Shop Like The French. You'll Eat Better Food For Less.

The French are known for their understanding of various important aspects of life:

  • Food
  • Wine
  • Love
  • ...and Fashion

What I want to focus on for now are the top two: food and wine. That being said, I'm also passionate about the other two, but we'll leave those for another day.

Having had the opportunity to travel to France a few times, I'm coming to realize that I'm increasingly behaving like the French now that I work from least when it comes to shopping for, preparing and eating food.

Here are my the shopping guidelines for eating amazing food without breaking the bank:

  1. Shop often
  2. Shop nearby
  3. Buy whole foods
  4. Ignore name brands
  5. Buy what's ripe for the picking
  6. Buy full fat animal products

1. Shop Often

I shop often, almost daily, when it comes to getting fresh produce and various meats & cheeses. I take the opportunity to insert the outing some time in my day when I need a break from the computer or other office-related task. The benefit of doing this is that I can only buy what I can carry*. It keeps me from buying excessively and from buying items that I really don't need right away, or ever. 

Another benefit to shopping often is that you are unlikely to miss daily and weekly specials. Items that are on the front cover of your favourite grocery store flyer often sell out and your frequent visits provide the best opportunity to get the deals. If a given item has a quantity limit, you can purchase the limit each time you shop throughout the week. We get our eggs and dairy that way and save about $10 a week on those two items alone.

Finally, by shopping for what you'll to prepare and eat that day or the next, you're less likely not to lose money through spoilage. Wasted food is an expense that is inexcusable. 

2. Shop Nearby

Rain or shine, I put my backpack and sneakers on and head out to one of three supermarkets available within walking distance and/or to the farmer's market on the weekend during the summer months. Based on proximity, I avoid using the car, and my produce makes it back home quickly, which is especially important when the food stuffs need to be refrigerated. Visiting nearby stores also makes it easier to adhere to point #1.

3. Buy Whole Foods

Avoid anything that has a label because it usually means it's processed. Processed foods usually contain ingredients that you would never have in your own kitchen, such as monosodium glutamate, ployoxythylene sorbitan monostearate, carboxy methyl cellulose, sodium metabisulphite, and other compounds that are equally difficult to pronounce (or type). If you recognize all the ingredients listed on the label, you might be OK.

Whole foods also provide more nutrients and they are usually cheaper than their equivalent processed cousins. Frozen whole foods are often a good option to have on hand. We're big fans of frozen spinach for morning omelettes, especially when combined with goat cheese.

Keep it simple. If it doesn't look like it would in nature or in the garden, just don't buy it. Whole food categories include:

  • Meats & seafood
  • Dairy
  • Vegetables & fruits
  • Nuts & seeds
  • Legumes & grains
  • Spices

4. Ignore Name Brands

First, that means the product has a label (see point #3). If you have to buy something that has a label, choose generic whenever possible. The quality of generic products is usually the same as or slightly superior to that of name brands and you don't pay the advertising premium. If you swear by a name brand, try a blind taste test with your family to see who can tell the difference. You might surprise yourself and prefer the generic brand. Let your taste buds be the judge.

Buying generic applies to wines too. If you enjoy wine or other beverages with your meals, try the generic/bulk options available in your area. You may be surprised to find that some are indeed superior to alternatives that are 30%-100% more. French families rely on "vin de table" for their daily wine consumption and, if it suits their palate, I can almost guarantee you can find something to your liking. We've been fortunate enough to find superior-tasting wines for $7.50/bottle that rivalled their $11.99 and up counterparts. $7.50 might sound expensive for non-Canadian readers but alcoholic beverages are heavily taxed here. Unless you make your own, you're unlikely to find a less expensive palatable wine.

5. Buy What's Ripe For The Picking

This is a basket of food I purchased today. I managed to stumble upon salmon & rib steak at 30% off, goat cheese, jalapeño sausage and large mushrooms at 50% off and kidney beans at 12% less than I would normally pay. The discounts were equivalent to 44% of the total price paid. The rest of the purchase: broccoli, spinach, bacon bits, canned tomato, jalapeños, avocado and green onion round out the purchase. 

Frequent trips to the store and preparing our meals daily allows me to visit the discount bins and be ultra opportunistic. Discount bins are replenished daily and you can find quality items, especially if you get there between 10am and 12pm because items approaching their "Best Before" date** are usually placed in these bins in the morning. 

I've found the best days for bin items are Monday through Thursday, given stores are less busy and take the time to sort through their produce more thoroughly. It's always a surprise to see what's available and I get to purchase premium whole foods for a fraction of the regular price.

