Secrets of the supermarket

Insider tips, tricks and tactics to make shopping a snap

Believe it or not, “stress-free” and “family grocery shopping” can be uttered in the same breath — but it’s all about the tool box. Is yours stuffed with strategies and tips to shave both time and dollars off your bill? The average Canadian tallies an exhausting 228 grocery store trips per year, so preparation is the name of the game. We’ve discovered a bevy of supermarket secrets that will have you sailing through the aisles like a pro, snagging all the best finds and loving every minute of it.

So get ready, get set and slide that quarter into your cart.

Timing is everything

Shop weekday mornings. If you can avoid the grocery store on weekends and from 4 to 6 p.m. during the week, you’ll also avoid crowds and lineups that can put both you and the kids in a sour mood. Former grocery cashier and mother Lynn Sauve of Barrie, Ont., has seen it all — from meltdowns in the dairy aisle to diaper-bottomed babies placed right on the conveyor belt. “Tuesday mornings seem the quietest,” she says, and small children arriving at 9 a.m. with a bellyful of breakfast are often the most content.

Be an early bird. If you’re looking for the freshest stuff, morning-stock-up time is prime time. At Longo’s supermarket chain in the Toronto area, the entire produce section is set up (and restocked) and closed down every day. Ask your produce manager what your store’s routine is.

Shop without kids. Try evenings when you’ve got a tag team: One parent stays home with the children while the other does the quick and dirty single-shop.

Get a sitter! Child care is key for Jenn Groff of Ajax, Ont. “With my list, a calculator and a coffee in hand, I can shop in complete peace. The money spent on the sitter is saved in the store without my kids asking for higher-cost brands with Superman on the packaging!”

Get them involved. The Mogus family of Oakville, Ont., prefers to shop en famille, despite the logistics of five children aged six months to 10 years. The trick is in the list: Each kid gets a laminated, reusable, age-appropriate version with an erasable marker to check off the items. “For the two-year-old, we cut out pictures of what we need to buy,” says Janet Mogus, adding that the family makes a point of shopping during off-peak hours.

Let them eat. “Shopping makes adults hungry, so why not the kids too?” asks Maria Marotta, a Claremont, Ont., mother of three teenage daughters and Real Canadian Superstore employee. When her children were young, Marotta was never shy about opening juice boxes or bags of cookies before they had reached the checkout. Most stores don’t mind this practice, as long as empty packaging (with bar codes intact!) is handed to the cashier.

Make a choice. In large supermarkets, the selection can be overwhelming. Teach your kids how to handle the freedom of choice by holding up two parent-approved cereals to pick from or sending them off to find “bananas without too many black spots.”

Supermarket produce sections are not always the Garden of Eden. Here’s how to ferret out the freshest:

Break up banana bunches. Mixing colours ensures an even supply of ripe bananas. Pick just a few of the following: green, yellow-green and deep yellow with black spots instead of a big bunch that will ripen simultaneously.

Dry up. Misting helps green leafy vegetables look nice on display, but a just-showered bunch is too soggy to take home. Give it a good shake before bagging and remember to remove rubber bands and twist-ties (which cause rotting) before storing in the crisper.

Avoid slime. Ask your produce manager to supply paper bags for mushrooms and bean sprouts, which keep longer away from plastic.

Shop local. When you buy locally grown produce, you contribute to sustainability and the environment. Let your produce manager know that local is on your shopping list. And remember: Locally grown apples, pears, onions, squash and potatoes are available in the middle of the winter, thanks to the wonders of cold storage. Fresh, local mushrooms are produced year-round!

Getting organized

Step 1: The menu plan. Plotting a week’s meals ensures better nutrition and less shopping.

Step 2: The list. Not only does the list help reduce spontaneous buying and keep you on budget, but shoppers with lists are more likely to shop less. Listless? Use our handy printable grocery list.

Step 3: The order. Whether you keep it computerized or scrawled on scrap paper, the best lists are organized according to store sections: dairy, meat, produce, fresh bread, deli, frozen and staples. This helps keep your journey straight and fast.

If you think there’s a butcher in your supermarket, think again. While staff can stock the meat shelves, they’re not always trained to answer your beefy questions. Most meat and poultry arrives from the distributor already cut, packaged and labelled.

Go big. Wholesale clubs like Costco can offer tremendous meat discounts. One large package can translate into several meals. Repackage and freeze at home.

See it all. Unfortunately, the majority of meat sold in supermarkets is packed on Styrofoam trays showing only half the picture, so you never know how much fat or bone is lurking on the underside. For full disclosure, buy meat you can see, like vacuum packed. Or find a store with an old-fashioned meat counter.

Location, location, location. Beware of any grocery stores that recklessly place fresh meat or poultry above fresh produce. They’re creating a less-than-palatable risk of cross-contamination because raw meat juices may drip onto the fruit or vegetables.

Divide and conquer. It’s a good idea to bag meat and poultry when shopping to prevent cross-contamination in your shopping cart.

“Canadians love their freezers,” reports Toronto cookbook author Dana McCauley, noting we have more “second” freezers than anyone else. Frozen food aisles reflect this trend, taking over more supermarket space. In fact, Canadian sales of frozen food saw a four percent increase from 2004 to 2005.

