When I first started cooking, I had no idea what I was doing. I would watch a chef on FoodNetwork cook a meal, attempt to re-create it (without their recipe), and watch myself inevitably fall into a disaster. Eventually, I began cooking recipes step-by-step and seeing more consistency in my food. But I always wished there was a guide for home cooks on how to actually get started. There’s countless recipes on the internet, but fewer articles on the basics — like how to grocery shop, what ingredients to buy, or what equipment to buy. So I decided I would write one myself.
…grocery shop (and save some money)
Before I begin walking through this portion, I want to call out that grocery shopping can be a sensitive topic. I’m not here to judge anyone for where they shop, I simply hope to provide some advice on my own experiences. I recognize my privilege in being able to afford higher quality produce, and I also prioritize these choices over other goods. I believe you can still make delicious (and healthy) food regardless of your budget and where you shop. Where possible, I try to incorporate tidbits in saving money.
How do I grocery shop effectively?
Cooking starts at the grocery store, whether online or in-person. Setting yourself up for success means equipping yourself with the right ingredients for most occasions. I say most, because, you’re always going to need to go to the grocery store to get ingredients for a special occasion or if you run out of something, but ideally you’re limiting this as much as possible by using what you have.
How often should I shop?
There isn’t a perfect schedule for grocery shopping. I’ll give some suggestions to you, but you do you. Some weeks, it may be easier or harder to follow depending on how busy you are.
Here’s what I do:
One large shop after moving into a new apartment or house to fill my pantry, freezer, and fridge with longer term food items. Think beans, rice, lentils, frozen fruit, condiments, whole spices, etc. I buy in bulk at this step, even if just for me, since these won’t go bad any time soon.
Smaller shops once a week. This can also depend on where you’re shopping. If you’re buying fresh produce from a farmer’s market or ordering from a CSA, you’ll likely need to replenish once a week. If you’re going to a typical grocery store, you may not need to go as often. In spring and summer, I sign up for a CSA and do smaller, less frequent trips to the grocery store for pantry/dairy/meat items. In the late fall and winter, when fresh produce is hard to find where I live in New England, I go to the grocery store once a week.
Larger shops every few months or so to replenish your pantry, potentially through Costco or a larger supermarket.
Specialty shops when need be. I am pescatarian, now, so I’ll often head over to the fishmonger once a week for fish. I used to go to the butcher shop every couple of weeks. Good spice shops or international markets are great for stocking up your pantry.
I know some people prefer to go to the grocery store more frequently for each dinner they cook. This can totally work, I just find that for me it ends up being more expensive over time. If I go to the grocery store each time I plan on cooking a new recipe, I’ll end up with a lot of leftover ingredients and sometimes those go to waste. That being said, there is no magic formula that works for everyone — find what works for you!
What times/days are best for shopping?
In my experience, Sunday and Monday evenings are typically the busiest for shopping at a grocery or specialty store. Late mornings or early afternoons tend to be quieter, so I try to go then. I’ve also found Friday and Saturday nights (after 8PM) slower. You can even check Google to look at typical traffic data over time, a neat trick from theKitchn. For the freshest produce, many groceries stores restock on Wednesdays — or you could ask someone at the meat or fish counter when their shipments arrive.
Where should I shop?
I’ve made a list of the different types of food stores — I recommend trying out each kind and seeing what works best for you.
Large, chain grocery stores/supermarket
Examples: Trader Joe’s, Fairway, Wegman’s, Stop and Shop, Safeway, Whole Foods Market
Pros: Largest selection of products; less likely to not find a particular item; you generally know what you’re getting; often (but not always) cheaper than smaller stores
Cons: Many of the chain grocery stores have less sustainable practices — this is not to say all smaller grocery stores have great practices, merely a factor to take into account; produce won’t be as high of quality as from a CSA/farm store, etc.
Smaller, locally owned grocery stores and bodegas
Typically, these grocery stores carry a smaller selection of items compared to the chain supermarkets. A locally-owned grocery store might have 80% of what you need, while a bodega could have anywhere from 50-80% depending on how large it is. Locally-owned grocery stores can vary in quality. I’ve gone to several with extremely high quality produce, especially if they’re tied to a farm, but others have been average quality with higher prices. Bodegas can often be expensive, too, but really convenient when you need to pick up 1 or 2 specific items.
If you’re in a new area, definitely explore the different options and see what works for you. If your budget is flexible, supporting a local grocery store can be more sustainable and help support the local economy and community.
Specialty shops (butchers, fishmongers, spice shops)
Specialty shops have a very specific niche of products, typically at a higher quality. As a bonus, these shops often give more 1-1 treatment so that you can ask questions and ensure you’re getting the product you want. If you’re looking for a specific cut of meat, they can butcher it for you. These items are generally more expensive, but you’re paying for quality and service. Some of these stores might end up being cheaper if they offer items in bulk, like at a spice store.
