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Pantry Strategies

The complications of grocery shopping for part-time residents.

I’m an only child, so I grew up with the knowledge of how to shop and store food for a household of three.  As my own family increased in size, I needed to learn how to buy two gallons rather than a half gallon of milk, and my husband would often shop with me, patiently replacing the smaller size of staples I put in the cart with the larger ones required by a family of eight.  In my mind, a box of cookies would last a week, while the reality is that a single box would not survive long enough to make it to the cupboard in a household with six boys.  I often felt that I was being circled by piranhas when I returned from the store.  That early training did not get undone easily, but eventually I made the adjustment.  I learned to buy enough for all of us, and how to stretch it out to last as long as possible. 

But those hard learned lessons do not serve me well for grocery shopping on the island and stocking the house here.  I get stuck on the dilemma that the larger sizes are more cost effective, but wasteful if we cannot finish them.  If we are here only for two days, but will be back a few days later, a half gallon or even a gallon of milk may still make sense.  But if it will be two weeks before we can return, then the calculus begins.  Usually the half gallon still finds itself in the cart, along with something like a pudding mix to use it up.  And two weeks later, sometimes what’s left of that milk needs to go down the drain, offending all of my acquired Yankee instincts.

The goal for our island grocery shopping is to have enough of the non-perishables here that we can avoid a grocery trip entirely if necessary, but not to have so much that we would exceed even a liberal interpretation of the expiration dates.  For perishables we need to have just enough of the necessary ones to be able to use them up, without waste.  This is a lot harder to accomplish than it sounds!

I have learned a few tricks along the way . . .  Flexibility in recipe ingredients can be your friend.  Melted vanilla ice cream is a perfectly good substitute for milk in coffee or in a muffin recipe.  Five pounds of flour may be too much to use up in a few months, but it can be rotated to the off-island house to make sure what is here is reasonably fresh.  The large family purchase of a 10-pound bag of potatoes that took me years to learn should be replaced with buying individual potatoes.

While north of the Sound leftovers are a good thing, on island they are a liability.  The last couple days of an island stay usually involve no new cooking (except for pudding to use up milk), and working down the stock of leftovers in the fridge.  By the time we get to the ferry, we don’t want to see food for a week. 

A dinner invitation on our last night here finds us angling to figure out how much of the meal we can bring with us without insulting the hostess. And then we remember that they are also leaving the island the next day, and realize that they invited us over expressly to clean out their fridge!  This at least assures me that while I may be particularly challenged by grocery shopping, I’m not alone.

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Jason Peringer July 15, 2011 at 11:25 PM
Having lived alone as a bachelor for almost all of my adult life, rations are basically of a day to day variety. My parents STILL cook as if the entire family lives at home, 20 some odd years after the fact...
Maggie Dempsey July 18, 2011 at 05:31 AM
I think I have the reverse problem, Maureen! I was raised in a house that cooked for five or more every night, and now that I am just looking out for two people, I find myself with a lot of leftovers or worse... waste. I wish a more seasoned year-rounder (since I am still a newbie) might write a similar entry to this, but more focused on the where to stock up and save aspect. I constantly feel like I'm being raked over the coals, especially with the convenience buys at Cronig's or Alley's, but off-island trips are costly themselves. In the off-months I don't mind getting a ferry reservation every six to eight weeks and making a run to a Wal-Mart or BJ's. But in the summer when reservations are at their most costly, I can't rationalize making the trek. I know there must be tricks and tips that I just haven't discovered yet...
Maureen Leland July 18, 2011 at 11:16 AM
Maggie - I agree, that would be good - I think it must need a very different approach for a full time year rounder. We currently have three in college, so we're having to adjust the groceries several times a year depending on how many are home. It gets very confusing!
Jason Peringer July 18, 2011 at 11:29 AM
I touched on the technique in "Beans and Rice" http://marthasvineyard.patch.com/blog_posts/beans-and-rice (I gotta learn how to do in post hyperlinks) but it revolves around dry goods, a chest freezer, and shopping when SSA rates are lowest. I could expand on it in a future post, but I would have to include the "island potluck" tradition. :-P

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