How We're Grocery Shopping in the City

Hello again. This is my blog now. Krista said some of you were asking about grocery delivery in the era of social distancing. We have had some success and wanted to share some tips with you.

In normal times, I go grocery shopping with my mom when Krista and I go to visit my parents on Sundays. The list wouldn't change much week-to-week. I have a repertoire of 4-5 dinner recipes, and I would get enough food to get us to the next Sunday grocery store visit.

Now, there is a multitude of issues you have to contend with when it comes time to shop for food. Rarely will you find everything you need in one place. Delivery times are booked for days on end. Sometimes you will receive your delivery only to find that it's missing half a dozen items you ordered. 

Shopping in person is always better than delivery, but we have ceased in-store shopping altogether for the time being. No reason to risk it, especially in New York City.

Now that we are strictly grocery shopping online, I have some tips I'd like to share with you.

First, if you live in a large metropolitan area like New York, there are a million options for delivery. That can actually work against you sometimes because it can be hard to know where to order from. We have had the most success with Amazon. Say what you want about the corporate concerns of Amazon, but they have been the best (for us) during this time in terms of selection and timeliness of delivery.

Amazon has two different experiences for grocery shopping: Fresh and Whole Foods. This actually still confuses me. What I know is that your Fresh cart and Whole Foods cart are unique from each other. That means that they each offer different foods, will be paid for separately, and delivered separately. 

If you complete an order from Whole Foods on Amazon, your shopper will actually hand select your items from your local Whole Foods location. If you are an Amazon Prime member, there are some legitimately good discounts on certain items each week. I recommend checking those out regularly.
We have been placing a Whole Foods order on Amazon once per week during social distancing. To give you a general idea of some things that we typically order, check out this list:

  • Fruit - Bananas, apples, mangoes, berries. Whole Foods has good produce and I love fresh fruit.
  • Vegetables - We eat a lot of asparagus, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and cucumbers. Again, the produce at Whole Foods is reliable and they have a good variety. Don't be afraid to buy something you normally wouldn't. I admit there are some vegetables I don't buy in person because I don't know how to select one that's ripe or close to ripe. However, the Amazon shoppers have done a great job of selecting veggies that are fresh and ready to eat almost immediately.
  • Proteins - These will serve as the main courses for our dinners. We eat a lot of chicken, so I order a variety of chicken thighs (either bone-in or boneless/skinless - it doesn't really matter), chicken breast, and ground chicken or turkey (for meatballs or burgers). I also have been ordering pork tenderloin recently. It gives us a nice departure from poultry and I found an amazing recipe. It's expensive, but we eat it as a once-weekly treat. I have more or less cut red meat out of my diet, so I don't order beef, but Whole Foods offers plenty of high-quality beef items. Lastly, don't be afraid of seafood. In normal times, I would occasionally buy fresh fish from Whole Foods and always had success. Because your shopper will actually be moving through your local store, you will receive fresh fish packaged no more than an hour prior to receiving it. It can feel weird ordering fresh meat or seafood online, but I can vouch for it
  • Bread/grains - I eat a lot of sandwiches, so I buy a loaf of multigrain sandwich bread for the week. Krista likes sourdough, so we buy that too. I also make sure we have cereal, oatmeal, and granola because these are quick and easy snacks or breakfast items to munch on.
  • Dairy/eggs - We don't eat much dairy, but we do go through at least a dozen eggs per week. I use them in certain recipes, and we eat them for breakfast. For milk, we like almond milk. It has a shelf life that's way longer than regular milk and we don't go through it quickly. Although it's more expensive than regular milk, it lasts longer and actually becomes more affordable in the long run.
  • Other - I like to make sure I have enough "staple" ingredients to get through the week. For instance, I use olive oil in almost everything I make. I marinate with it, cook in it, and put it on my salad. I also use balsamic vinegar fairly often, so I like to have lots of that on hand. Among others, I'd also say apple cider vinegar, oregano, parsley, garlic, onions, lemons, tomatoes, and avocados are important to have. 
A big drawback of Whole Foods is that they don't carry some popular brands. Their in-house "365" brand is generally really good, and I don't hesitate to order their items. However, there are certain items that I won't substitute. For instance, Krista loves feta cheese, but only Athenos feta cheese. Whole Foods doesn't carry it, so we have to get it elsewhere. Similarly, I like to make chicken wings with my own homemade buffalo sauce. I need Frank's Red Hot sauce to make it, and Whole Foods doesn't carry it. 