The farmer’s market is a great way to get locally sourced, high quality produce during the spring and summer. Some markets are open year-round, but many are seasonal. It’s definitely a more expensive option, but can be worth it, if you have the money, for a fresher and more sustainable product.
I’ve participated in a CSA (Community-supported agriculture) for a couple years now, and I really love it. Each week, you can sign-up to pick up (or have delivered) a fresh box of produce. The produce is extremely high quality, and because you often pay for a whole season, the cost is much lower per week than going to a farmer’s market. I’ve seen ranges anywhere from $15 per week to $60 per week for produce for two people. If you’re interested, I recommend doing some research and looking into what’s available in your local area.
One call-out: you really have to commit to cooking several times a week with a lot of these farm shares. For example, I recently participated in a CSA that was about $60 per week for 2 people. I received 5 vegetables (usually 1-2 lbs each), 2 lbs of fruit, and 2 lbs of meat. This was plenty of food for two people cooking most meals. In addition to the CSA, I’d order some extra groceries each week for pantry items, dairy, etc. Because the produce is extremely fresh, some of it will spoil if you don’t cook it within the first few days, so you have to be very structured about planning and ensuring you use everything up. For larger shares, you can also split with a friend; one year, I split with a stranger and we ended up becoming pen-pals!
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Should I go to the grocery store in-person or order delivery?
This totally depends on your preferences and budget. Online delivery is more expensive than in-store because you have to pay for a delivery fee and tip your driver (similar to ordering restaurant delivery vs. takeout). Online delivery is easy and often fast — where I’ve lived I can order groceries and have them delivered within a few hours of ordering. Finally, online delivery can feel safer than going to a grocery store for some during Covid.
If you enjoy physically perusing all of the shelves, seeing and picking your own produce, or are looking to save some money, I wouldn’t recommend it. I haven’t had many quality issues with produce, but I have with meat and seafood. Occasionally, I’ll receive the wrong item or be missing something, but many of these services offer easy refund/return policies.
How do I save money grocery shopping?
Here are a few tips:
Only go grocery shopping when you really need to, and only buy items you know you’ll use. This can take some practice, but is really important. I still struggle with it myself. If you buy a watermelon, six peaches, four apples, and grapes — think if you’re really going to be able to eat all of those things before they go bad. Try your best to reduce food waste as much as possible. Ensuring that you’re storing your produce as best as possible also extends shelf-life. And sometimes, avoiding going grocery shopping means eating something that’s not as delicious because it’s what you have at home. But if it means saving money, then it can be worth it.
Chain supermarkets will.be.cheaper. But if you’re trying to avoid them and want to shop more locally, be smart about what you purchase. Tell yourself you’ll pick up 3-4 fruits and vegetables. At the farmer’s market or local grocery store, look for the cheapest produce. Fruit that’s most in season will be cheapest. Some local places also have “damaged” or not as “aesthetically pleasing” bulk deals so the cost per item is cheaper. Misfits Market is a cheaper way to get organic produce.
I grew up in an Indian household that ate vegetarian food 80% of the week. Vegetarian food is way cheaper than eating meat regularly, plus there are many health benefits! We ate a lot of beans and lentils that we bought dried in bulk amounts — they last at least a year and are extremely cheap.
Make as much as you can from scratch, if you have the time. Sourdough bread is basically just flour and water. If you live in a warmer climate (or during the spring/summer in other climates), you can grow your own herbs. As someone who doesn’t garden much, I find herbs are relatively easy to maintain.
Try to make a list beforehand, if you have the time, to limit excess purchases. And don’t go grocery shopping when you’re hungry!
Shop in the bulk section or find a bulk food store so that you’re only purchasing what you need.
Look for deals in the grocery store on sale items.
Freeze anything on the verge of going bad. Re-purpose as much as possible — the ends of a sourdough loaf can be made into croutons or breadcrumbs. Strawberries that are a bit too ripe can be blended into a smoothie or cooked into a jam. Scallions re-grow in water. You can cook in bulk and freeze leftover portions for eating later.
How do I shop for one person?
When you’re cooking for one person, or even two, it can be a bit trickier to affordably shop compared to a family. For a family of four (or larger), it’s much easier to go to Costco, for example, and purchase in bulk. I still recommend doing a larger shop and purchasing items in bulk when moving into a new apartment.
On a regular basis, you’ll need to assess your grocery needs. How often do you expect to cook vs. order takeout or go out to eat? If you plan on cooking regularly, it makes sense to do a smaller shop once a week. If your cooking is much more sporadic, then grocery shop more sporadically. There’s a great food52 article that has even more tips on cooking for one person.
