How Do You Buy Food Responsibly?

An American grocery store, flooded with choices.
Image from Beauty recalimed blog;
from a very interesting visual post about
the differences between Africa and the U.S.
Although I manage well now, I used to experience extreme anxiety when food shopping. On a good trip to the grocery store, I'd take about 90 minutes to buy around $40 to $50 worth of food. I'd put things in my shipping basket, regret it, and return it to the shelf 20 minutes later. More than once, I noticed early warning signs that my shopping was completely unproductive, and I'd just walk out of the store empty-handed.

The number of choices an educated American makes when food shopping is staggering. Beyond figuring what you'll eat over the next few days, you also have to balance health, nutrition, and psychology (not buying sweets is as dangerous as buying too many; if you have a craving and can't satisfy it with what you have in the house, maybe you'll buy convenience food spur of the moment, which is bigger than what you need or want...). Then the ethical questions must be addressed. How much meat to buy? How much fish? Is the fish sustainable? Should your foods be locally sourced? When is price more important than proximity of origin? And how do you decide between what you should buy to meet at your ethical baseline versus buying healthy foods you know you'll actually eat?

Numerous times have I stood over a mound of bananas pondering these questions.

I wrote recently about the value of meal-planning and list-making. I do those two tasks not only to be more efficient with time and money, but also as a lifehackerish way of coping with situations that cause extreme anxiety. Methodical solutions help.

Still, does it ever seem completely crazy that Americans face all these choices to begin with? How much time and money do we have on our hands that deciding between locally-produced honey and a jar imported from Greece is even considered an ordinary option?

We get hung up on mass-food industry issues like the difference between natural sugar and corn syrup (which I see as a diversionary tactic when we should be talking about any kind of sweetener used as filler) when really we ought to be demanding simplified options. The food industry is too big and is hardly about "food" at all.

What I'd like to see is a movement toward simplified food stores. Farmers' markets and green markets are the right start. Give me simplified options that decrease the number of decisions I have to make while shopping. That's what I really want.

Pepperplate for Recipe Management, Food Shopping, Meal Planning

Pepperplate (free) has a website and mobile apps for planning meals, storing recipes, and creating shopping lists.

One website and app that I've been fiddling with lately for recipe management, food shopping lists, and meal planning is Pepperplate (free). It has mobile apps for iPhone, iPad, and Android. Use is limited on smartphones, but I actually think it works reasonably well on the iPad, save for a few inefficiencies in design.

The site and apps let you create recipes or import them from a number of other websites, including, Smitten Kitchen,, Bon Appetit, Food Network, Real Simple,, Food Network, and a bunch of others. I like that it imports a photo with the recipe, too. One of the inefficiencies is that you have to copy and paste the recipe's URL into the browser. I'd like to see something automated, maybe similar to what Pinterest does, which is give you a bookmark for your browser that does the copy and paste work for you. With Pinterest, when you install and then select the "Pin it" bookmark browser anytime you find a site with an image you want to save, it automatically does the work for you.

I really like that Pepperplate has calendaring, though I'm not crazy about how it operates. Calendaring lets you put recipes onto a calendar so that you can plan your meals. As I've been using it, though, I've found it doesn't work smoothly. Sometimes I try to drag a recipe from one position to another without success. Sometimes I push a button and nothing happens. So, there's work to be done there, but I like the concept.

Lastly, for any recipe, you can generate a shopping list. This feature makes the smartphone mobile apps much more worth having than the others. Pepperplate will add all the ingredients to your shopping list, and if you have something in your pantry already, you can just X off to remove it. A feature I'd suggest: Add a space called "Pantry" or some such, where I can tell Pepperplate, "Look, I always have salt, pepper, olive oil, chicken stock, onions, and garlic. When those ingredients appear on a recipe, exclude them from the shopping list."

How to Organize Food Shopping and Meal Planning

Cooking is one of those things I do without too much thought most of the time. Day to day, I know what's in the refrigerator, and I know how to make the most of it. Use the scallions instead of the onions; the scallions will go bad in two days but the onions have weeks of shelf life left. The day-old bread can go in the soup or become croutons. Don't buy fresh bread for another two days because we don't need it quite yet and it'll just age if it sits in our house too soon.

