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The Experiment That Totally Changed The Way I Grocery Shop

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Photo: Alamy Stock.
Let me preface this by saying I went into this experiment with some pretty weird, not particularly sustainable, grocery shopping habits — at least for a someone who lives in New York. The thing is, I've been known to shop at three different markets all in the same week.

I grew up in Los Angeles, where having a car makes it easy to hit up several different stores to get everything you need. But, once I got to New York, I never managed to fully break the habit. I still head to Trader Joe's for items like snacks and staples, Whole Foods for fish and sometimes produce, and my local Key Food for everything else — despite the fact that I have to take the subway and often wait on line for upwards of 30 minutes to shop at the first two.

My reasons are twofold: I'm attempting to save money, and I also want to be eating quality food that I trust, whenever possible. But, after a particularly frustrating weekend of hitting up several different stores and wondering if my odd habits are actually helping me in the long run — or just forcing me to run all over town more often than is necessary, I decided to find out once and for all.

The Experiment:

Buy the same exact ingredients to make the same exact dinner from three different supermarkets.

I visited Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, and Key Food (the closest you can get to a Vons, Ralphs, or Publix in NYC) and I bought five items from each store: approximately one pound of boneless, skinless chicken breasts, a small bag of mini potato medley, a bunch of asparagus, two lemons, and fresh thyme. (Yes, I went into Trader Joe's with a Whole Foods bag, and yes, I felt like an asshole.) Then I lugged my three bags home to compare price, quality, and make three separate roasted chicken sheet pan dinners. Here's what I learned:

Price:

Trader Joe's: $17.38
Key Food: $20.34
Whole Foods: $23.88
It came as no shock that Trader Joe's was my cheapest receipt. That's what we associate with the brand favorite — cheap staples and the best snacks ever. I also expected Whole Foods to be the highest. But, what I didn't see coming were the small differences (no more than $3.50) between Trader Joe's and Key Food and Key Food and Whole Foods. Also weird was the seemingly random variation in pricing on the same ingredients at each store. The same brand of thyme was $1.69 at Trader Joe's, but $2.79 at Key Food. And organic asparagus (the only option during my trip to TJ's) was actually more expensive than the asparagus at Whole Foods.

This isn't directly related to the challenge, but the cheapest version of the simplest healthy meal I could think of was approximately $8.69 per person. That was a pretty terrifying realization considering that I typically try to spend around $75 a week on groceries.

Quality/Taste:

I was surprised to find that all of my ingredients from the three stores were pretty much the same. I really couldn't pinpoint a big difference in quality or flavor.

In fact, all of the fresh thyme I bought was from the SAME company (Infinite Herbs). Sure, at Whole Foods it was organic, but I was essentially purchasing the same product for wildly different prices.

At least for the purposes of roasting everything (which is how I prepared my dinners), I really couldn't tell the difference between the cooked items. Though, if I was making a salad, I probably would have preferred the Whole Foods asparagus just because it was in better condition. (The Key Food asparagus definitely left something to be desired.) I was also able to easily find cage- and hormone-free chicken from all three markets at a relatively similar price.

The Final Verdict:

As it turns out, I don't need to be quite as discerning when it comes to the foods I buy at different supermarkets. Sure, when it comes to specialty items there will always be my product favorites (I'm looking at you frozen churros), not to mention certain deals (the quinoa at Trader Joe's always seems to be way cheaper than that of its competitors), but if I'm just whipping up a simple one-off dinner, I've decided I don't need to stress about it as much.

Trader Joe's will probably always win for the cheapest ingredients overall, but when it comes to choosing between Key Food and Whole Foods (as long as I'm not buying turmeric root or artisanal salsa) I might actually be inclined to spend the extra $3.54 for better quality produce.
Although, to play devil's advocate, I could order a complete meal from Seamless for around $12, which is how much one serving of my chicken dish cost from Whole Foods (not including staples like olive oil and salt). And, if I had been shopping for a week’s worth of groceries, that extra 16% (it increases to 37.5% if you're comparing Whole Foods & TJ's) would quickly add up, not to mention if you do the math over the course of a month or a year. But I still say it’s less than I thought it would be. So if I'm short on time and not in the mood to do my usual roundabout grocery routine, I won't sweat it — especially if I'm just shopping for tonight's dinner.
If you're interested in making an easy roasted chicken meal, find my recipe below.
Roasted Lemon-Garlic Chicken With Potatoes & Asparagus
Serves 2-4

Ingredients
1 lb (approximately) boneless, skinless chicken chicken breast (cut up into 6 to 8 pieces)
1 small medley bag of mini potatoes (approximately 10 to 15 potatoes), cut in half
1 bunch asparagus (ends cut off and chopped into thirds)
3 to 4 sprigs thyme, leaves removed
Marinade
Juice from 1 lemon,
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 to 4 tbsp olive oil,
1 sprig fresh thyme, leaves removed
Salt, to taste
Pepper, to taste
Instructions
1. Preheat the oven to 375°F. Combine all the marinade ingredients together and whisk with a fork until fully combined. Chop the chicken into large pieces. Place the chicken in a medium sized bowl. Salt and pepper the chicken and pour the marinade over top. Cover and then refrigerate until ready to use.
2. Put the asparagus and potatoes on a sheet pan. Drizzle with olive oil, salt, pepper, and fresh thyme leaves. Use your hands or stir to combine. Pop into the oven for 20 minutes.
3. Take the sheet pan out of the oven. Turn the oven down to 350°F. Nestle the chicken pieces in between the veggies and return the pan to the oven for 20 more minutes or until the chicken is cooked through. Enjoy!
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