My Summer Grocery Cart

'My Summer Grocery Cart.' photo (c) 2009, zoovroo - license:

Every Friday my syndicated column appears in a bunch of newspapers in southeastern Ontario and Saskatchewan. This week’s was more political in nature about the Olympics, so I thought I’d reprint one from 2004 about grocery shopping that I kind of like. Here you go!

I hate grocery shopping in the summer. The shopping itself is not the problem. It’s the possibility of meeting somebody I know in the checkout line. You know that little routine; you probably do it yourself. There you stand, with your cart filled with chips, hot dogs, ice cream, popsicles, and pop galore, and you try to arrange the one bag of romaine lettuce so it hides the Twinkies. “It’s for the kids, you know,” you say, knowing full well you’ll consume more than half of the stuff yourself.

I eat horribly in the summer. So does my family. It’s not intentional, exactly, it’s just that when you’re at the beach, or out camping, or going on a picnic, it’s so much easier to grab a bag of chips than it is to make a fruit salad.

My kids absolutely adore summer, and it’s not just because of the swimming. For once they don’t have to beg for the Fruit Roll Ups or the ice cream sandwiches to no avail, because I actually say yes. I know you can pack healthy foods for a picnic, and two or three times in the summer I actually try. When we go camping, we do start out with a lot of fruit and vegetables, but by about the third or fourth day these are all gone and the chips are popping out again.

During the school year I am preoccupied with those 5-10 servings of vegetables and fruits a day we all are supposed to eat. I count fibre grams on the cereal boxes. But I love summer and cracking open bags of granola bars with marshmallows and chocolate chips in them that the kids usually only get from their grandma.

Naturally, I feel a tad guilty about this, but I figure the kids are running around so much they’re at least burning off a lot of calories. What really amazes me, however, is how expensive my summer grocery bill is. It’s not just the chips and pretzels, either; cooking with Hamburger Helper or store bought marinade packets, our camping staples which I never buy normally, sure make that bill add up.

I simply do not know how people afford groceries if you buy prepared foods all the time. I once heard that for a healthy diet, you should spend 90% of your money on the outer aisles of the grocery store: the bread, the dairy, the fruits and vegetables, and the meats. Normally I never venture into those inner aisles, except for flour or to feed my Diet Pepsi craving. And that’s probably why we usually only spend about $90 a week on groceries for the four of us. It’s not expensive if you’re making food from scratch.

Increasingly, though, people don’t do this. First, many of us were never taught how to cook from scratch. We simply don’t know how. Yet even if we do know, it can be hard to find the time or the energy. The other seems so much easier. And it is. But it’s not healthy, and it’s sure hard on your wallet.

This year I’m starting to teach my 9-year-old how to make some simple suppers, including spaghetti and chicken pie. Neither is difficult, and she’s feeling very grown up knowing that she can actually cook. The next step is to make twice as much and freeze half, so that when we are pressed for time, we’re not tempted towards those other aisles.

My husband, when he had his pediatric office practice, often had parents complain that a healthy diet was just too expensive. That, however, is a common misperception. Certainly fruits and vegetables can seem expensive (although they’re never cheaper than they will be right now during the summer), but think how much more two apples will fill you up than a whole bag of chips. You don’t need to buy as much food if you’re eating healthily as you do if you’re depending on starches to fill your diet.

I’ll try to remember this when I’m stocking up for my next camping trip. But I probably won’t completely return to my winter ways just yet. So if you happen to see me in the grocery store, and I pretend not to notice you, just don’t look in my shopping cart.

Don’t miss a Reality Check! Sign up to receive it FREE in your inbox every week! Subscribers, sign up HERE.


  1. Yes! One reason why I love Alton Brown’s show “Good Eats” so much–he focuses on doing it yourself (not to mention humor and understanding the science behind the food!). Granted, some of his recipes can be elaborate, but it’s a great show to garner some motivation about food. If you don’t have cable, YouTube has numerous episodes.

    • Thanks for the tip – Good Eats on YouTube. I love Alton Brown for the same reasons you mentioned, but we choose not to have cable, it’s too expensive. We do, however, have a big fancy TV that connects nicely to the internet & Netflix. Yippee! Whoda thunkit?

  2. I don’t know. We’re working on having a fruit and vegetable at every meal. But 1.68 for a bag of pretzels that will last us two weeks with our sandwhiches is cheaper than the $3 I spend on carrots (to cut into sticks) and apples (of which my kids only eat half at a time) that only last a week. $1.68 for 2 weeks vs. $6 for 2 weeks? When budgets are tight, pretzels win.

    When budgets aren’t tight, apples and carrots win.

    I prefer the apples and carrots. I prefer grilling my own chicken to put together a great salad. It is why we planted a garden this year.

    It is getting a variety that we struggle with.