Those are the kinds of things I don't even quite think. They are all just there, catalogued and present, shuffling into position.

A few weeks ago, Boyfriend and I made a pledge to take a more conscious joint effort to maximize our meal planning and minimize our take-out and restaurant dining. We've been really good at doing it together. Part of what I had to figure out is how to express to him what I already know in my head.

I started using a couple of tools to this end, which I'll share here over the next few days. The first is Awesome Note +Todo, an iPhone app that I use for list-making (my full review of Awesome Note is on PCMag).

In the first image on this page, the folders to pay attention to are Food in the... (the rest says "House") and Shopping, which is for grocery shopping. The green folder doesn't catalog every single food item in our house, but it covers big staples that I want to remember, like rice and pasta, as well as fresh food. As we use food, I just hit the check mark and the item goes to the trash.

The shopping tab has, of course, a list of foods we need to buy. While I do reference it when we go to the store, I also use it as we're planning out our meals for the week: I start by assessing what we have in the house, collaborating with Boyfriend on how we can use what we have, then add things we need to buy to fill in the blanks. It actually has been more effective to write everything down, compared to the success rate of doing it solely in my head. Sometimes I would forget one thing: "Argh! No pine nuts! Well, I guess I could substitute in some crushed walnuts..." and I'd be forgetting that the walnuts were being saved for something else. And when I did remember, "Well, I need the walnuts on Saturday, so I'll just swing by the store sometime between now and then."

Since we started writing down everything, there are way fewer of these impromptu, last-minute trips to the store. We do diverge from the plan here and there, but usually not radically. For example, we were going to have fresh fish tonight, which means one of us had to run to the fish market after work, but neither of us had time. I also had an ambitious plan to make a buerre blanc sauce for some broccoli, but it wasn't meant to be. So I pulled some frozen shrimp from the freezer instead of getting fresh fish, and we changed up the vegetable slightly, munching on some raw broccoli in addition to a quick Turkish side dish (called yogurtlu pazi sapi -- my version is a bit different from this one on the link, but they're close) that could be assembled from stuff I was going to throw out if we didn't use anyway: sauté the stems from a bunch of swiss chard with onions and spices, cube some day-old bread and mix it into plain yogurt, layer the vegetables first and then the yogurt on top and it's done.

Awesome Note is by no means the only tool for organizing shopping lists and meal-planning, but it's one of my favorites right now. Over the next couple of days, I'll share some of the other apps and tools I use for planning, budgeting, and shopping.

Brushstroke (NYC)

"A feast for the sense" is what I want to say about Brushstroke, David Bouley's latest New York restaurant serving a modern kaiseki menu, but it's much too much of a cliche for a restaurant that elevates traditional Japanese monk food to near-molecular gastronomy levels.

Dishes are innovative, cooks in the spacious open kitchen are as attentive as the waitstaff, and the whole restaurant exudes calm, even late on a Friday night.

I worked my way through a leisurely two-and-half hour dinner with the Brushstroke seven-course tasting menu ($85, with meat and fish or vegetarian), the only other option being a longer $135 tasting menu. If there is an a la carte menu, as I heard there might be, I never saw it. Nor did I need to. At Brushstroke, you do want to leave your tastebuds in the restaurant's fine hands.

Hawaiian hearts of palm and broccoli rabe with yuzu mustard miso

Steamed chawan-mushi egg custard, black truffle sauce and uni

Today's sushi (tao fish; shown at top)

Option: Grilled anago and malanga yam dumpling  with anake sauce
Miso marinated black cod with chrysanthemum leaf puree (shown middle)
*Boyfriend and I went one for one here, I preferring my anago and he dedicated to his cod from the first bite

Steamed duck breast with yuzu mustard dressing, flash-fried nasu eggplant (shown lower)

King crab and salmon roe over steamed sushi rice (chirashi style) with a winter vegetable stew soup

Dessert option: I settled on a tiny pot of sweet red bean pudding that was served with a gaping bowl of hot matcha; Boyfriend opted for the fresh fruits in sake gelee, which consisted of a martini glass holding a variety of segmented citrus, pomegranate seeds, and a few other fruits nestled into a clear gelatine lightly flavored with sake.

30 Hudson Street (at Duane Street)
Monday through Saturday, dinner only
Reservations required