why my perimeter is more expensive than my aisles

February 7th, 2008

Why My Perimeter is More Expensive Than My Aisles

When grocery shopping, that is.

I’ve always heard the theory that shopping the perimeter of the grocery store – buying the fresh foods and not the processed ones – is less expensive overall. Now that my spouse is following a specific meal plan, I’m buying almost exclusively fresh food, when I used to buy a mix of fresh, canned, frozen, and some processed food. And lo and behold, my first week shopping, I spent almost twice my normal grocery budget. Now, some of that was “start up” expenses, foods that I can buy in bulk and use over time, but a lot of it was things I will have to buy on a weekly basis (produce doesn’t last forever, after all). I expected this to be the case, but it begs the question – contrary to popular wisdom, is shopping the perimeter really more expensive?

For us, it appears to be, and I’ve identified three key reasons why that is the case. First, I didn’t buy solely processed foods in the first place. I had a mix of select processed foods and select fresh, frozen, and canned foods in my past regular weekly grocery lists, so we aren’t comparing solely processed to solely fresh. I generally tried to make cost-conscious choices when it came to buying fresh vs frozen or canned, and with substituting that for all fresh, that raised the overall price. (I will be going back to some frozen in the future, we are still working out exactly what we want from the meal plan.)

Second, it is winter here, and winter is not the biggest growing time ever. The food comes from farther away and is much pricier. In the summer I expect to find more fresh food cheaper, as well as being able to take advantage of some farm stands. I live in a city, so I don’t have a ton of access to farm stands but our city does have a weekly farmers market in the summer I can check out.

Third, I have pretty much successfully tamed my impulse shopping, and I think that is a huge reason why aisle shopping is generally more expensive than perimeter shopping. The longer you stay in the store, and the more area you are exposed to, the more things you can potentially buy. It is not that I have more willpower than the average person, it is just that I am generally more aware and on guard against the impulse buys, and I have a specific plan in walking through the store where I do not go down any unnecessary aisles. That limits my exposure to extra items that can magically jump in my cart. They sometimes do, especially Arizona Herbal Iced Tea, but generally, I am pretty well behaved.

So, for us, it seems the perimeter of the store does in fact add to our grocery bottom line. Not that it isn’t worth the extra expense, but we’re still working on adjusting what we expect and what choices we should make to still get the most bang for our buck.

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24 Responses to “Why My Perimeter is More Expensive Than My Aisles”

  1. Very nicely put. I tend to use somewhat of a mix of fresh and frozen, with a few processed foods that the children can make in the microwave oven. I end up spending more on my food than I do on my car. But you are right. There are choices to be made and the cheapest isn’t always the best for your family. I began going to the butcher and getting fresh cuts of meat because the choices in my local supermarket were so pitiful. I’ve never regretted doing this, even though the cost is so much more where I live.

  2. Considering your husband, Matt’s likes and dislikes, I suggest you learn a bit more about Chinese cooking. It seems that through using the common stir-frying technique in Chinese cooking, you can whip up great tasting Broccoli and Lettuce (yes, cooked lettuce!). I suggest the recipes of Ken Hom (you can find a good plenty out about him through your favorite local search engine); Ken frequently uses this basic technique for stir-frying (not as oily as it sounds) pretty much anything:

    -Cut the lettuce head in half and wash it
    -To your frying pan (or wok, if you have one), add a cup of water, two tablespoons of Shaoxing Sherry (a type of Chinese wine), a tablespoon of soya sauce, two teaspoons of sugar, pinch of salt, a dash of ground black pepper and a little of that Knorr chicken soup stock and mix it all together there.
    -When that’s hot, just throw the lettuce in and when it wilts (after about one minute), take it out and voila! Delicious Chinese cooked lettuce.

    You could also follow that recipe for practically any green vegetable and the result would be really delicious. I find that many people don’t like green vegetables because of the horrid way in which they’re prepared. The other Chinese method for cooking vegetables is even simpler:

    -Put a bit of oil in your frying pan and when it’s hot, throw in your minced garlic.
    -After about 30 seconds, throw in the vegetable and stir-fry it until it wilts to your liking.

    You can steam all of those fishes Chinese style, too. Just rub on some salt, stick the fish (steak, fillet or whole) on a plate with either; slivered ginger and green onion (for any type of fish), and for white fish, you can add black beans (which are actually preserved soya beans).

    For the red meat… just grill it on a BBQ, and I’m sure your husband would be more than satisfied. Make sure not to overdo it (check it by slicing open every now and then in different places), and also spray it with a water and salt/cayenne pepper mixture to keep it moist.

    Well… as for the money thing, since it’s winter, I suppose it’s inevitable that you must spend more on fresh fruits/vegetables. There is one solution, however…

    I’m not sure what city you live in. BUT, I grew up in Toronto and there are TONNES of Chinese supermarkets in certain parts of the city where all the groceries are just dirt-cheap compared to the big-name chain supermarkets. I’m talking like instead of $2.50 for a head of lettuce, it would be $2 for THREE heads at any random Chinese supermarket. Believe me, I know…

  3. I agree about keeping to a list. When I lived by myself and was on a sensible eating plan, I followed pretty much the same list every week. I knew where everything was on the shelves in WalMart and it became automatic to me. I do concentrate on fresh veggies and fruit. Now that I have a 19 year old with me, shopping is different. Her wants tend more toward frozen waffles, cereal etc, but I limit that to 1 box of each a week. It’s a fine line to tread.

    And yes, MH hospital is still there, I believe. I passed through Melrose 2 years ago.

