Climbing the Grocery Store Food Ladder: How Far Will You Go?

Everyone agrees that whole food are best, right? Deliberately chosen, minimally processed food are healthiest for us, aren’t they?

But frugality sometimes goes hand in hand with a simple, deliberate life. And so does simplicity. And convenience.

How far up the grocery store food ladder are you willing to climb?

Let’s use a restaurant-style Chinese meal as an example and Aldi as the grocery store of choice (since I wrote about Aldi in March when stores of this popular worldwide chain began opening in Texas). How far up the grocery store food chain are you willing to go?

On the Ground Floor

The simplest way to get a restaurant-style Chinese meal is to go to restaurant. If you choose carefully, you can get a nutritious meal. Is this as far as you’re willing to go for yourself and your family?

Rung 1: Microwave Convenience

At Aldi, you can buy a microwavable Chinese meal for two — either Orange Sesame Chicken or General Tso’s Chicken — that contains rice, sauce, veggies and chicken pieces, all for around $4.

The veggies are real and so is the rice, but the chicken is fried and the sauce is both salty and sweet. Still, it’s inexpensive, ready in about 12 minutes with no effort and tastes great. It’s a nice meal, isn’t it?

Rung 2: Frozen-In-A-Bag

For the same price, you can get a Chicken Stir-Fry meal at Aldi — or beef is available for some variety. It comes frozen in a plastic bag, ready to be dumped into a skillet. And it has a lot less packaging than the microwave meal.

There’s no rice, but you can add you own. There are lots more veggies — and a better variety of them. The sauce is about the same as for the microwave meal, but it’s in a separate packet, and you can adjust the amount you use. And the chicken tastes fine, but it might be the chopped and formed kind, probably with loads of preservatives. Still, it isn’t fried and it looks healthier than the microwave meal. This is a better choice, right?

Rung 3: Still in a Bag

Like most grocery stores, Aldi has a couple of choices in frozen stir-fry veggies. Optional sauce is included once again.You can add you own meat (perhaps preservative-free) or leave it out for the first vegetarian option on our ladder.

You would need to have some cooked meat in the house already or be willing to cook some if you want it, though. That’s less convenient, but you get more options overall. Is the height getting to be too much for you?

Rung 4: Grocery Store From Scratch

If you don’t want your dinner from a bag, you’ll have to buy each of the ingredients for the stir-fry or whatever Chinese dish you want individually and make the meal from scratch.

There aren’t many organic vegetables at Aldi, but you can can find some cabbage, broccoli and maybe some bell peppers and cook those up with some fresh meat from the case, if you want any. Soy sauce is available, and you can mix a few things into it for a flavorful sauce. If this rung isn’t cracked, would you step onto it?

Top of the World: Whole, Organic, Vegetarian

When you arrive at the top of the food ladder, your idea of the perfect dinner depends on your level of political awareness, ecological consciousness and frugality. Stir-fry dinners taste better with freshly grown organic veggies, but are you willing to buy them — or grow them?

Does it matter how your meat was raised or that tofu is a highly processed but somehow preferable food to many? Does it matter that the risk of pesticide contamination is lower for some types of veggies than others and that buying organic might be a waste of money — especially since certain contaminants apparently won’t hurt you anyway? And are you willing to go a farmer’s market or more than one grocery store to get items for one dinner?

Can you even access healthier options in your neighborhood — and how much gas would it take to get somewhere that does have them?

What pieces of information do you consider when buying food? Does organic matter? Does price matter more?

Oh, and me? I’ve had dinner along every rung of the ladder more than once.

But I feel no more top-of-the-world when my food comes from Whole Foods Market than when it comes from Aldi.


  1. I’m a foodie, I love food and blog about food. For me it’s about knowing what’s in that food and making a choice. This post is very topical as this evening my Hubby will be returning from work with Chinese take out. I know that it contains an awful lot of things I’d rather it not – but it’s just one night. Tomorrow I will make everything we consume from scratch. It’s about moderation – you can’t be good all the time (whatever good is) and you make your choices. For example the majority of my food is supermarket bought (not from farmers markets) which does bother me as I would like to support the local farmers however I hate shopping and as such I do it online. This I believe is frugal, efficient and creates much less waste as I meal plan and do not impulse shop – and this is also in one with my values – Love food hate waste!