    But that is just my two cents. :)

    • If it helps, I now buy organic apples & pears in the bags. I think I’ve had one go bad in the two years since I’ve started buying/eating apples & pears this way. I store them in the fridge (crisper drawer when I can), often pulling out one or two in the evening so they can ripen a bit more overnight or over the next couple of days if needed. When I first made the change I was shocked at how much longer the organic fruit lasts (veggies too actually) over conventional fruit (and veggies). I would say a bag of organic apples or pears will easily last two weeks in the fridge (if I don’t eat them all first:). (I’m buying more pears than apples right now because the apples are so expensive, but on occasion I indulge anyway.)
      I struggle with variety too. I’m making the same things over and over, until I’m so bored I stop making them all together.

  3. That’s kind of funny, actually. We always eat MUCH healthier in the summer than we do in the winter. But then, I adore fresh fruits and vegetables.

    2 things that help with affordability (since we’re on a tight budget too): find a local farmer’s market where you can buy produce in season; and grow some yourself! We have a container garden this year with tomatoes, lettuce, and green onions. And let me tell you – we eat those tomatoes like kids eat candy (or twinkies). They are SO good!
    Elizabeth J recently posted…Happy August! and other news.My Profile

  4. learning is fun! says:

    We’re definitely finding it difficult to fit the veggies into our diet lately, and because of the strange spring we had (humidex values over 30 in March, followed by heavy frost through April) has devastated a lot of the local fruit growers’ crops.

    My wife and I are on a budget, which targets $70 per week as our limit for groceries. Prepared foods are at a minimum, as I’m presently dealing with some blood pressure issues, and anything prepared tends to be loaded with sodium. Additionally, we’re both trying to be better stewards of our bodies, which involves a lot of attention to diet. We don’t buy a lot of ‘junk’ food, since our already-tight budget won’t allow for it, and since we’re very aware that neither of us has much control in that area. We use the weekly grocery store flyers to compile our shopping list, and we’ll make the trip to the various stores around town, to take advantage of the prices. At one point, I used to figure that the time spent driving around, and the fuel costs would negate the savings, but no, it really is worth it!

    In addition to farmer’s markets, another option available for fresh produce (at least in Ontario) is something called ‘the Good Food Box.’ Many communities have this set up, where you pay a monthly amount, and pick up a box of fresh, mostly local produce, once a month, and it changes up, depending on what’s in season. Check for details.

  5. We used to spend quite a bit of money on fun “snacky” food during the summer for camping and hikes and such, but Mister Budget is our master now and he says “cook from scratch – even snacks!” :-) Plus I have some dietary restrictions that prevent me from eating most packaged snacks. So I don’t really have a choice – I have to make it work. And we looooove fruits and vegetables, but we live in a definite “seasonal” zone, so during the winter we buy frozen. No shame in that! We did find that once we eliminated a lot of the prepared food from our grocery list our budget went down. Does that mean I work a little harder in the kitchen? Yeah, but now I’m kind of addicted to it. LOL
    Melissa recently posted…I Appreciate…My Profile

  6. I JUST started experiencing this for the first time a few weeks ago, and I love this article! With preparing for roadtrips and fun days out and about…my shopping cart has quickly become a sticking point for me, HAHA. Thanks for the article!

  7. I think we balance out in the summer. On weekends we do tend to buy chips and other snackie foods. We also buy plenty of freezies. And I find this funny because I also worry not only about running into someone I know, but even what the strangers in the store are thinking about me. I cook most of our food from scratch and my child laments all school year long that the other kids get Fruit Roll Ups in their lunches and she just gets actual fruit(and a sandwhich haha). During the week in the summer, though, we eat a lot more salad and fresh fruit and a lot less meat. So we balance out.

  8. So true about summer! Every day or every other day seems like a great reason for a special treat! My kids go to school early (they are already in) because of year round school. So we’re back to some sort of routine with our food, but it’s still easy to say, “A bag of chips taste great at the beach!” We did bring a watermelon last time and that was fun.
    Arlene Pellicane recently posted…Unemployment BluesMy Profile

  9. We don’t do a lot of prepackaged foods any time of the year. We don’t even like most of them. I do a lot of cooking from scratch, but I also use a lot of shortcuts (buying canned spaghetti sauce, for example, rather than making it). The important thing to us is to eat healthy and to eat things we like, even if that means a little more money. So we buy some frozen veggies and some canned and get quality meats (i.e. not from Walmart – their meats are horrible), but I look for sales. It’s not too expensive because we almost never buy junk food, but it’s not the cheapest we could eat. We do like more than just rice and beans, after all. It seems to work for us.