…stock my pantry and fridge?
Here’s how I stock my kitchen.
Pantry & Fridge:
Basic Condiments and Sauces
Salt: Kosher salt (Diamond Crystal*)
Fat: Oils (olive oil, canola oil), sauces (pesto), yogurt, cheeses (mozzarella, brie, goat cheese, and/or parmigiano), nuts (almonds, cashews)
Acid: Vinegars (distilled white vinegar, balsamic vinegar, apple cider vinegar, rice vinegar), pickles
Heat: Hot sauces (american-style, Sriracha, sambal)
Sugar: Honey, maple syrup, dried fruits
Salt: Flaky salt, flavored salts, anchovies (Ortiz**), capers, olives
Fat: Oils (peanut oil for deep-frying, sesame oil for sauces), ghee, labneh, snacking and cooking cheeses (burrata, paneer, halloumi, manchego), nuts (pine nuts, hazelnuts, walnuts)
Acid: Vinegars (sherry vinegar, white wine vinegar, red wine vinegar, black vinegar), tamarind chutney, jams, pomegranate molasses
Heat: Hot sauces (chili garlic sauce, chili bean paste, achaar), pickled peppers, hot honey, calabrian chili pepper
Sugar: Date syrup, corn syrup, molasses
Use cases: salad dressings, marinades, toppings for pizzas, breads, or basically…anything, sauces (pasta sauce, wings, dipping sauce), dips
I could probably write an entire post on spices! I’ve listed a number of my favorites below. I highly recommend buying whole spices where possible from a spice shop or bulk food store — then you can grind them when you’d like into powders. This keeps them fresh and saves you money (whole spices are cheaper than ground up ones, plus some are better kept whole for simmering in a stew or curry). A coffee grinder works great for this – I bought one for $15 and it lasted me five years.
Anything marked with a * I recommend buying whole.
Chili powder* (I buy both ground chili powder and whole chilies to grind up)
Use cases: everything!
Grains & Beans/Legumes/Lentils
I like to stock up on this section — these last for up to a year (some indefinitely) and is perfect for a night when you really don’t want to cook.
Grains: Pastas (keep a variety of shorter and longer pastas for versatility), Farro, Quinoa, Barley, Rice (Jasmine, Basmati, Sushi, Arborio or Carnaroli), Oats
There’s no need to have all of these grains — choose the ones you like the most. I personally always have pasta, farro, orzo, jasmine & basmati rice, sushi rice, and carnaroli rice.
Beans: Black Beans, Kidney Beans, Pinto Beans, Cannellini Beans, Chickpeas, Lima Beans, Yellow Split Peas, Green Split Peas
I know a lot of people recommend buying dried beans (I have quite a few jars myself), but if you find yourself struggling to remember to soak them or not having the time to cook them, don’t fret. It’s totally okay to use canned in many cases. The one case it doesn’t work is if you’re making falafel — you gotta use the dried stuff. Most grocery stores have a variety of dried and canned beans. If you want to save money on the dried kind, you may be able to find a bulk store near you. Otherwise, I always grew up buying them at an Indian grocery store (they’re usually significantly cheaper).
Use cases: Chili, Soups, Stews, Curries, Dips, Dals, Bean salads
Lentils: Red, Brown, Green
Use cases: Vegetarian substitutes for meat dishes, soups, stews, curries, dals, salads
Other canned goods
Tomato products (whole peeled, puree, tomato paste) — great for pastas, curries, and stews
Canned fish (tuna, sardines)
Broth (chicken, vegetable, or beef) or bouillon
There are so many items you could purchase in this section, so I’ll just list the essentials and some fun extras.
All purpose flour*
Granulated white sugar
Cocoa powder (you can buy either natural or dutch-process, depending on your preference just know that certain recipes may call for one or the other as they react differently with acidic/basic ingredients)
Yeast (instant or active dry are great — do not buy rapidrise)
Powdered sugar (you can grind white sugar if you have a coffee grinder!)
Fridge items: butter, eggs, milk (non-dairy works well in many cases)
Whole-wheat, rye flours
00 Flour for pasta
High-protein (00 high protein or bread flour) for pizzas and breads
*I recommend King Arthur Flour — it’s a high quality flour and their protein content is a bit higher, so it works well for breads and pizzas. Local flour is a great option if you can afford it.
…organize my kitchen?
There’s so many great ways to organize your kitchen. Here are some tips on what works for me:
For the pantry, I tend to separate the space into the following sections:
Canned goods and condiments: Ideally, if you have the space, you can put canned goods in one shelf, condiments in another shelf, and vinegars/oils in another shelf. Otherwise, arrange them with the smallest items in the front and larger items in the back for visibility.
