Dear Lifehacker, I am a serving member in the military and live some 20 kilometres from the nearest supermarket, and to make matters worse I do not drive. I'm struggling to eat fresh and healthy and have a sustainable diet conducive to weight loss when supermarket access is a one-in-every-seven-day event. Can you make any recommendations? If I spend another week eating frozen chicken breast I'm going to go vegan. I have a fridge, freezer, the rest of a normal house and space for a small vegetable garden but no idea what grows fast enough to help me out now. Thanks, Long Way To The Shops
Picture by Ali Karimian
Wow, expectations change fast. When I was a child, we lived 10 kilometres out of town and so shopping was strictly a once-a-week affair. But even my comparatively urban school friends lived in households where the weekly shop was also the norm. It's easy to forget in a world where supermarkets are open 12 hours a day or more, seven days a week, that having the capacity to buy fresh items more or less whenever you want hasn't always been the norm. (And that's before we even get to considering that ubiquitous refrigeration in homes is a fairly modern innovation.)
In truth, if you have the chance to shop once a week and access to a fridge and freezer, there's no reason you can't eat a healthy and varied diet. The real secret here is not the particulars of what you buy, but having a detailed plan of what you're going to eat every week. It's not a glamorous or particularly exciting answer, but it's the truth.
We've run many posts in the past discussing how to plan your meals. If you find the process onerous, using a tablet recipe and planning app can definitely help. There are lots of useful recipe management tools out there as well. But even if you make a simple list in a spreadsheet (or on a piece of paper), nothing beats planning out a week's worth of meals and generating a shopping list. Wandering through a supermarket and grabbing what you fancy just won't produce the same results. (Planning your shopping this way is also a great way to save money.)
If your cooking time is limited, prepare large batches on the weekend and freeze them for future use. After a few weeks of this, you'll have a good supply of varied meals to hand.
Here are a few more specific tips for your situation:
- Frozen and packaged doesn't automatically equate to processed. Frozen microwave meals are often laden with salt and fat, but a decent pack of frozen vegetables isn't any different nutritionally to the fresh equivalent. It's also often cheaper. Particularly good candidates in this area are beans, peas and mixed vegetables. Chips are also OK in small quantities; just don't eat a whole tray at a time.
- Freeze fresh items. If you really want fresh items, buy them and freeze them for later use. We've got a detailed guide on what to freeze and for how long.
- Preserve fridge space to keep fresh items fresh. Rather than filling your fridge with milk, purchase UHT and chill as you need it.
- Buy meat from a butcher. Meat sold in supermarkets is often packaged in large quantities, which can easily lead to boredom (your chicken breast issue is a prime example). If you purchase from a butcher, you can match quantities to your meal plan and get more variety.
- Buy a bread maker. The supplies last for ages, and with a timer-based model, you can have fresh bread any morning or evening you fancy.
- Check our guide to eating better without breaking your budget.
Definitely open to more suggestions from readers on this one, especially on the question of fast-growing vegetables. (If you want a speedy response, planting herbs is definitely quicker than most vegetables.) Share your thoughts in the comments.
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