Shop Smarter
Using high-quality, fresh ingredients will give you a head start toward great flavor and healthier eating. Look for a butcher, produce store and market that you can rely on for first-rate goods and dependable service. Call ahead and place your order, so its ready to pick up on your way home from work. Stop by your local farmers market regularly for the freshest seasonal produce. For more time-saving tips, click on the link at right.

Look for locally grown produce whenever possible for better flavor and healthier eating. Items grown elsewhere often have been picked long before they ripen and rarely achieve peak flavor. Greens and herbs should be crisp and brightly colored, without dark edges or limp leaves. Root vegetables like carrots and beets should be hard, not flabby, and other vegetables, like cucumbers, eggplants and zucchini, should be firm to the touch with taut skins.

If you live near a regular farmers' market, try to visit it once a week. You will learn when specific items are in season, and you will often find good deals on produce.

Look for meat with good, uniform color and no sign of shriveling at the edge. Fat should be bright white rather than grayish, and the meat should have a fresh smell. To save you time in the kitchen, ask your butcher to trim, grind, chop or bone items as necessary.

Many butcher shops now carry organic and/or pasture-raised beef, pork and lamb. Taste and compare what is offered to discover what tastes best to you. While much modern pork has been bred for leanness (often at the expense of moistness and tenderness), some specialty pork operations are returning to old-fashioned breeds whose meat can offer richer, more distinctive flavor. Ask your butcher if he or she carries pork from these heritage breeds.

Smooth skin, firm flesh, white to yellowish fat and a fresh smell are the marks of quality poultry. A good butcher will be happy to cut up or debone a chicken or grind fresh turkey for you. Experiment with the different types of poultry available, such as kosher, organic, heritage breeds and free range; then buy what tastes best to you.

Make a shopping list
Prepare in advance: To save time, make a list of what you need to buy before you go shopping.

Make a template: Create a list template, then fill it in during the week before you go shopping.

Categorize your lists: Use the following categories to keep your lists organized:

  • Pantry items: Check the pantry and write down any items that need to be restocked to make the meals on your weekly plan.

  • Fresh ingredients: These are for immediate use and include produce, poultry, meats and some cheeses. You may need to visit different stores or supermarket sections, so divide the list into subcategories, such as produce, dairy and meats.

  • Occasional items: This is a list for refrigerated items that are replaced as needed, such as butter and eggs.

    Be flexible: Be ready to change your menus based on the freshest ingredients at the market.

    Make the most of your time
    Once you have created your weekly meal plan, consider how to make the most of your time. Get your shopping and prep work done in advance, and you will be ready to cook when dinnertime arrives.

    Stock up: Avoid last-minute shopping trips or missing ingredients by keeping your pantry well stocked. Make a note on your shopping list whenever you are getting low on any staple, and replace it promptly. Keep a good supply of basic nonperishable ingredients on hand so you can improvise simple main and side dishes when needed.

    Shop less: Write out your shopping list as you plan your meals so you can pick up all the staples you will need for the week in one trip. If you know that you will be pressed for time during the week, purchase your meat and poultry along with your staples and wrap and freeze what you will not be using in the next couple of days.

    Do it ahead: Do as much as you can in advance when you have extra time. Wash, peel and chop vegetables and store them in sealed plastic bags or airtight containers. Pound chicken or veal cutlets, wrap tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate. Prepare marinades or salad dressings and store in the refrigerator. Cook extra side dishes, such as rice, polenta or steamed vegetables, and refrigerate in airtight containers. Check your ingredients and tools the night before so you will be able to find everything easily when you start to cook.

    Double up: Instead of serving a reheated version of the same dish the next night, double up the foundation of the meal. For example, roast 2 chickens or 2 pork tenderloins. Prepare 1 for tonight according to the recipe, and reserve the second for a hearty soup or salad the next night.

    Cook smarter: Read through the recipe from start to finish before you begin cooking. As you read, go through the recipe step by step in your mind and visualize all the techniques. If you have friends or family around, figure out how they can help, whether it is peeling carrots, making a salad or setting the table.

    Adapted from Williams-Sonoma Food Made Fast Series, Simple Suppers, by Melanie Barnard (Oxmoor House, 2007).