  4. It seems to me that you’ve not only changed the type of food you buy (fresh vs canned/frozen/processed) but you’ve also changed the kind of food you are buying, because you are buying foods to a specific menu. That means you are not taking advantage of loss leaders. Also, you may not be getting the best values in fresh foods if your husband is a picky eater. Cabbage, for example, is practically cheaper than dirt. And even in winter, there are “in season” and “out of season” choices. Even though nothing may be growing where you are, citrus fruits are in season in Florida, and California strawberries are just coming into season.

    Also, there’s no reason to write off frozen veggies. Because they are flash frozen at the peak of freshness (I sound like a commercial), they are often more nutritious than fresh veggies, so you can save a lot of money in the off-season by buying frozen.

  5. By the way, I wanted to add that salads are an expensive way to eat. Lettuce costs a lot for what you get. If you avoid salads, you can save more money. I usually buy stuff for one salad per week with dinner, and that’s it.

  6. Here in Florida of all places…fresh is more expensive, and I find the same thing happening with my grocery bill when I have a lot of recipes to cook that need lots of fresh ingredients…sigh…I think crates of mac and cheese are probably cheaper in the long run…but who likes to eat that stuff….other than my kids?

  7. @Catherine – that is an excellent point about the fact I am buying a specific menu right now vs being able to take advantage of what is on sale. So good I almost want to edit my post and add it. I don’t know why that didn’t occur to me, but it didn’t. of course! heh.

    He’s only following the exact meal plan for a little while and then we’ll start to mix and match things and I can pick from a set of meals dependent on what is on sale. He’s so picky though that I doubt I’ll be able to escape having frequent salads.

    @Shawn – I’ll have to look into chinese cooking. No soy sauce for the spouse though, salt is one of the things this meal plan is supposed to try and limit. His blood pressure hovers around 126-130 and we’re trying to lower that. Thanks for the ideas!

  8. I tend to buy only what’s on sale in the veggie/fruit sections–even meat sections. I think it’s hard when you have certain recipes or guidelines vs. just being flexible and eating the same thing two or three times in a row because hey, eggplant was on sale that week.

    I noticed at my grocery store they heavily discount certain items the closer to expiration–and it’s not advertised so it’s kinda first come first serve–but I wonder if there is a method or day they use to do their expiring markdowns. One day I went and saw a lot of dairy reduced because it was going to expire in less than a week. Then I went on a day and a lot of meat was marked down — I looked in the dairy section and saw no dairy was marked down.

  9. I’m a sucker for the Arizona Iced Tea also. I found buying the big plastic 128 oz jug is usually the best deal…it’s about $2.5 – 3 here in WI.

  10. PT, do your supermarkets carry their circulars online? If so, they might help out with the list planning. I find that Trader Joe’s frozen produce is usually a pretty decent deal, too.

  11. Could grocery shopping also be more expensive because you are buying for lunch AND dinner? I am really interested to know how this is changing the lunchover situation.

  12. @Catherine- I buy bagged spinach regularly. The big bags are usually between $1-3, almost always cheaper than lettuces. This will make big salads for my hubbs and I for a few weeks. I also wait for things like almonds, dried cranberries and salad dressing to go on sale. Using coupons I typically spend under 50 cents for these items, which make very tasty and nutritious salads for cheap! Other cheap salad ingredients are mushrooms (bought whole and sliced) croutons made from stale bread, fresh berries (when in season) cooked and cooled chicken thigh meat. The spinach can also be tossed into pasta or soup if we don’t eat it all for salads or it starts to get wilty.

  13. I always thought perimeter cooking way more expensive. In the store, you can use coupons for free or cheap food, but it’s crap. Outer perimeter is food you have to make.

  14. PaidTwiceSpouse Says:

    February 7th, 2008 at 6:35 pm

    @A – yeah, that probably is making things more expensive. Once I’ve lost some weight, I’ll go to a less rigid schedule but with healthier choices.

  15. I’ve heard that the perimeter is HEALTHIER but not necessarily CHEAPER. For your produce needs, definately see if you can find a local Asian grocery or a small produce shop. We have a couple nearby and their prices are consistently about half of what I’d pay at the grocery store. We’ve started getting a produce bin delivered every other week though, so I’m staying out of the produce section all this month as an experiment.

    hope the new meals help with the health!

  16. INVITES the question, not BEGS the question. Begging the question is a logical fallacy of using A in your argument to prove A.

  17. It was begging me to answer. ;)

  18. 2 thoughts:

    1) In the winter, frozen food is far cheaper, and often, as nutritionally dense, if not more, than fresh. In summer, it’s just as nutrionally dense.

    2) Only 2% of the adult population is actually sodium sensitive.

  19. I’ve heard many, many times that shopping the perimeter of the grocery store is healthier, but definitely not cheaper. Shopping the perimeter exclusively seems to cost me about 3 times as much as shopping the aisles exclusively.

    Be happy that you’re able to afford shopping the perimeter of the grocery store. Many families cannot and eat processed foods full of artificial ingredients and preservatives and who knows what else almost exclusively.

    To save money on fresh meats and produce, you’re better off skipping the regular grocery stores and shopping Trader Joes, small local markets, and farmer’s markets exclusively for those items. At my local farmer’s market, I can pick up two heads of lettuce, four or five tomatoes, a couple of cucumbers and some onions and mushrooms for about $5. That would easily cost me $15 or more at the grocery store.

  20. Trader Joe’s – don’t have one.

    Small local markets – don’t have any I’ve been able to find.

    Farmer’s Market – only in the summer and it is kind of lame.

    I live in the middle of the midwest. i can get corn pretty cheap in the summer. That is about it. lol

  21. yes, I have seen Asian women buy romaine lettuce with more rib than leaves. they have told me they chop it up and stir fry it.

  22. Plus if it is difficult to control spending, then going to the grocery store once a week may increase your overall budget too. You might find things in the buggy that you didn’t come for. I am good at picking things up that aren’t on my list.


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