Everything I’ve Learned About Grocery Shopping on a Budget After 11 Years at Food Network
Here's how you can apply everything I've learned on set to your everyday life.
I’ve been working at the Food Network since 2010, and while that’s meant a lot of hard work, it’s a job that has its perks. Aside from being able to enjoy all the yummy leftovers from recipe testing or video shoots, I’ve also had the pleasure of honing many kitchen skills. And one of the best things I’ve learned is how to be a more efficient and budget-minded shopper.
All the lovely food you see on the Food Network is the result of a highly streamlined and efficient production process. Food stylists and culinary producers painstakingly plan their purchasing so we can adhere to tight budgets and create as little food waste as possible. And it’s something we replicate and refine over and over again.
In my earlier years of shopping for myself I would have gone to the grocery store without a plan, only to purchase things I didn’t know what to do with — and of course, they would spoil. Sound familiar? Now I go in with a plan and I’ve even made a weekly meal schedule that I fill out before I shop. (Want to copy it? Here you go.) Here’s how I make the most out of my shopping each week — and how you can too.
Start by identifying what you already have.
Step one is always taking a look through your fridge, freezer and pantry. What do you have to finish eating from last week? What ingredients are you trying to use up or repurpose in a new way? Purchasing something you already have (or missing a chance to use something up) is mistake that sets you back to square one even before you start cooking.
In the Food Network test kitchen and studios, there are so many people are cooking at once, if we’re not careful, we can end up with multiples we don't need, like four boxes of partially used graham crackers. So our purchasing team goes through our shopping lists to make sure to pull together everything we need before shopping. Now, you don't have a shopping team at home. So how can you replicate this? Keep your pantry and fridge organized. We are constantly reorganizing our pantries and cold storage on the set of cooking shows. It might sound daunting but cleaning and tidying as you go, makes a weekly check in fast and effortless.
Planning out your meals saves you money and time. Full stop.
When looking at a whole month of making a cooking show it feels like a win if we can purchase something for week one that we will need in week four of filming. This saves time and money! How? If you’re planning and you know it’s cheaper to get something like an eight-pack of chicken thighs and you freeze four to use later, it’s a gift to yourself.
I also think chronologically when I plan. Meaning if you want to get all your shopping done on Sunday, plan the meal with the most perishable ingredients to happen Monday or Tuesday.
Here’s how this all generally translates into my shopping list: I keep breakfast simple — just one or two options. For lunch, I plan for combination of simple things I can throw together like salads or easy soups — and I plan to rely on leftovers. Dinner is where I take the time and energy to get creative.
Be honest with yourself about how many meals you’re able to cook. It’s more than okay to make take-out or leftovers part of your weekly plan — in fact, it’s preferable. It’s much less daunting and economical than cooking three times a day, seven days a week. Freezer cheats help too — I always have a bag of frozen dumplings on hand for an easy dinner.
Shop with "future you" in mind.
When shopping for a cooking show, we’re often planning for three to five weeks of filming. First we make a list of pantry items and basic staples we need through the entire filming schedule that will keep for a long time. Then we make a list of freezer items. Depending on space we can usually shop for it all at once, but if space is tight we know to plan for a second shop later in the shoot. Then we purchase fresh ingredients weekly or even daily.
You can plan this way at home too. Figure out what pantry staples and freezer items you can buy in bulk, so you can shop for them less often. Also key: taking good care of those bulk ingredients so they last. For instance, I invested in proper flour and sugar containers, and they’ve saved me from a lot of the stress that torn bags and forgotten ingredients can cause. Then your weekly shops can be more limited to fresh ingredients, and you’ll spend less time at the store.
Shop with purpose. If something at the grocery store catches your eye, but it’s not on your list, ask yourself when you’ll be able to use it before you grab it. Will it go bad if you don’t eat it this week? If so, add it to your list for next time.
The shopping isn’t over until you’ve done some prepping.
The life of a professional cook is all about prep. When working on a cooking show, we’re the first ones on set and usually the last to leave because each afternoon we’re cooking for the upcoming days of shooting. If you get good at knowing what you can prep in advance, you can balance it out with some lazy days later in the week.
But you also have to know when to improvise. When things don’t go as planned, give yourself permission to push something until next week or make something different with the ingredients you have. Even if you end up having cereal for dinner, that’s okay as long as you’re using up the food you bought. The goal I set for myself (inspired by a co-worker) is to start Sunday morning with a mostly empty fridge and end Sunday evening with a fridge packed for the coming week. It doesn’t always work out that way, but if I achieve it, I know I’ve avoided food waste and planned a smooth week.