HAVE A PLAN
You should never go shopping with out a list. A caterer knows exactly what will be on the menu and how many people they will be shopping for before they enter the store and so should you. You should at least know what you will be eating in the next week, (breakfast, lunch and dinner) better yet in the next month and ideally for the next three months.
If you write out a three month menu plan at the beginning of each season you will be able to keep your eyes open for the staples you need when they go on sale. You will be able to take advantage of situations -if you know that you will be serving potatoes regularly over the winter (and if you have the space to store it ) you will know you should buy that 50 pound bag of potatoes when it is on sale for $3. This menu plan does not have to be etched in stone, make changes if you see certain items have become too expensive, or if other items have gone on sale, but it will give you a plan to work around.
KNOW YOUR STORE
Make sure that your grocery store is a good one. It makes sense to travel a bit further to a cleaner, brighter store with more variety. Bugs and insects thrive in unclean environments and that is something you just don't need in your life.
See if your grocery store has a map at the entrance. If they have copies, great, grab on for yourself. Otherwise take the time to make a map of the store layout at home and fine tune it in the store. Spending 10 minutes to make up a store layout can save you a lot of time latter and for a caterer time is money.
WRITE OUT YOUR GROCERY LIST IN THE ORDER YOU WALK THROUGH THE STORE
Grocery stores love shuffling around items, they don't want it to be too easy for you to get through their store, the more you browse the more you buy. But the main sections are not going to change due to their refrigeration requirements. Professionals write out their grocery list in the way they walk through the store. For example, they would travel the perimeter of the store first then work through the aisles. The headings for the shopping list might look like this:
Produce Meat Seafood Deli Dairy Frozen Bakery Bulk Aisles
(The store you shop in might have the sections in different order).
In this grocery store you would enter and start with the produce section where you would pick fruits and vegetables, on to the Meat and Seafood for your protein, to the Deli for your lunch cold cuts, then off to Dairy for milk, cheeses and eggs. The Frozen sections would be next for any off season fruits and vegetables then Bakery for breads, buns, bagels etc. and finally the Bulk section for dried pasta, sugar, spices, nuts etc.
Working through the aisles you would pick up any aluminium foil, plastic wrap, canned foods, tea, coffee etc. Knowing that the item you are looking for is in a specific section saves you from criss crossing the store for each and every item.
Caterers know how to get the most from their budget in every section of the store.
When you are buying loose fruit buy the smallest fruit so you get more per pound. It is often considerably cheaper to buy bagged fruit like apples than buying them individually. But where presentation matters in the recipe select each fruit. When buying bagged produce always chose 3 bags, weigh them and take the heavies. Often the weight will vary 1/4 pound bag to bag but it can vary up to 1 pound on a 5 pound bag, so that is one pound of produce more for the same price.
When you are buying fixed priced items like melons buy the largest to get the most for your money. Check the sales rack of the produce section. Often they will bag up 4 or 5 peppers or bunches of bananas that are very ripe but not yet bad and put them on sale at considerable savings. Use what you need of the fresh items and freeze the rest in small quantities for latter.
Even though fresh produce is available year round caterers know that it is not always in the best shape or the price might be outrageous. Frozen fruits or vegetables are bought as a base for recipes when this is the case and some fresh produce is added to give the illusion that the whole dish is made from fresh ingredients ( as in broccoli soup make from frozen broccoli and garnished with some fresh broccoli).
Professionals buy with the seasons and have recipes that showcase what is in season at the time. When carrots and squash are plentiful in the fall they have many recipes to show their clients using these ingredients. Do the same by starting a seasonal recipe book so you will benefit from the sales.
When buying produce keep in mind on how much of it is actually edible. Melons are wonderful but the center is all seeds and the outside all rind so what you get to eat is just the middle, so it would be used sparingly in a dish as an accent while a less expensive ingredient would make up the bulk.
North Americans in general are not very adventuresome in their choice of meats or meat cuts. It is true that ground beef is often the cheapest meat available most of the time but trying an unusual type of cut occasionally can broaden you culinary horizons and save some money at the same time.
Caterers are constantly expanding their repertoire and keeping an eye on what is trendy in the food industry. If you are really unsure how you or your family will like a new dish try making a small portion for lunch on the weekend as a trial run. Traditional European rustic cooking is known for using unusual meat cuts and making them into something delicious.
Learn you cuts of meat. If there is a cut of meat at the butcher counter that doesn't have a name you are familiar with ask what it is. Different areas of the country can have different names for their meat cuts. Professionals must know their products and have studied what they are called. It is a great idea to go on line and start researching.
It is also good to know when you can substitute different cuts of meat. A roast on sale can be cut into cubes for a stew or a Hungarian Goulash instead of buying stewing beef, the same can be done with steaks.
We tend to eat less meat in the heat of the summer and the price in grocery stores reflect that. While the price for meat we typically use for barbecuing stays the same, other cuts, like roasts, can become quite inexpensive ( a sirloin roast can easily be cut into sirloin steaks with a good knife).
