How to Go Grocery Shopping

By Daniel Lucas

A practical guide for sourcing ingredients in the Portland, Oregon metro area

Going grocery shopping is more than just gathering ingredients, it’s an opportunity to engage with the community and educate yourself. Most of the work to make a good meal happens before you even step foot into the kitchen and there are a lot of considerations one needs to take if they want to shop, and cook, effectively. From my perspective, designing a good meal is a complex equation of environmentalism, community, economics, health, and of course, delicious food.

Who am I cooking for? What’s available in the community? What’s available in our bio-region? What am I hungry for? Which local vendors do I want to support? What do I currently have on hand? What can I afford?

These are the questions that I find myself asking when I sit down to plan a menu. With so many considerations, it’s nearly impossible to develop a perfect system and stick to it on a regular basis. For instance, it’s extremely difficult to eat a plant-based diet and stick to a religious seasonal regime (unless you don’t mind eating a lot of cabbage, potatoes, and leeks). Sometimes in Mid-February you can’t help but pick up some celery or parsley that’s grown in California. Or, as much as I’d love to buy everything at the farmers market, it’s just not economically viable. Nor is it exactly convenient, given that the various markets are only open for limited windows of time throughout the week. And, in the winter, the even the market at PSU is relatively scaled down. In other cases, some food products aren’t suited for production in our local community and there are no other options other than to import them from elsewhere, and I am not yet ready to commit to a world without olive oil.

With all of these complexities, it’s not possible to satisfy all of these values perfectly, and so I operate by what I call the 80/20 rule. 80% of the ingredients in my kitchen should be sourced with good intention—either by sourcing it locally or by sourcing it from a vendor in the community to support the local market economy. Then, the other 20% can be sourced elsewhere. This balance and bridges the gap between my personal values and our imperfect world.

The Zero-Waste Kitchen

I have a quality over quantity approach when it comes to my sourcing. When I buy high-quality products, I treat them with respect: I store them properly and use them in a timely manner to make sure nothing goes to waste. If you shop at Costco and buy a bunch of stuff, then 30% of it goes to waste, you’re not necessarily doing yourself any favors financially, plus you’re wasting food!

Other ways to eliminate waste are to make scrap broths, compost, and recycle properly—all topics of conversation in their own right.

My minimal pantry reflects my personal culinary style and tastes. And I stick to it, pretty religiously. I’d rather be able to make 100 diverse meals using a set of 20 ingredients than be able to make 20-overly complicated meals from a set of 100 ingredients. As such, all of my recipes draw from the pantry I have designed below—so if you buy something for one of my recipes, you can almost be certain to use it again in another. On occasion, I’ll experiment with new foods, but I can’t afford to waste things in my approach, so new experiments are planned carefully and deliberately.

The Market Economy

There is another stage for the conversation related to values, budgeting, health, and the economics of my approach, but I believe there is a place for everyone in the local food system. If you’re concerned about money, go to the farmers market and bring cash—however much you can afford, let’s say $20—then go buy some good produce. If you bring what you can afford in cash, you’ll never go over budget. Then, from there, buy what is comfortable for you. Now, If you can afford more, use your purchasing power as a way to support the amazing community of people that supply us with the food we eat. I highly encourage you to explore my recommendations below and try out the products I’ve suggested. In my mind, this community is doing some of the most important work of our modern time and I’ll gladly support their cause.

What to Avoid

I don’t buy any pre-processed, boxed, or prepared foods because they are usually gross, and also expensive. I generally don’t buy anything in a can (except sardines, and imported tomatoes on limited occasions). I don’t buy hot sauces or pre-made salad dressings, nor do I keep a lot of condiments on hand. Most of these can be made at home from fresh produce and the ingredients listed below. I don’t eat out very much either, especially at higher-end restaurants. People know I like to cook so they assume I have good restaurant recommendations and they are often confused when I give them a shrug. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Overview of the Markets

Below are the 5 markets that I frequent, in the order listed below:

  1. PSU Farmers Market
  2. Providore Fine Foods
  3. People’s Food Cooperative
  4. La Bouffe International
  5. Domestic Grocer (New Seasons, Fred Meyer, Safeway)

I always start my grocery shopping journey at the PSU Farmers Market. I volunteer there, so it’s my preferred market, and many of the recommendations below can be found there. It’s the largest market in town and has a one-of-a-kind experience, but if it’s out of the way, feel free to scavenge the nearest farmers market to you. In my opinion, the farmers market is the premier shopping experience. This is a place where you can ask questions directly the local farmers and artisans and where your money goes straight to their businesses. My main goal here is to pick up fresh produce, bread, meats, and eggs. I also like to buy my pasta here if I don’t plan on making it myself. Then, if I have cash left over, I’ll pick up something fun like chickpea-quinoa tempeh, raspberry vinegar, or hot-pepper jelly.

The farmers market is also the last place standing where you can truly find a seasonal selection of produce. Even the food-coop has produce imported from Mexico and South America during the winter.

Once I’ve gathered what I can from the farmers market, then it’s off to Providore Fine Foods. Providore is a marketplace that is home to the Flying Fish Co, Pasta Works, and Rubinette Produce Market. It can be expensive if you’re not careful, but it smells incredible in there, which is worth it in of itself. This is an opportunity to pick up any imported products I need from Pasta Works such as cured meats, cheeses, or olives but I try to avoid everything else they sell since it’s overpriced. I personally feel that Rubinette Produce has a better selection of local produce than the Food Coop, so usually I’ll pick up whatever remaining produce items I need here. Their display is beautifully organized, labeled really well, and I find it’s priced quite reasonably. Flying Fish Co. (and their sister brand The Meat Monger) has the best selection of fish in town and they are also my backup meat supplier to Deck Family Farms. I like Providore because they have a great selection of products all in one location, but be cautious, otherwise, you’ll really rack up your bill. Stick to the produce, cheese, and meat/fish—vinegars, oils, grains, beans, and other basic items are best bought elsewhere.

That elsewhere, for me, is the People’s Food Cooperative. Usually, I hit the Food Coop once every other week. It’s is my go-to spot for bulk foods—grains, nuts, seeds, honey etc. I like to support the local producers as much as possible, but I can’t afford to buy all my staples from the farmers market every week. The coop is also my preferred spot for buying butter and milk and other fresh dairy products, which don’t usually make an appearance at the farmers market. I’ll also buy produce while I’m there and pick up whatever else I need if it saves me a stop.

Then, once a month or so, I make the short trip out to La Bouffe International where I purchase my olive oil and tahini. They have the best olive oil in town at the best price, period. Plus, going in there is fun. Sometimes they have crazy things like rose water or fresh pistachios that are still enclosed in the fruit. Then finally, I will find myself at a standard grocery store. At this point, you should have all of your produce, meats, and dairy so usually, I just end up going to Fred Meyer over New Seasons. Kosher salt is kosher salt, wherever you go.

The Guide

Below is my sourcing index, which outlines the products that I buy for my home kitchen. I’ve laid it out in a way which lists what I consider my primary choice, then provide some alternative choices as well. Usually, the primary choice is something local, but sometimes it can be reversed when it’s just more practical to buy an imported product, then on occasion try out a local product. It’s color-coordinated by vendor, and each product lists the origin of the raw material (as far as I’ve been able to track it). Enjoy, and happy shopping!

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