$30 dollars for 50 lbs of produce, that’s less than a dollar per pound! Would you believe me if I told you this was the total cost of my last trip to the ethnic grocery store? I know what you’re thinking…she’s one of those coupon masters (nope), it was a closeout sale (nada), she must know the guy (fat chance). Let me put your mind at ease – no coupons, crazy sales or personal connections were necessary. In fact, there is likely an ethnic market in close proximity to the grocery store you regularly frequent where, with a little forethought and a slight geographical detour, you can walk out of the store with a cart overflowing with fresh produce and interesting items that haven’t burned a hole in your wallet.
Let me set the scene…growing up in the Caribbean I had a variety of fruits and vegetables literally at my fingertips, as we lived on a chicken farm and our backyard was filled with fruit trees. Embarrassingly, I’ll admit that sometimes I would even complain I was sick of picking guavas, drinking guava juice and eating guavas for dessert. Cleary a luxury I took for granted! Once I moved to the States I quickly realized that maybe I should have enjoyed just one more guava from my own backyard…I’d had it so good.
Wanting to find a solution and being somewhat limited as a family on a tight budget, but unwilling to compromise my diet filled with fresh fruits and veggies, I stumbled upon a Latin market (aka ‘gold mine’) in the winter wonderland community I now call home. As is common with many immigrants, the culinary preferences from my homeland didn’t change just because I’d moved to a new country. I was used to eating lots of fresh vegetables, tender cuts of meat, flavorful spices and succulent, colorful fruit when I prepared my Caribbean dishes. And with a growing young family, I too can acknowledge just how important it is to eat the **daily recommended amount of fruits and vegetables. Sadly, **75% of Americans don’t reach the suggested daily requirement. Among a host of challenging variables, this statistic blatantly reflects the enormous expense often encountered when trying to feed a family fresh, wholesome fruits and vegetables on a limited budget. So when I stumbled upon my Latin market, it felt like the stars had aligned!
The great thing is the stars can align for you too, saving you money in countless ways if you’ll give your local ethnic market a chance! Below is the lowdown on how to save the most when shopping at a store similar to my Latin market.
Produce is dirt cheap:
On a regular basis, I buy oranges for as low as $1 for 5 lbs, 3 pomegranates for $1, bananas at $1 for 3 lbs and yes, even great tasting guavas! The list goes on – papaya, jicama, radishes, green beans, cilantro, carrots, apples, grapes, garlic, onions…The produce is hands down just plain cheaper than a traditional grocery store. This is likely a result of a clientele that yields a higher turnover of produce, offering fruits and vegetables that are in season and produce that isn’t exactly “perfect” (a few bruises and bumps don’t affect the taste). Even if you have to spend a little more in gas to drive to an ethnic market, you’ll make it up tenfold in the hundreds of dollars saved at the checkout over the long run.
The meat counter will put your (former) butcher to shame:
Another of my favorite features is that many Latin markets have their own meat counter. And they often have sales on top of their already affordable prices. The variety and unique cuts of meat will have you skipping out of the store ready to host your next BBQ! Instead of plain ol’ hamburgers and hot dogs, you’ll walk out with a bulging package containing a variety of meat cuts to please all of your guests. The carne asada meat is sliced so thin it’s just not humanely possible to do it at home. And you don’t have to stop at just beef. Most ethnic markets also carry thinly sliced chicken breast and pork (and goat, trio and liver for those of you who are adventurous). You can also purchase many meats either preseasoned or plain (add your own flare). Liven things up even more and pick up some fresh chorizo! And if you want to have fajitas for dinner, save your tears for another night and grab a container of diced onions.
Oh, and while you’re there (at my market anyway) you can pick up fresh salsas and Mexican cheese. A lot of these markets also have a bakery with very attractive sweet breads, cookies, cream-filled empanadas and flan, all of which are well worth the calories. I love that you can even order a personalized, delicious, homemade Tres Leches cake! Or order it by the slice and enjoy dessert while you shop.
Stock your pantry with spices:
Plain and simple, the spices cost way less! Why? Likely because many of them are sold as whole spices and simply require you to grind them yourself (an inexpensive coffee grinder will do). Not surprising, I know, but somehow my Anglo friends are still in awe that grinding your own spices actually brings out their richest flavors…probably has something to do with them being fresh..ha ha! If you want already ground spices, don’t worry, the ethnic market still has your back. You can purchase them ground and packaged in clear plastic bags. The cost is also driven down because the spices are commonly displayed in bulk bins or small bags (not teeny tiny individually packaged plastic containers that drive the price up). So be OK with purchasing your spices in a clear plastic bag, since you can always put them in the spice containers you already have in your pantry at home.
Buck the norm and go shopping hungry:
You’ve heeded the warning for most of your life…Don’t go to the grocery store hungry! Well, for once it’s OK; actually it just might be better if you do! Oftentimes, ethnic markets (many of which are family run and locally operated) have a little restaurant in the back that serves up authentic dishes at a very reasonable price. (My favorite is carnita tacos). Sometimes I’ll shop and then order dinner to go for the family – That’s two birds with one stone, shopping and dinner all in one place, without breaking the bank! Or, if you have kids that hate shopping but you have no other choice but to take them with you (yet again), drop them off at the restaurant section of the store while you peacefully cruise the aisles.
Stretch beyond your comfort zone…priceless!
I can acknowledge that trying out a new grocery store, where you can’t find your token items with your eyes closed, is a bit out of anyone’s comfort zone. But to really stretch yourself (because we all know that great things never come from comfort zones), I dare you to do a little Internet research, find out where your closest ethnic market is and then pay a visit. Who knows, you just might discover something new you really like. You just might expand your palate. You just might love that new recipe. You just might gain a newfound appreciation for a food tradition vastly different than your own. You just might brush up on your Spanish/Yiddish/Russian/Mandarin and enhance your people skills in the process. And you just might save yourself some money!