A quarter to over half my daily purchases are discounted or clearance items, such as:

  • Cheese & pâtés: I only purchase discounted cheese & pâté. I regularly bring home brie, camembert, blue cheese, goat cheese and the like for the same price as regular-priced cheddar. The cheeses are in perfect condition and taste wonderful.
  • Creams: I look for whipping cream and sour cream on clearance. These creams, when properly stored at the market and at home often last two weeks longer than their "Best Before" date. I've had cream last for as long as 3 weeks beyond the posted date. I can't believe so much of it gets thrown out by stores. It's such a waste!
  • Meat & seafood: I take full advantage of North America's obsession with freshness. What is well-known in many countries is that we don't age our meats sufficiently due to our food safety rules. Most meats, especially red meat, tastes much better when cuts are aged longer. If we need to purchase meat that was just recently packaged, we will intentionally wait before cooking it, allowing it to marinate for days. My preference is to purchase superior cuts of meat and seafood at 30-50% off. I make sure I buy them only if we intend to consume them within a day or two or freeze them immediately. That allows us to eat rib & T-bone steaks and filet mignon for the regular price of a less-desirable cuts. What would you opt for, given the opportunity: a steak or a hamburger patty?
  • Vegetables and fruits: Some of the vegetables and fruits that are available are definitely past their prime. I usually will focus on more hardy options: asparagus, peppers, squash, apples, onions, carrots, cabbage and the like. When it comes to items that bruise easily or wilt, such as lettuce, tomatoes, berries, I focus on specials on the freshest options and on buying "in season". 
  • Other: I have been lucky to come across vacuum-packed premium coffee, laundry detergent, insect repellant, shampoo and other quality items that were relegated to the discount bin for some reason. It's always worth a look if low-cost brands are marked down. What do you have to lose?

To give you an example of what my husband and I eat by shopping this way, one of our meals last week was rib steak with a side of asparagus and a cream-based dessert. We ate for under $10 because all items happened to be on clearance at 50% off that day. We would rather be opportunistic and eat better quality food than spend the same for basic fare. Don't get me wrong, we're fine with the basics, but when an opportunity presents itself to upgrade at no additional cost, I certainly don't hesitate. It keeps us out of restaurants because we have great food at home.

6. Buy Full Fat Animal Products

Ever heard of the "French Paradox"? It's not a paradox at all. A higher-fat meal tastes better and you eat less. The benefit of fats is that they satisfy sooner and for longer than substitutes. If you don't have fat in your meal, you've probably more than made up for it with carbohydrates (sugar, starches and grains) to make it taste good and want to chew your arm off within an hour or two because the food was not satisfying--unless you ate a huge portion and are ready of a nap. Correct me if I'm wrong, but huge portions and snacking between meals is not all the economical and the food choices when we do so are often not the best.

In short, a full-fat meal will:

  • Taste better
  • Leave you satisfied longer 
  • Make you feel full on less food

We buy well-marbled cuts of meat, salmon, dark-meat poultry, high milk fat cheese & cream, pâtés, we don't shy away from buttering our vegetables and we eat plenty of eggs. We avoid breads and sugars because we know they cause cravings*** and cravings are just bad news for the waistline and for your household's bottom line.  

Bon Appétit

We may not be able to visit the local butcher, baker, farmer and the cheese & wine shop owner quite the same way as a Parisian or a New Yorker can, but we can derive similar pleasures by seeing what surprises our local food stores have to offer during our frequent visits. I wish you many unexpected future gastronomic delights. May the fork be with you.

How do you make sure you can eat well and keep expenses in check? Any additional tips to share about eating great food for less?

*We do go to Costco once or twice a month for non-perishables and other household items, and we do buy some meats and poultry directly from local farmers that we store year-round in a chest freezer, but when it comes to food that has a limited shelf life or that we can get on clearance, I save those purchases for my daily excursions.

**This is a pet peeve of mine: Why do people think this means "the date you throw it out"? Best before is a date that ensures that if you buy it by then, it is still virtually certain to be good. The stores and the manufacturer builds in a cushion to ensure satisfaction. That means you have many days beyond that date to enjoy the product, assuming their refrigeration systems are adequate.

***Want to know more? I suggest the book "Good Calories, Bad Calories" by Gary Taubes, or his more approachable "Why We Get Fat". Michael Pollan's "In Defense of Food" is also a good read. If any of these books are of interest to you, purchasing via their respective links helps support this blog.