Life hacks: Eating out at a grocery store

In the cosmic balance between stoicism and luxury, you might find yourself eating in more. Transitioning toward FI, there are many ways to handle this shift with friends, but it will likely involve saying “no” more often than you used to. This is only natural. You are trying to break free of all the marketers telling you that spending money on stuff is the path to happiness. Some of your friends will take it better than others. Some will realize your higher mission and try to support you in your goals. Others will take your choice as reflection of personal judgement on their own values. While adopting a slow and steady, “Easy Does It” attitude can help ease some of the tension, sometimes you still just want to go out to eat with the old crew. After all in our modern world of prosperity, you can have anything you want, you just can’t have everything. When is saying “no” frugal or just plain cheap? What do you do when your friends want to go out for a delicious, domestically-outsourced meal?

Steer them to a neighborhood high-end grocery store!

“But Edi, that doesn’t sound very frugal! The buffets at my local organic grocer cost as much as any moderately-priced entree at a restaurant. What gives?”

Mmm... delicious AND organic!
Mmm… delicious AND organic!

That is true, organic grocery buffets are expensive. But just because you go to a grocer, doesn’t mean you head straight for the expensive buffet. In fact, by going to the grocery store you’ve already started your path to potential savings by hopefully choosing a neighborhood location that you can walk to. Also, you can avoid the 20% gratuity to the server (if you do make the choice to go out, please make the full choice and don’t stiff your server). But the key to making the grocery store work is to cut out the domestic outsourcing. Going to a grocery store allows you to get closer to the unprepared food.

This means utilizing the “grocery” sections and taking advantage of complimentary items and services. For instance, most dining areas of grocery stores have microwaves. You can do quite well just picking up some healthy items and getting creative with the store’s microwave. Of course, you can always skip the microwave and go raw; it doesn’t get much fresher than going straight from the shelf to your mouth. The important part is to be creative. Have some fun trying new things and have fun getting out with your friends!

Here are some of my favorites:

1. Salad

This one’s a no-brainer for both health and not being cooked. Grab a few salad ingredients. If they aren’t bite-size, look for items which can be torn and won’t need to be cut: lettuce, baby carrots, cherry tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower… Look for a small packet of dressing by the buffet, or get a bottle to take home. Mix it all up in a complementary water cup, and you’ve got a delicious salad!

Produce section!
Produce section!

2. Frozen meals

The fastest, easiest option is the foods already designed for the microwave. I try to use these sparingly as even the healthy options can have a lot of salt. However, when you want a hot, filling meal there’s no beating a frozen burrito. On the lighter side, many soups freeze well. Indian and asian dinners offer a nice balance of carbs and protein, and honestly taste as good as anything from the neighborhood ethnic restaurant. If you’re wanting frozen, walk the aisle, look for sales, see if any of your friends want to split a couple of different meals (so everyone gets to try more) etc. etc. Frozen meals really have come a long way from the TV dinners of the 80’s.

Frozen meals have come a long way since food pockets.
Frozen meals have come a long way since food pockets.

3. Steamed veggies

Check the produce section for steamable veggies. One time purple cauliflower was on sale, so I bought a head. Just place a damp napkin on it and the microwave can steam it to a nice al dente. Steaming is a great option for many foods in the produce section.

Behold, the power!
Behold, the power!

4. Hamburgers

My favorite! Many stores now serve various patty- or link-shaped pre-cooked proteins. My favorite are black bean burgers. Grab a small box of these, and a fresh roll from the bakery and you’ve got the start to a delicious, all-American meal!

5. Breakfast

Because who doesn’t love breakfast for dinner? Think beyond cold cereal and pastries. Many hot breakfast items are delicious at any time. Pancakes are a good one for the microwave. Even grits come in microwave packets now. Just last night, I made grits with cheese, pepper and leftover shredded chicken. Delicious!

6. Cans

One of the standbys from my own childhood camping trips. Tons of foods are canned these days. Healthier options are of course vegetables, beans, light soups. I tend to stay away from the canned pasta and meat sauce dishes, because really, “canned spaghetti and meatballs”?

7. Pouches

Canning works by sealing food in a can and heating it until the buggies inside are killed. Of course, a can is a big, heavy object, so it has to be heated pretty hot to get the job done. Pouched foods work on the same principle but, because of their shape, don’t need to be heated nearly as hot. This helps the food inside retain more flavor.

Many foods come in packets, but my old standby is tuna. Especially now that companies are adding flavor to the container, a couple of packets of asian spicy tuna on a roll is delicious.

8. Beer

Of course, the best part of grocery-dining is that you can walk to an aisle of beer, grab a 6 pack, then sit out on the patio and drink like it’s your favorite dive bar! Most bars would be hard-pressed to compete with the selection of a grocery store, let alone the price!

Wah wah wee wah!? Mmm... beer...
Wah wah wee wah!? Mmm… beer…

So there you have it. The next your friends want to go out, consider your local grocer. Your friends can get delicious, expensive buffet items, and you can get the same taste and quality at lower price by being just slightly more creative.

If you have any other great grocery-dining hacks, let me know!

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