    I do like summertime when fruits and veggies are cheaper and better quality. However, there are some things I don’t buy fresh because I end up forgetting about them and they go bad. I’ve been buying more fruits and veggies this year, however, because I have a baby now and I make most of her food myself. I prefer to give her fresh or frozen items that have more vitamins and better taste rather than canned foods.
    Lindsay Harold recently posted…Chicken Fettuccine AlfredoMy Profile

  10. When we go on trips I usually try to pack a decently healthy meal. In some cases, that includes lunchmeat sandwiches (what else works if you can’t cook?), but I add baby carrots and grapes and granola bars as sides rather than chips or snack cakes. When we take a drive in the National Forest on a weekend, we often pack the cooler and our portable charcoal grill and cookout on the tailgate of the truck. It’s really fun and delicious. I just freeze hamburger patties and then put them in the cooler and they’re fine all day. Occassionally they’re still frozen and take longer to cook though. I also bring pre-scrubbed potatoes and cut them up, add butter and seasoning, wrap them in aluminum foil, and place them on the grill until tender. Conveniently, it’s about the same length of time as the burgers. We can also heat cans of red beans or green beans on the grill. I’ve even cooked eggs on aluminum foil on the grill. There are plenty of ways to avoid eating junk food, even on trips, if you’re creative.
    Lindsay Harold recently posted…The Good Thing About GunsMy Profile

  11. I find the different experiences with food costs interesting. For my family of 5, $600/month for groceries (including toiletries, etc) is difficult to maintain. We cook practically everything from scratch. We buy lots of fresh fruits & veggies that disappear almost overnight. I have had to start buying canned fruits because my kids eat so much fruit and paying $8 for a bag of grapes that is gone in about 15 minutes is just painful. :)
    sheridan recently posted…Weekday WorshipMy Profile

  12. My family made a HUGE change in the way we eat almost a year ago. For my dad’s birthday (a few months later), we had a “beans and taters” meal complete with cornbread and biscuits. “His” biscuits are the reeeally awful kind, made with white self-rising flour and margarine (of all things). When I went to the store to get all the ingredients, I had 10 pounds of white flour, 3 pounds of margarine, a gallon of buttermilk, 10 pounds of sugar and a huge box of tea bags. I was absolutely mortified that I had nothing but all that awful-for-you stuff in my cart and was completely terrified that someone I know would see me. I definitely laughed at myself over it (after I left the store and had my bags safely in the car;)). It’s a blessing that my crew loves, loves, loves to eat the healthier foods that I’m making now, but they do like their occasional junk food. Buying ready-made junk food is not an option very often because when I do buy the chips/cookies/boxed cereals, I buy organic to keep from getting all the reeeally bad ingredients. Needless to say, the price of the organic “junk” is a good incentive to make all our quick snacks myself. We enjoy cheeses, nuts, homemade granola bars (and cereal), cookies/cakes sweetened with honey or maple syrup, and lots and lots of fruit and veggies. Fortunately, our huge garden and several fruit trees, my hubby’s love of deer hunting, and my sons’ love of fishing w/Poppee take care of a large part of our grocery bill. I’ve also learned how to streeeetch a chicken. I can get at least 3-4 meals out of one chicken. :) Since we made the switch to eating healthy, I can keep my entire grocery bill under $400/month for my family of 5. During harvest time, it’s even less than that. It also helps to do like you mentioned and cook double batches…one for now and one for the freezer for a crazier day. It’s kinda funny that you mentioned a lot of people feel like healthier foods are more expensive than the more processed foods. I used to feel the same way, but I learned that when you make your foods from scratch- whether it’s cream of mushroom soup or pizza or peanut butter or mayo- it’s so much cheaper.

  13. As a food snob, health nut, I actually fell sick to my stomach reading your list, even your “healthy” one! Lol!! May I suggest buying Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon. You will be amazed. I promise. :)

  14. Just over two years ago, with help of a nutritionist, I cut sugar and all of it’s many friends (dextrose, high fructose corn syrup, artificial sweetener, maple syrup, honey, agave, etc.) from my diet in an attempt to (finally) balance my blood sugar (and YEARS AND YEARS of related problems). (It worked, thankfully! And I had my doubts – If the medical doctors kept dismissing me, how would a nutritionist be able to help? #GodSend!)
    To date, I still find eating healthier to be very expensive. The good news is that I do feel leaps & bounds better. A high grocery bill is a necessary evil for me. I have to eat meat protein, veggies, veggies and more veggies with a little fruit and plenty of good fats to keep my blood sugar balanced and to feel “right.” I do know these things are all so much better for me than the toxic garbage I used to eat (i.e. fake cheese snacks and boxed, frozen “meals”). Actually reading the ingredients (who am I kidding, trying to read) on some of those foods helped scare me straight too – what are those mystery ingredients (toxins?) anyway!? Yikes!
    @Kate S., Thank you for suggesting the Sally Fallon book! In a quick look at Amazon it sounds as if she’s on target with many of the same things my nutritionist taught me! I look forward to checking it out! Maybe I’ll learn some tips to help my grocery bill! 😛

Comment Policy: Please stay positive with your comments. If your comment is rude, it gets deleted. Any comment that espouses an anti-marriage philosophy (eg. porn, adultery, abuse and the like) will be deleted. If it is critical, please make it constructive. If you are replying to another commenter, please be polite and don't assume you know everything about his or her situation. If you are constantly negative or a general troll, you will get banned. The definition of terms is left solely up to us. Sheila Wray Gregoire owns the copyright to all comments and may publish them in whatever form she sees fit. She agrees to keep any publication of comments anonymous, even if you are not anonymous on this board.

Leave a Comment


CommentLuv badge