Stock up and freeze.
Last night, the Lakers played the Suns in the Western Conference Finals. Outside the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles, activists held signs protesting Arizona’s anti-immigration bill SB1070. My husband and I discussed the difficulties presented by immigration reform and I became strident. I knew this was going to be Tuesday’s post. As I sat in the suite we’d been invited to, watching L.A. clobber Phoenix, I dipped my chicken wings into the bleu cheese, used ten napkins to clean myself up, and thought, “What I really want is a hot dog.” Weird, I know.
When I woke up this morning and started my SB1070 essay, I was still thinking about that hot dog. I wasn’t hungry and I definitely wasn’t going to start my morning with one. But it did lead me to think about the best deal in town – Costco’s $1.50 hot dog and drink combo – and I decided to let the experts dissect and opine about Arizona for now, so I could talk to you about Costco and why it’s useful, whether you’re a party of one or a family of five. Do you not LOVE the directions in which my mind wanders?
I didn’t shop at Costco when I was single. When it was just the husband and I, we’d occasionally stock up for parties but not much else. After Goldie was born, I started heading there for diapers, with the occasional case of bottled water and chicken broth purchased for good measure. Then I had two babies who could conveniently sit side by side in Costco’s giant carts. I’d always move slowly past the giant televisions because they all looked so pretty and I coveted one. Eventually, we’d make our way to the butcher section in the back to load up on meat which, to this day, is my number one reason for shopping there. Besides the hot dog, it should be your number one reason also (unless you’re a vegetarian).
I’m not an emotional, impulsive shopper. I’ve actually been known to go to Costco for one item and leave the store having purchased just that one item. I’m a freak. (The same behavior at Target is much more difficult.) The bottom line is that if you go to a Costco or a Smart & Final or a Sam’s Club and buy items you don’t need just because you may have room to store them, you’ve defeated the reason these stores exist for the consumer. The point is to save money. I have a few thoughts:
From trial and error and serious competition for my business at local supermarkets, I’ve found that shopping at Ralph’s for my canned tomatoes and Tide laundry soap (using a coupon and club card) costs no more, and sometimes less, than it does at Costco. It’s often convenient to buy non-perishable items in larger quantities at these big box stores if there’s room in your pantry, but you have to give it some thought. There’s danger to having too much of something around.
Let’s take paper towels, for example. When we’ve purchased a bundle of 12 rolls at Costco I’ve found we use them more frequently because, heck, there’s always another one to replace it with. Large packages of snack items are worse. You and your family will eat more and probably discover an increase in your girth. There’s a study out there somewhere that supports this hypothesis. I just can’t find the damn thing.
Fruits and vegetables and giant bags of lettuce are all well and good. Eating a lot of cherry tomatoes or broccoli spears is healthy, but unless you’re entertaining a lot of people, or have too many children, perishables will spoil before they’re all consumed. That’s an obvious waste of money AND food.
So what do I buy there? How do I save money and make my yearly $50 fee worth it? I hang out in the meat department and flirt with the butchers. I’d love to tell you all I shop at Whole Foods because they’re nice to the animals they kill to feed my family, but I can’t. And I know if I ever watched “Food Inc.”, I’d probably become a vegan for a day or two, which is why I’ll never see it. The meat at Costco is great. It comes in large amounts, but if you’re single, you can take your package of 4-5 New York steaks home, put each one in a medium storage bag with some soy, brown sugar, olive oil and garlic, and stick them in the freezer. Think ahead, give them time to thaw, and throw one on the grill or in a frying pan. You can buy rib eye or filet mignon (tenderloin) in packages of individual steaks or as a giant piece of meat to cook whole and slice afterward. They’ve got tri-tip, boneless short ribs; beef already cubed for stew, pot roast and brisket. Don’t let the amount intimidate you. You’ll get the best prices on meat packaged fresh every day. Just divide it up when you get home and freeze. You take out just the amount you need and you’ll find you can set yourself up for easy meals for weeks on end.
While you’re in the back of the store, pick up one of their $4.99 hot chickens for dinner, or the ribs are delicious. I seldom leave the store without one.
Also, usually toward the back of the store is the bakery section. You won’t find a cheaper sheet cake anywhere ($16.99-$18.99); it’s yummy and big enough for the birthday party you’re throwing for forty people. If you ask ahead, they’ll even decorate it for you. Check out the loaves of LaBrea Bakery bread that are usually still warm in the bag at noon. It’s squishy and smells great, so you’ll probably have a hard time not pulling off a piece to eat while you’re checking out. The bagels they sell are too big for my taste but the famous muffins (a dozen large for $6.49), when sliced up, are good for a last minute brunch.
For my now famous carnitas, I buy my boneless pork shoulder in about an 8 lb. bundle. If I were to cook the whole thing, it would feed about thirty people easily and costs $20. They sell it in portions so, again, I could pull out one or two and just feed the family of five.
I’m cheap so I buy my chicken and fish frozen. Costco’s signature brand, Kirkland, sells terrific frozen Atlantic salmon fillets, individually wrapped inside the bag for about $18. The bag of frozen chicken breasts costs less and will get me through a month.
Sure, there are lots of prepared, pre-cooked meals that you can pick up and stick in the oven. I have nothing against them and have tried a few, but the prices are only okay and I’ve had better success at Trader Joe’s. Aidell’s, though, does make a tasty little Teriyaki meatball that the girls love and is an excellent hors ‘d oeuvres that you might want to try. The same goes for their packaged, pre-cooked sausages. Heat them up, slice them and serve them with mustard on the side for an easy appetizer.
Jewelry, electronics, books, clothes, motor oil, Gordon Ramsey bakeware, toaster ovens and coffee makers? I’ve rarely seen bargains that inspired me. Beer, wine and liquor is sold in amounts conducive to a party, so buying it at Costco depends on your needs. The pharmacy used to have the best prices in town, but Rite-Aid and CVS are matching them. An eye-surgeon friend still thinks Costco is great for glasses and contacts (I get mine there) and their turnaround time is excellent. By all means, if at all possible, buy your tires nowhere else! I’ve never found a better deal for my Toyota Sienna, and they usually have a promotion going which you should check out beforehand.
Like TJ’s, avoid the weekends if you can. It’s kind of scary. But do go after 12:30pm when they’re bound to have plenty of samples to make a meal out of.
Costco relies on customers who spontaneously put items in their cart they simply don’t need and may never use. Don’t be one of them. Again, snack food, unless you’re setting up a sale at school or serving fifty people at one time, is a bad idea. Large bricks of cheese, stacks of cold cuts, a platter of sushi? Only if you’re having a party and only if you don’t care about impressing your guests. Party food from Costco looks like it’s from Costco.
Okay, let me get back to working on Arizona. And, like last week with TJ’s, do leave your personal suggestions and Costco secrets in the comments below.
And don’t forget to get a hot dog on your way out! My friend Mary Anne fondly recalls having one with Julia Child in Santa Barbara years ago, so you know they’re good.