Nuts and dried fruits
Tea, Coffee & Honey
Baking Items (flour, sugar)
Grains & Dried Beans/Lentils
Spices: If you have a spice rack, great. If not, I like to lay my spice jars flat (see spice photo) in a drawer. This way, I can see all of the spices easily similar to a spice rack.
Pantry items work great in a lazy susan corner cabinets, deep-binned drawers, and easily accessible shelves. The most important key for me is ensuring that I can see everything. I can’t tell you how many times I go to the grocery store for an item, only to find later that it was hidden in the depths of my pantry somewhere. If you have a deep drawer, you can lay items flat (instead of the typical lid side up) against one another. You can also label items where possible. A cheap labelmaker works well to keep items clearly labeled.
For equipment, pots and pans work great in a deep drawer or hanging using a wall mount.
Let’s start with the fridge. I got a lot of great ideas from watching Faith Roberson on NYTCooking, so I highly recommend checking out her website if you’re interested.
I like to keep vegetables and fruits in the bottom crisper drawers (and meat if you have a separate drawer for it). Leftovers go in the first shelf, so I can easily see them. You can label them by date and bring the oldest leftovers forward to reduce food waste.
With the other drawers, feel free to experiment. Personally, I like to keep cheese/snacking products in the middle section and taller items on the top shelf.
Small storage containers can be really useful in dividing the fridge into smaller sections. You may already have a tupperware or other container lying around the house for this very purpose. I keep my cheeses in one of these containers for organization purposes, as I always have at least 4 or 5 cheese around.
A small lazy susan is perfect for organizing all your condiments/jams. That way you can easily see and access the things you need, and sauces don’t go to waste.
I’ve found that fruit, like berries, and cherry tomatoes work best rinsed and kept in a bowl on the first shelf.
What equipment do I need?
To be honest, I use a small selection of equipment for 80% of my cooking. For everyday cooking, here are the essential pieces of equipment I recommend:
A wooden cutting board and a plastic cutting board (for produce, and meat respectively). There are pros and cons to each, and some people prefer wood for everything, but I personally find the plastic boards easier to clean meat off of.
Large wooden utensils (spoons, spatula) for stirring and mixing. I like wooden spoons because they work great on both non-stick, stainless steel, and cast iron pans.
Knives: 1 large 8” or 10” chef’s knife, a pairing knife, and a serrated bread knife. Don’t get a knife block — you won’t use 80% of the knives there. The chef’s knife doesn’t have to be expensive; I have been using a Victorinox knife for 5+ years. Get a knife sharpener and a honing steel so it will stay sharp for many years or see if your local kitchen store can sharpen your knife for you.
1 non-stick pan for eggs (omelettes, scrambled) and fish
1 medium to large stainless steel saute pan, preferably oven proof
1-3 qt saucepot, 1-5 qt saucepot (I use stainless steel here as well) — if you are feeding at least 4 people, you may want to get a larger sauce pot for boiling pasta. I find this works well for feeding 1-3 people.
1 8” – 12” cast-iron pan. I have two Lodge 8” pans. I find the smaller size is nice for how heavy they are, but a lot of recipes call for 10” so that might be easier to work with.
1 colander for draining and rinsing foods.
A slotted spoon for easily scooping up pasta or noodles.
A silicon spatula for making eggs in a pan or scraping up batters.
A whisk for whisking batters. If you bake a lot, consider investing in a hand mixer and/or stand mixer.
1 sieve for sifting flours and straining mixtures — highly useful if you bake a lot. If not, you may not need this.
Small/medium/large prep bowls
Other useful items: can opener, vegetable peeler, measuring cups, measuring spoons, a cheap coffee grinder (for both coffee and spices)
I didn’t recommend specific brands unless I felt they were tried and true and I have done extensive research before buying them, but if you have any questions on what I own, happy to send you more information. Wirecutter does in-depth product recommendations if you’re trying to narrow down your picks, and they also list the best value items for each category which I love!
What are good cookbooks for beginners?
I know I talk a lot about teaching others how to cook without following recipes, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love a good recipe every now and then! For beginners, I’ve selected a few cookbooks, some with great recipes, and some with great teaching that I think will be really helpful. If you have any recommendations, feel free to comment below.
The Way to Cook or Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child: these are definitely more involved cookbooks, but really great at teaching the basics
The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science by J. Kenji López-Alt: again, more involved, but highly recommended if you’re interested in taking cooking on as a serious project
In addition to the above, I recommend scouring out a few more cuisine-specific cookbooks, as many (but not all) of the current cookbooks that teaching you how to cook don’t delve into non-Western foods.
Just for fun, some of my own favorites