own bread, make my own granola, baking is all done from scratch. No boxed mac and cheese for my family! I try to keep as much HFCS and artificial stuff out of my kitchen.
It really is hard, and I'm not perfect about it, but I think that having an awareness and making an effort go a long way.

Anonymous said...

Grow my own (veg, eggs, meat), buy from someone I know, organic, local, do without.

No unknown/unpronounceable ingredients, no more than 5 ingredients (an arbitrary number, used as a guideline only).

None of this is totally strict. Occasional citrus or avocado

Farmer's Daughter said...

I wrote a post about this a while back... I wrote about apples because they're my area of expertise, but it applies to all my groceries. Here's an excerpt:

"So which is best? Well, that depends on your beliefs, preferences, needs, and location. For me, local always wins. If I had the choice between an apple grown on my own family’s farm and an apple that is certified organic from New Zealand, I would choose my own. Obviously… but let’s just realize that the CT apple is fresher and therefore tastes better... Sometimes I can’t choose local, like with bananas. Which ones do I buy? The good ones, of course.

"But what about organic? Well, I will buy organic out of season. Usually. So if I had to choose between two apples, one organic from Washington and one not organic from Washington, would I choose the organic? Maybe. I look at quality and I look at price. I look for what kind of apple it is, how crisp and fresh it looks, and how much it costs. If one looks significantly better, I’ll pay more for it. However, I’m not likely to buy a Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, or Granny Smith, organic or not. Why? Because I find all of them bland and boring, bred for shipping and keeping, not crisp juciness that doesn’t last long like my forever favorite, the local Macoun. Will I buy a Macoun at the grocery store? ABSOLUTELY NOT! They’re mealy and gross because they don’t keep well. I only eat Macouns when they’re freshly picked from my family’s farm...

"I could ramble on and on about many fruits and vegetables. But I think the point is to know your food, shop for quality, and develop a set of your own beliefs that you abide by. Does that mean I won’t ever eat a Red Delicious in March? No, I will. But not without wishing it was a Macoun in September."

Sorry it's so long...

Farmer's Daughter said...

PS I'm a total produce snob, thanks to being raised on the farm and knowing what the very best produce looks, tastes and smells like. So I buy the "good stuff."

Sam said...

My criteria is local first, if no w/o plastic option I'll pick a plastic-free option. Except for the rare onion I don't think I've bought conventional in a very long time.

However, I have been fed conventional very often.

I don't believe in the low-fat nonsense. I like my fat in full doses. I burn enough of it that I don't worry about calories and stuff.

Also, since I share a CSA I generally don't worry about the produce shopping since I get it every week w/o fail.

The last three weeks have been a bit busy so yes, Whole Paycheck got some of my paycheck. But mostly we just ate out at a sustainable restaurant (way more pricey I know).

Marino said...

totally know what u mean, I hate grocery shopping for that reason!

Ideally I'd prefer to get everything at the sunday market which is outdoors and plenty of fresh air. :D

Mia @ agoodhuman said...

I'm the same. We usually just buy staples, fruits, vege and diary, but if we buy processed, the first priority is to recognize all the ingredients, and preferably limit them to about five. We grown our own, then choose local, then organic/less plastic. Cheap price and low fat content are the last things, because they often fail the 'no unrecognizable ingredients' criteria.

Rosa said...

Okay, I'm super cheap and trying to be ethical, and shopping with a four year old.

Most stuff we only buy at certain stores. Our coop has fair-trade bananas, coffee, tea, and brown sugar. It also has a lot of local, organic, bulk things. So those things we only buy there.

Stuff i can't get organic and/or local or fair trade, or where there is a lot of packaging, I buy at Aldi if they have it. Canned salmon, cereal, cheese doodles, white sugar, salt, mayonnaise, hot dogs - most of our junk food comes from the every-other-month Aldi run.

Stuff that I can't get at the coop or Aldi I go to the appropriate store for. We are lucky to have a ton of little ethnic grocery stores within a mile or two of the house for all my mango puree and barbecued eel needs.

I guess my criteria is, if there isn't a really good option (organic from Chile in a plastic bag doesn't really count, and neither does locally handmade junk food) then I go by price, unless the cheap option tastes bad.

My big downfall is cheese - we buy cheap cheese. We just eat too much of it to buy the local grassfed stuff - about 2 pounds a week. We eat about 2 pounds of meat, too, but there local pastured is $7/pound, not $16. For fruits & veggies we eat a lot of home-canned and dried, supplemented with just a little fresh imported in winter.

In the summer we shop every week because we have to pick up the CSA anyway; right now I'm only shopping every 10 days or so because I won't go unless we're out of milk.

I'm eternally grateful to the people who put in all the work to set up our local coops, and the people in the coops who go out and find suppliers, so I have good choices to make.

