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How to navigate the high holidays of food shopping

With the season for food-centered celebrations upon us, experts offer advice for successful (and efficient) grocery shopping

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I don’t like to think of myself as “bad at grocery shopping.” Who even knew picking up a few frozen items and toilet paper was something that involved skill? But when you’ve made three trips to the supermarket in a single day — and still find yourself with no bananas at home — it’s time to accept the truth.

With the high holidays of grocery shopping looming, and the nation poised to rush as one to the store at the exact same moment, all reaching for the same bunch of cilantro — or is it parsley? — I decided expert advice might be helpful.

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As someone who could save money by eating out, my first call was to famed coupon expert Kathy Spencer , of Boxford. “Most people go wrong because they don’t make a list,” she began. I thought with shame back to the day I could not buy bananas.

“When they get home, they realize they forgot to get a couple of little ingredients.” That sends them back to the store, still without a list, where they are vulnerable to the siren call of red peppers at $4.99 a pound. “You might never get it done,” Spencer said. “If you live 20 minutes from the grocery store, you’re not just wasting money on groceries, but you’re wasting gas.”

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The woman teaches entire classes on coupons, but her guiding philosophy is simple: “Besides just the regular coupons, look for the store’s online coupons, and go to the service desk and ask about promotions.”

It was good advice, and I was all excited not only to write a list, but also to remember to take it, and my reusable bags, the next time I shopped. But when should that be? Kathryn McKinnon , a Marblehead-based time management expert, says mornings are generally less crowded.

No matter when you go, you’ll move faster if you group items on your list by their location in the market. Unless you’re trying to reach 10,000 steps on your pedometer within Trader Joe’s itself, be efficient. And don’t just stand at the deli counter waiting for your number to be called or items to be readied, multitask by shopping in the immediate vicinity while awaiting your turn.

My favorite advice — obvious, but helpful even so — was to stock up. Keeping in mind “use by” dates and storage space, buy as much as you can, McKinnon said. The fastest shopping trip is the one not taken.

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No discussion of grocery stores and time stress is complete, of course, without discussing the check-out lanes. Dan Meyer, a math education researcher at Stanford University, became so obsessed with the line question that he did an entire study on it. Bottom line: Avoid the so-called express lane.

“The common approach is to look at how many people are in the line,” Meyer said. “But that’s misleading. You’d rather have a larger number of items in the cart than more people on the line.”

His research — conducted at a large, unnamed grocery store in California — found that while each item adds 3 seconds to the check-out time, it takes 41 seconds for a person to move through the line even before their items are added to the tally. It turns out that those little pleasantries, the business of moving the cart up to the belt and paying, are time-consuming.

Meyer is a candidate for a doctorate at Stanford, but even his formula does not guarantee the quickest trip through the check-out. The most sophisticated equation cannot predict who will pull out a check, which bagger might roam, or when a price check will strike. Nor does it take into account the humanness of the situation.

“The manager at the store where I did the research said he looks at the person who does the checking to see if they’re on their game and if they’re sharp,” he said. “It’s not quantifiable data, but . . . ”

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But beyond money and time, how do you get the best food at the store? I put the question to Lydia Shire , the renowned Boston chef, and here’s the nice story she told me. “My husband asked me to make this chicken I love to make — it’s my father’s chicken. Chicken legs, sherry, mushrooms, and garlic, with curly parsley chopped and sprinkled on top. It makes the whole house smell so delicious.

“So I went to Omni [Foods] here in Weston, and when I got to the meat case, I asked the man for six chicken legs with the most skin — the skin is delicious. When I go to the Stop & Shop in Natick, there is a butcher there I know, and I tell him I want skirt steaks, but I ask for some that aren’t trimmed [of fat]. Meat needs fat but a lot of Americans don’t get that. Their fear of fat overtakes them.”

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You know what I fear? The fish counter. Once I get past salmon, my knowledge gets pretty slim, and even with salmon, I don’t know whether king is worth the splurge or not. I was hoping that Tony Messina, chef at Uni Sashimi Bar, could provide guidance — but he only made my situation worse. “I’m a big fan of buying the whole fish,” he said.

Considering that I avert my gaze at the fish case, I don’t see a whole fish in my future. When I fessed up, Messina offered advice for the eyes-and-scales averse: “A fish should never smell like fish, if that makes sense,” he said. “It should smell clean, or like the sea. Smell it. You are paying for it.”

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That’s an option most grocery stores don’t offer in their wine sections, a situation that reduces many shoppers to choosing by label or price. But there is a better way, said Joe Nielsen, the winemaker at Donelan Family Wines . His vineyard is in California, but even so, he said, “You are more likely to find gems by thinking outside of domestic produced wines. That’s counterintuitive. Most people think France and Italy — I can’t afford it. But those governments are basically subsidizing the wine production, so you are getting more value than from California.”

In the flower department, the best advice is to keep it simple, said Andrew Anderson, a co-owner of ilex Designs in the South End. “You’re better off buying several bunches of the same type of flower and putting them into one bouquet than buying a loud mixed bunch,” he said. And if you’re shopping for a hostess gift in the morning, but won’t be handing over your offering until evening, keep them fresh in the refrigerator, he added.

None of this advice comes too soon for Lauren Beckham Falcone, the WROR on-air personality and noted holiday hostess who told me she’s yet to master the market. “It’s like going to the gym,” she said. “You’d think after awhile you’d know what to do, but I’ve been going for decades and I still have no idea.”

Beth Teitell can be reached at bteitell@
globe.com
. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.
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