When we run into that issue, I build a separate order in Amazon Fresh. It works exactly the same way Whole Foods does, but the offerings are different. This week we put in simultaneous orders from each place. The Whole Foods order came a full day earlier. 

If you have tried to place a food order with Amazon recently, you no doubt have noticed that you can get through the checkout process all the way until it says to choose a delivery window. You also know that it always says there are no windows available today, tomorrow, and sometimes the next day. Fear not. Additional windows open up throughout the day at random times. Continue to refresh that screen every hour. Eventually something will open up. This has worked for us every time we place an order. Sometimes you have to wait 6-8 hours, but a window will open up for same-day delivery or for the next day. I can't speak for how reliable that is in less populated areas, but it's true for NYC. 

My last point on Amazon is the most frustrating. If you purchase your order with a gift card, you can not leave a tip. I have had three separate conversations with Amazon Support this week alone, and they have confirmed it is not possible. I find that shameful, especially in these times. I find it important to leave gratuity to the delivery people, so I put cash in an envelope and bring it to our front desk to pass to the delivery person when they arrive. Normally, deliveries come right to our apartment door, but in the era of social distancing, the delivery personnel aren't allowed to move past the front lobby. 

I also want to spend some time talking about buying in bulk and purchasing home essentials. For this, I do not use Amazon. Instead, I use Boxed. 

I have been ordering from Boxed for roughly three years and absolutely love it. If you aren't familiar, Boxed is essentially an online Costco with no membership fees. You can buy lots of different home essentials, and food, in bulk for reasonable prices. I made two separate orders from Boxed this week.

In the first, I ordered hand soap refills, dish soap refills, body wash, mouthwash, granola bars, peanut butter, olive oil, and Welch's fruit snacks. Boxed offers free shipping if you purchase meets requirements, and delivery is made in 1-2 days. However, because of increased demand, they are alerting customers that deliveries can take four days or more. 

My second Boxed order was strictly for bulk food. This comes from their "grocery" storefront, where they shop local Costcos or other large food locations to fulfill your order. To give you an idea of what to expect, I built my order on Wednesday, didn't receive any open delivery windows until Saturday, then placed the order for Tuesday delivery. Keep that timeline in mind.

In this order, I included four pounds of baby carrots, five pounds of potatoes, 22oz of pesto, three pounds of broccoli, two pounds of tomatoes, two pounds of shrimp, two dozen eggs, and two pounds of green beans. That all came out to $90 before tax and tip and will help offset future Whole Foods orders. 

While I can't speak to the efficacy of other delivery services like Instacart, Peapod, or others, I would say that we are largely happy with the success we have had with this combination of Whole Foods, Amazon Fresh, and Boxed. If you are in the New York City area, this would be my recommendation.

Lastly, you may be noticing for the first time that groceries are expensive. Food isn't cheap, and good food is even more expensive. I could write a book about my disgust for food waste (I'm actually reading one about this now) and think it's important to use everything you have. It will save money, and ultimately our environment.

Finally, you all had some questions for us, and I wanted to answer those here:

How often do you shop?

  • We typically get groceries once per week. This was true before isolation too. A week's worth of groceries typically costs us $150-$180.

Do you disinfect your groceries?

  • This was a popular question. I have been wiping down packaged goods with a Lysol wipe and setting aside before I put them away. I have not been disinfecting produce. Do you? If so, how?

Snack situation?

  • I love fresh fruit. I always buy bananas, apples, berries, and mangoes. Krista likes salty snacks.

Do you tip when ordering groceries online?

  • Yes, and especially in these circumstances. In normal times, I would always leave about $10-$15 depending on how big the order was. Now, I have been leaving $30-$40 in cash with our front desk so they can hand it directly to the delivery person.

What's the best time of day to get deliver windows?

  • I haven't found the answer. I don't think there's a good one. It's frustrating, but you should refresh that page throughout the entire day. Eventually, something will open up. It might take 24 hours, but it will eventually happen. When it does, you can typically get a same-day delivery time.

Can you turn off substitutions for groceries?

  • Yes. As you are going through the checkout process on Amazon, there is a page that lets you opt out of all substitutions or on a specific item basis.

Do you plan meals ahead of time?

  • Kind of? My kitchen skills are still pretty limited, and I only have a handful of recipes I'm confident in. Knowing that, I buy the same stuff every week for the most part. Although I will say in these times of isolation I have been experimenting more. It's the perfect time to try something new.

Do you normally cook at home? If so, what are some of your grocery recommendations? Would you want some recipes from me? I certainly would love some from all of you.

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