Get What You Pay For
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Driven by profit goals and turning perishable inventory, even the best food retailers have their games. That doesn’t mean you have to play, if you are wise to them. Shopping smarter will stretch your budget and improve your meals. 

Purchasing

To shop smarter, first look for healthier and fresher instances of the products you are seeking.

Inspect the Product Packages

 If canned products are dented or bulging avoid them and let the retailer know they may have bad product on their hands. Dented or bulging cans might signal that botulism is present. Check for spoilage or infestation. Buy properly sealed, uncompromised packages of your other products to prevent procuring contaminated foods. It is amazing what a waste of money bad product is. You pay full price but it goes right in the trash. If you get bad product, don’t use it but safe the package and return it for a refund.  That’s a budget saver.

Inspect the Expiration Dates

All packaged foods sold today in our modern distribution system are supposed to have a “Best By” or “Use by” expiration date on them. Take advantage and use the information before adding anything to your cart. Don’t buy one day milk, if two week milk is available. Pass on the three day cold cuts, if newer three week cold cuts are available. It just takes a little looking through the offering on the shelf. Usually the newer stuff is there, in the back. Retailers practice FIFO too (See Good Food Storage). Stretching the expiration dates on your purchases stretches your budget too as it reduces waste.

Avoid Poorly Frozen Items

Avoid packages that are positioned above the "frost line" or top of the freezer case in the store's freezer. If the package cover is transparent, look for signs of frost or ice crystals. These could mean the fish has been stored a long time or thawed and refrozen - in which case, choose another package.

Certified Sources

For certain riskier items, like shellfish that you plan to serve raw, you want the best product you can get, you may also want to purchase certified product where the fisherman, farmer or manufacturer guarantees where the product was sourced and asserts that the area and product is free of disease. Before you balk at paying a premium, how much of a discount should you get for Hepatitis A? Similarly, learning the Country of Origin of your product may matter. No slight to China or Malaysia, but they just don’t have our same legal and regulatory tradition or infrastructure. Does Organic mean as much to farmers there as it does to our organic farmers? When paying that bargain price for shrimp, you may want to think about whose organic shrimp you’d rather be eating. Mentioning the differences, does not mean we are against the food trade and its availability and pricing advantages. We just think it is smart to be aware of some of the trade offs and that you deserve to know.

Once you are buying healthy product, you can address economics and flair.

Reputable Sources

The modern Global trade (enabled by jets, modern refrigerated shipping & labor cost differentials) is young. The benefits of reducing seasonality and creating a much deeper availability of affordable niche food products are obvious. If you can get raspberries year round in rural New Hampshire for example that’s an improvement.

But the dark side of Global trade is the lack of FDA inspections of imported foods and the increased competition and pricing pressures; or more precisely how some retailers, manufacturers and farmers try to respond to the pricing pressures. It should not be a surprise that not every business person is as scrupulous as we all would like them to be. In the recent past, reputation served a protective function. If the butcher cut corners and people got sick word got around. Many of us still have a good old days mentality. But if you think about it, how do you check up on the Costa Rican grower, the Argentine rancher or the Filipino fisherman? You can’t.

You either have to rely on the middlemen to do that for you or you have to become adept at reading labels, asking questions and really learning what you are buying. [We are not on a soapbox here in the Introduction to the Culinary Arts but at a minimum we suggest you shop smarter and consider who supplies your food and where that food comes from. Is your grocer a good steward of food quality or are they only driven by price and market share? Where did your frozen fish come from? How long was it frozen before being dropped into your cart? What is the “Country of Origin” for the products you purchase? Answering the last question at least, lets you know if the providers are subject to U.S. food production laws. If you end up interested in the issue there are a number of good sites to learn more about eating locally.

Menu Planning

Two of the four Levers of Cooking are Organization and Preparation. If the two come together in your implementing a menu plan, so much the better for your palate, your schedule and your budget. We will cover the rudiments of organization in Lesson Three: Food Preparation Basics and continue to expound on it in the Intermediate Level.

 The benefits of menu planning are budgetary, culinary and healthy. For your budget, you can plan around what is on sale, reduce uneconomical impulse purchases and cut down on waste by using excess or left overs in subsequent dishes during the week. Planning around what is fresh or in season will improve the taste and variety of your meals. There is a health benefit as well if you stick to your menu plan, reducing spot purchases of junk, and plan to make and eat more nutritious meals based on seasonal foods. If you buy it and have it at home, it is likely you’ll eat it for better or worse.