Living In New York Series: Grocery Shopping
As much as it pains me to type this out, ordering Chinese, Thai and pizza for every meal is not sustainable. I know. It's unfair and painful, but it's the truth. Eventually, you'll need and want produce, greens, milk, and bread! Ya know, basic necessities.
Because you don't have the luxury of a car available or the space to store that extra 24 pack of Diet Coke, shopping for groceries becomes that much more complicated. Before I moved to NY, I stocked up on everything. If I could have been Costco spokeswoman, I would have raised my hand jumping in the air faster than anyone, and then demanded to have a personal sampler on speed dial.
So for me, learning to grocery shop and meal plan in the city was definitely a learning curve. Gone were the days of filling a shopping cart. Gone were the days of putting those extra drinks in my cart just because they were on sale. And gone were the days of thinking that waiting behind three people in line was a time suck.
When I moved here, I had to really plan my meals and ask myself: Is that 6-pack worth it? Before, the 6-pack was always worth it. But now, knowing it would add an extra 6 lbs. to my commute, usually it wasn't. What's more, my freezer could only hold two shoe boxes worth of food, my cabinets could only hold 1/4 of the cabinet space I was used to, and my fridge didn't even have a cheese drawer.
Just to set expectations, prepare to spend more than what you ever did at any other grocery store. Even the cheapest options are still more expensive then the national average. But, that's city life, and something you hopefully knew before you signed up to move here. Also, instead of buying food to feed you for a month, you'll most likely have to start buying food that only feeds you for a week, because that's all your fridge and freezer can hold.
To help ease your transition, here's a handy rundown of most of the grocery options in NYC. I usually mix and match to fit my needs.
This service might have actually saved my life. You think I'm kidding, but I"m not. My first year, I trekked to Trader Joes, waited in line, and took a cab back. All of which took me at least 2 hours, on a good day!
I've been using Fresh Direct now for more than two years, and the absolute best part is that it's delivered to your door, in a 2-hour time window that works for you. No longer did I have to take 3 hours out of my weekend to get food. If I wanted that extra 6-pack, bottle of wine, or case of Diet Cokes, I could order all three at once because homegirl would not have to carry it home or pay $15 for a cab. Holla!
In my opinion, they also have the best produce, meat, and seafood. It's reasonably priced, always goes on sale at some point, and you can choose to buy local and/or organic. While I'm not a hipster vegan at heart, I like my options. You can also get toilet paper, paper towels and dish cleaning shop, which also cuts down on the amount of errands you have to run. They had $6.99/pound lobster promotions all summer, and D and I ate our weight in fresh lobsters. They were some of the best lobsters we've eaten.
The only downside with FreshDirect is that sometimes their items are a little overpriced. A box of cereal can easily be more than $5, and mac & cheese for $2 (where is my 10 for $10 sale?!). I think eventually, as Fresh Direct becomes a little more mainstream, those prices will go down and be more competitive with brick and mortar grocery stores. Their dairy products are also crazy expensive. I still buy my milk and cheese from Gristedes because it's the least expensive option for me. Overall though, convenience wins for me every time.
To help save money, you can buy a Delivery Pass for around $60 that gives you unlimited, free delivery all year. Each delivery is around $6. If you use FreshDirect 10 times or more in one year, then you've put your pass to good use. They also run a lot of Free Shipping promotions which applies to your pass, so make sure to sign up for their emails. You can also sign up to have recurring shipments weekly, and reserve your favorite delivery time slot.
Grocery shop online during your lunch break, or download the app and shop while you're in line somewhere else
Best purchase: produce, meat, seafood, any beverage (alcoholic and non-alcoholic), and any household items
Things to skip: dairy and some pantry goods
Buy meat and/or seafood in bulk while it's on sale, then split into freezer bags and freeze. I always buy the chicken family pack, which usually comes with 6-8 chicken breasts. I pack them up individually, and freeze them for future meals. It's healthier and sometimes cheaper than buying already frozen meat.
Fresh Direct is running a great promo for $50 off your first TWO purchases! Sign up here.
This will always be your cheapest option for grocery shopping, and everyone in NYC knows it. I'm sure you're very familiar with Trader Joe's, and for good reason: their food is delicious, healthy and unique. There are only a handful of Trader Joe's in the city, so it makes shopping there really inconvenient for most people. If I lived with a block of a Trader Joe's I would most likely only buy TJ's. But, I don't.
If you are going to shop at Trader Joe's, there is a certain unwritten etiquette required:
Always shop from the inside to the outside, and from the bottom to the top. There is always a line at TJ's and you can never avoid it. That line usually runs around the outer edges of the store. Most likely, the line is always through the produce area. And you know what is annoying? People asking you to move every three seconds so they can shop in those sections. Once they're done shopping, they still have to get in that same line that wraps around the same section they were just being annoying in. If you shop outside of the line first, then get in line, you can shop while in line. It's efficient with your time, and you won't be annoying to anyone. Win-win.
If the TJ has more than one floor - I think this only applies to the 72nd & Broadway location - shop downstairs first, before shopping on the main floor. Again, the line forms on the main floor. There is no use to shop on the main floor first, then go downstairs to continue shopping, only to come back up to the main floor to stand in line. Efficiency people.
If it's just you shopping, don't use a cart. It just clogs up the space, and will make some sort of traffic jam somewhere. It's always good to use a basket. If it gets too heavy to hold in line, it's okay to set it on the floor, and then kind of kick it along as you move in the line. A lot of people in line do this, so don't worry about it being weird or rude.
I love their food, especially their frozen and pantry sections. It's all TJ specific brands, and it's always yummy! If you're purchasing beer, you can use one of the 6-pack holders, and then mix and match individual beers from any of the cases. They also have Two Buck Chuck (in NYC Three Buck Chuck), which always wins.
If you do end up purchasing too much, you can have it all delivered to your apartment. I think it's a $20 fee, but it's a good choice if it's too heavy for you to carry, or your cab will cost more than $20.
I personally am not a Whole Foods fan. I'm not sure why, but I've never jumped on the bandwagon. I think because I have a frugal soul and I've just never been that into it. I've been there maybe three times, and one of those times was a date (note to future daters: do not take a woman on a first date to Whole Foods).
Their food is the the most expensive option in all of the grocery lands, and they sell asparagus water (LOL!). However, I know people get all giddy over their selection and coming home with that green and brown paper bag. So, if that's your thing, you do you.
There are a lot of local grocery stores in the area: Gristedes, Morton Williams, Fairway, etc. Even more in Brooklyn that I couldn't tell you anything about. However, I think they're all the same, in that they're great to go to get last minute necessities. I usually always get my milk, cheese, deli meat and some pantry items from Gristedes. It turns out to be cheaper than Fresh Direct and there's one on my block. However, for larger things like meat, seafood, etc. usually their selection isn't that great and the prices are higher than average.
All the all, the very best option for grocery shopping is Fresh Direct, and I will sing that through the rooftops all day, every day.
What grocery stores, or services, do you use in the city?
The Living In New York Series originated from a desire to share my learnings and experiences of living in NYC., hopefully to make your experience easier. All of these suggestions are based solely off my experiences, and therefore only my opinions. If you have another positive opinion, I would love to read it in the comments!