When I was a SAHM I shopped much more on price - but in a lot of cases the bulk organic at the coop was cheaper than the bagged nonorganic at the regular grocery.

Silver Pen said...

I used to try and buy organic and local and other stuff so I was being helpful to the environment but then I realized that the best way to buy was by flavor. I'm kind of like Farmers daughter in that I try to buy what is best. Flavor seems to be the best indicator of if food is healthy or good for the environment. Turns out the flavor is where the vitamins are and when food doesn't have flavor its usually bad for you or the environment. If it tastes funny, like regular conventionally grown carrots and potatoes, I don't buy it. I buy the local or organic ones that taste right. Funnily enough a couple of months ago I read that root vegetables pick up heavy metals and other toxins from the soil and to buy organic when possible to prevent toxicity.

Same with dairy products organic tastes better. Local is not available so I buy what tastes better. Eggs I have a local farm or two that I can buy from that taste a thousand times better an grocery store eggs. But I have to buy grocery store eggs in the winter, I pick the brown Egglands Best because they taste better than the cheep ones. If I have enough money and if it tastes good I buy it. I often do without certain stuff because I don't have enough money but I find that its easier than standing in front of the shelves and trying to decide by local vs organic rules. Which I used to do. It sucked.

Discount Groceries said...

I buy my grocery online and I really do my research on what kind of products it is.

Lisa said...

We shop at local natural food stores (well sort of local, we shop once a month an hour away). Our first priority is organic, while it's the the most sustainable priority it is for my health. I have fibromyalgia and IBS and if I go off my organic diet I feel terrible.

I guess our list would go organic > local > fair trade > plastic free > waste free

We don't do low fat or any of that. We eat real food, that's very important to me. :) I think often whole fat is better, low fat normally means added crap.

Robj98168 said...

Let's see My Shopping Hierarchy:
Local>organic>Fair Trade>Plastic Free
As far as milk and eggs I get them delivered by Smith Brothers Dairy in Kent, WA. Local dairy. The eggs they deliver, organic, come from just down the road in Yelm, WA. I also get my coffee from them!

Lee said...


I guess we're a bit weird, but this is how it works.

Real food only. If I can't pronounce an ingredient, I won't eat it.

No fake crap. No fake sugars, fake flavours, fake colours, stabilisers or any of that weird stuff that stops bodies from decomposing in the ground for, like, ever.

We're vegos, so no meat either. But we eat eggs and miniscule amounts of dairy - maybe a block of cheese a month. We adults don't drink cows' milk at all, or use it in any way (revolting stuff).

I don't give a rats rear end about fat content, or sugar content, or any of that mumbo-jumbo that nutritionists tell us to worry about.

I think most nutritionists don't have a clue what they're on about, and you can't deal with the health of the human body with a reductionist scientific method (which is what modern nutritional science is). It just doesn't work.

We don't eat many packaged foods at all. The main thing that goes in our rubbish bin, food-wise, is the milk containers from the kids. Not much else. And egg containers.

We mostly eat seasonal, local food too, because it is cheaper, and eat whole foods - whole grains, fresh veggies unpeeled etc.

Our weakness? Chocolate! :-) Not local or healthy, but keeps us sane. We prefer fair trade, but if any sort of good dark stuff is on special, we'll buy it.

Does that make sense? I think it does.

We're moving into our own mini-farm in a few weeks (3 acres), and estimate that we'll easily be able to produce about 70-80% of our own food, without needing to make our own bread, or anything as bothersome as that. I'll be interested to see how we go.

Robbie @ Going Green Mama said...

At this stage in our lives, our criteria is local first when we can, and organic when we can. It's based on our ability to get decent produce at the farmers market, and it's based a lot on our budget too. We make choices. So my kids eat the organic baby yogurt when it's clearanced (because they'll fly through it in about 2 days) and we hold off on $7 organic milk.

The 4 Bushel Farmgal said...

*I shop the perimeter of the store, since this eliminates a lot of packaging and processed foods. *Bulk bins at whole paycheck for quinoa, brown rice, nuts, etc
*Organic milk and eggs.
*In warmer weather I buy all veggies at the famers market, and wish I could do that year-round!

Jen R said...

I'm biased towards package-free. I absolutely will not buy food in a plastic clamshell. I will make an exception for organic stickers.

I am dedicated to buying organic milk, and free range eggs. For fruit and veg, I try to think local, then organic, but sometimes price trumps all.

Although, when I'm at the farmers market, price goes out the window - there's just something about buying direct from the farmer that makes you realize it's worth it.

I don't buy factory made granola bars or cookies, etc, but I am completely guilty of buying conventional canned goods (which I shouldn't be buying at all because of the BPA liners).

Thanks for the post - I think it's good for all of us to reevaluate our grocery shopping habits.