Make sure that the meat you are buying is the freshest it can be, always check the date labels to see when it had been wrapped. Think of the serving sizes of the meat portions. Buying with the bone in takes up a lot of weight and there will definitely be less meat, so factor that into the cost.
Perhaps the biggest way to save money in the meat department is to eat less meat. Look at recipes where the meat is used sparingly or think about have one meatless meal a week, you can find recipes online and in libraries. Caterers have different price points to offer their clients, they won't be all high end or low end and for variety, quality and your health you have to realize that not all meals can be super inexpensive.
One of the easiest tricks to copy from caterers is asking the deli counter to shave your cold cuts in very fine slices. It gives the illusion that you have much more. You will also find that you will use less of them if you bunch them up on your sandwich deli style instead of laying them flat (and it is a nicer presentation). Always ask if there is another brand that is on sale of your favourite cold cut and ask for a small tasting sample before you buy. There is no point on buying something on sale that you latter find you won't eat.
Make your own deli salads. The reason a lot of people buy deli salads is because of the convenience and they are rushed. You can make your own at home the day before you need them, just cover them well in the refrigeratore (you might find that you have to spice them again as somethimes they tend to lose some of their flavour in the fridge). Pros don't make everything they day it is needed because they just don't have the time, so prepare some items ahead of time.
FISH AND SEAFOOD
There is much more than just fish at the fish counter. Mussels, crab, shrimp, oysters are just a few of the items offered at a good fish counter. Fresh fish and seafood never has a bad odor to it, the eyes on the fish are bright and shiny and the fish is firm to the touch.
Caterers know that just a few expensive items used as a garnish on a plate can make the whole dish seem pricey, such as a shrimp or two on top of a seafood linguine. As with meat, use seafood sparingly and if cooking it in a casserole think of using frozen seafood as it will be considerably less expensive. Once again check on-line and in libraries for new recipe ideas. Many better grocery stores are trying to encourage their customers to try more seafood and they have recipe cards available.
Cheeses can be placed in several areas around the store, the bulk section, in the deli, in a separate cheese case and also in the dairy section. These areas are generally spread out far enough from each other to make it inconvenient to do price checks but you should be checking the prices.
It can be double the cost buying cheddar from the deli section compared to the bulk section. If a bulk piece is too large for you remember that it can very easily be divided into smaller portions and be frozen for up to 3 months. The frozen cheese will have a crumbly texture to it so it will be unsuitable for slicing but will be fine for grating on top of tacos, casseroles, etc. Many items from the dairy section can be frozen for up to 3 months such as butter, cheeses and cream cheeses but test with small amounts first in case the texture is affected. Milk can also be frozen but the texture will never be the same, it will separate after it has thawed.
Buying giant sized frozen packages of out of season fruits and vegetables is a great cost saver, but not if you end up throwing half of it out due to freezer burn. Do as the pros do and repackage them into plastic containers or bags in standard sized lots of 2 cups or what ever is most useful to you (that way you will always know how much to take out). As mentioned earlier fresh off season produce can be quite pricey and in a cooked dish no one will know that it was originally frozen.
Large grocery stores now often have their own bulk food sections selling everything from loose cookies to spices to snacks. These are great for baking ingredients if you need just a tiny bit and great for when you are trying out new recipes and only want a small amount. In general bulk items tend to cost 1/3 less than packaged ingredients but it should never be assumed that they are always cheaper- you have to compare. You save money on buying the quantity you need, not by over buying- in your list note how much you need (eg, 1 cup).
At home compare your fist size to a one cup measure so when you are in the store you will be able to see if what you have in the bag is larger or smaller than your fist and therefore how close to a one cup measure it is. In a busy store items get refreshed regularly but let your senses guide you, don't buy anything that looks like it has been there for a while no matter how good the deal.
Think of shopping in the grocery store aisles as your chance to do warehouse shopping without paying the warehouse membership fees. A caterer has staples that they need all the time, such as soup stock, canned tomatoes, and pasta- they base many recipes using these items, when they see them on sale at the grocery store they will buy 12 or 24. You have your own staples such as spaghetti sauce or a favourite BBQ sauce, if there is no limit when they are on sale don't just buy 2 buy 12 if it is something you know you will use up in the next 3 months.
When you get your food home take the time to organize it then and there, it does no good to buy large bags of frozen food that you plan to separate into smaller sizes if you don't actually do it.
If you have to store extra cans and jars away from the pantry because of space make a note and post it on the inside of the pantry door to remind yourself. Try organizing your cooking as well. If you are peeling potatoes for a potato salad one night and know that you are having mashed potatoes the following night peel the extra potatoes that you will need and cover them with water and place in the refrigerator.
If you find that the preparation work for dinner exhausting at 5pm try doing some after dinner for the following nights dinner. A caterer has staff to help and if you have family members that are old enough to help make them do so.
Finally remember that a caterer is a business person with a plan, they need to know what they need and when they need it because they just don't have the time to run back to the store at the last minute. Using some of the secrets used by caterers you will end up saving both time and money.
Photography and Content
Copyright Ingrid Talpak 2009