    1. Thanks for contributing, Jo. I’m glad you’re here.

      Like so many things, I suppose it is balancing the good choices with the less good ones. I like to cook, but I have other things I like to do more, so I opt for convenience more often than I’d like to admit.


  2. Unfortunately for me, as I do 99% of the food shopping and preparation, I shop at three different grocery stores.

    Whole Foods has some specific foods that I need for my soy-free diet.
    Sun Harvest has great natural foods as well, but not as much variety, but definitely cheaper than Whole Foods
    HEB is the mass market store where I get cleaners, and packaged foods that the rest of my family eats.

    I would like for all of us to be on the same diet, but tastes and costs keep us from doing this.

    So, how do I do all of this shopping? I don’t always visit all three stores each week. I do typically shop for food once or twice a week, usually on my lunch break. The HEB trip is usually every other weekend. I usually have to go about twice a week, though, to maintain fresh enough produce.

    I didn’t always shop this way. But now that I have a restricted diet due to food allergies (soy is in everything, in case you didn’t know), it has forced me to do this, and I feel much better for it now. There are some packaged soy-free convenience foods, usually the Amy’s brand, that I do enjoy and it gives me a break from constant shopping and cooking.

    Anyways, I enjoyed this article, because food and what unnatural stuff is in it, concerns me and I do spend a lot of time thinking about this. Thanks for posting this.

    1. Cynthia, thanks for commenting. I appreciate you taking the time.

      I’m afraid I think more about healthy eating than I actually do it.

      Anyway, here in Fort Worth we have a Whole Food nearby (Arlington) — and have you seen that main store in Austin? It’s massive. We also have Central Market here, HEB’s high-end chain that combines some of the organics of Whole Foods along with most of HEB’s regular groceries and lots of high-end and fresh cooked things. I eat lots of samples there and buy very little!


  3. Yes, the downtown Austin Whole Foods is where I shop on my lunch break as it is blocks away from my work. 🙂 That store has been a savior for me and my food allergies. We also have Central Market here, but I don’t frequent it as much because Sun Harvest is very close to my home.

    I also thought a lot about food, but didn’t really start to make a change in my shopping and eating until this year. It does take a lot of effort, and without the soy allergy, I don’t know if I would be doing all of this. I commend you for at least starting the thought process.


  4. I pretty much live between rung 3 and rung 4, with occasional forays down or up. I make my own bread some of the time; I haven’t figured out how to turn the (good!) bread into buns though – they seem to get a big crumbly when I do that. I don’t mind, but my wife is a different story. 🙂

    We eat tacos, pasta dishes, etc. with some frequency. We haven’t eaten boxed macaroni & cheese in….well….actually, I think we tried some about a year ago and were reminded how much we hate it. We *do* have macaroni & cheese, but I make the sauce myself from real cheese.

    It’s all a balance of health, money, and convenience – and everybody has to find their own way.

  5. I’d rather cook than to eat frozen food, even if the taste is exactly the same as the other. Eating fresh fruit, meat and vegetable is much healthier than any other diet that you could have. Also, preparing dishes can improve my cooking skills too.

  6. There are lots of ‘convenience’ meals that you can prep yourself – it just takes a little planning. I am about to start posting some overnight prep recipes, that cook whilst you are asleep and then you reheat later in the day. That way you are guaranteed a good, nutritious and simple meal. It is also cost effective. One of the most convenient foodstuffs of all are eggs. They are amazing things – I ponder daily about who first realised their potential – they are a miracle in so many ways (yes I am rather odd :-)) – Keep some eggs in and some cheese and a few frozen veggies (including onion – batch chop and freeze the little tear-jerkers so they are always on hand) and you have an omelette to go. If you are watching your fat/cholesterol intake you can use one full egg and make up with egg white’s to the quantity required – this is also a fab recipe if you are training and reducing body fat. Add a bit extra flavour to an omelette with black pepper and mixed herbs rather than adding salt. The list is endless!

    1. Thanks for more great tips, Jo. I thought I already subscribed to your blog, but I guess not. I did today, however. Good stuff there.

      Thanks again,

  7. Pingback: Foodie Friday – Paring Away The “Pre”s | Untitled Minimalism

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