Let it flow. When buying sweet peas, corn or berries, make sure the contents are free-flowing versus rock solid, which indicates they’ve been partially thawed and refrozen.

Don’t get burned. If frozen food is stored in see-through plastic, watch out for the telltale signs of freezer burn: crystallization, discoloration and shrinkage. The “burn” occurs when food is poorly packaged or frozen too long, robbing it of moisture and allowing oxygen to seep in.

The big chill. Cori Bonina, president of Stong’s Market in Vancouver, says improperly stored frozen food is safe to eat, but quality could be compromised. If it hasn’t been frozen properly, we’re talking lacklustre, dry and tough.

Tip: Shop with reusable cooler bags or keep a cooler in the car to ensure frozen items come home cold.

Get sales savvy. If the store succeeds, it will snare you in with a loss leader sale item that’s buried deep in the store. End result? You check out with more than you bargained for. Super shoppers are willing to hit five stores in one day to get the right prices.

Flyers 101. “If it’s not on sale,” says Sauve, “I won’t buy it.” Like any dedicated flyer shopper, Sauve has several emailed to her regularly. (Check out the website of your favourite supermarket and sign up for its email flyers, or go to flyermall.com where you’ll find the motherlode.)

Buy in bulk. Wholesale clubs like Costco have great prices. They attract as many small-business retail buyers as they do family shoppers. The trick to wholesale clubs is deep resolve. Do not stray from The List.

Calculate it. Bring a calculator, follow a list and run the calculator as you shop. When you hit the magic number, stop shopping and head for the cashier.

Irregular savings. Are dented cans and no-name brands a wise choice? According to Marnie Webb of the Food Safety Network in Guelph, Ont., it’s best to avoid dented cans, if possible, especially if the dent is along the seam, in the lid or directly underneath the lid. Meanwhile, it can pay to purchase house brands or no-name brands as many contain big brand contents at a much lower price.

Goods to go. Glenna Ottenbreit-Born of Regina is a big fan of the “discount carts” where she finds produce, such as ripe pineapple and papaya, marked down (because ill-trained produce workers think the fruit is past its prime, but it’s actually perfectly ripe).

Bin there. The bulk section is great for buying spices and dried herbs, says McCauley, especially when you just need a tablespoon. But McCauley warns that due to cross-contamination, it’s not the spot to shop for peanut-free school supplies. Hygiene is another concern: Have your fellow bin shoppers used their hands instead of the scoop or engaged in a little double-dipping? Experts say high-moisture bulk items like honey, peanut butter and molasses may carry a higher risk of harmful microbes than dry goods, since germs thrive best in liquids.

Supermarkets are subject to regular public health inspections, but not always as often as we might hope. Protect your family’s health by keeping your grocery shopping eyes wide open.

• Eggs sold at room temperature are not safe. Don’t buy them.

• Avoid large, open chest freezers that are stocked over the fill line. When too full, the contents may not be properly frozen.

• When shopping for fresh meat and produce, protect your hands and the contents of your grocery cart with a plastic bag. Slip the bag over your hand, pick out those chicken legs or bunch of broccoli, invert the bag over your purchase and avoid cross-contamination.

• There’s nothing wrong with asking a deli worker to change her gloves if you notice she’s sneezed into her hands or touched her hair just before slicing and weighing your havarti cheese.

• Studies show shopping carts (particularly the front where babies and toddlers sit) are bursting with bacteria. Because you may not want to sit your toddler where a chicken was resting, consider swiping cart handles and seats with a sanitizing wipe before each shop.

When food quality and freshness decline, discounts proliferate. But is that safe? Ottenbreit-Born says she buys yogurt that has had its price slashed just prior to hitting the best-before date. According to Peter Travers of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, knowing the lingo is key. What’s the difference between the terms?

Expiry dates are mandatory on foods such as infant formula or drinks like Boost or Ensure. It is not legal for retailers to sell food past an expiry date, according to Travers.

Best-before dates are mandatory on packaged goods with a shelf life of 90 days or less, such as dairy or eggs. It’s OK if stores sell these products after the date — they’re allowed to — but you’ll end up with sour milk or rotten eggs.

Packaged-on dates are mandatory on all retailer-packaged meat. These products can also be sold once the date has come and gone. These dates are designed to coordinate with a time chart (which retailers are legally bound to display) that tells how long it’s safe to store that meat in the fridge.

Tip: Any shopper worth her salt knows to reach to the back of the dairy shelves to find the milk bag with the best best-before date!

Future shop

Imagine this: Thanks to a tiny gem called radio frequency identification (RFID) the future of checkout looks technologically terrific. Say goodbye to conveyor belts and hello to instant readout. In about 10 years, you’ll start to see much of your food tagged with these miniscule RFID chips. Roll the cart up to an automated cashier and bingo: The bill is tallied! But that’s after you’ve cruised the aisles of the future, taking advantage of the personal digital appliance attached to your shopping cart. That little screen will display your shopping list, personalized with allergy, nutrition, weight-loss and brand preference specs you’ve keyed in. That info comes in handy when you pick up a can and ping! a digital voice tells you the apple juice in your hands has expired, been recalled or simply has more sugar than you want your little space walker to drink that day.

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