Grocery Shopping for a Year in the Bush

A big reason that I wanted to focus on eliminating food waste this year is because of where we live. Grocery shopping when you live in a rural Alaska is a truly unique thing. I think that it is difficult for most people to fathom what it would be like to live in such extreme isolation, and groceries are a huge part of that. I am lucky that, even in our tiny village with a population of barely 60, we have a small grocery store in town. However, it doesn’t stock much. There are a few small aisles, but it’s only about as big as a small gas station in the lower 48. Because of this, when we do our twice a year (in August and December) shopping trip we go BIG.

The first part of the shopping trip involves massive online orders from Target and Amazon. To get to the point of ordering all of our dried goods, non-perishables, household goods, and other similar things I first have to make a huge meal plan. I try to choose 15-20 meals that I know we like to eat a lot and I also choose random staples that I know can create a wide array of meals. Variety is king because there is zero opportunity for going out to eat once we get to the village. An example of how my meal planning works for a specific meal is:

  • Slow Cooker Chickpea Coconut Curry
    • Canned tomatoes (online)
    • Broccoli & cauliflower (buy in Anchorage, fresh and frozen)
    • Sweet Potato (buy in Anchorage)
    • Veggie broth (online)
    • Coconut milk (online)
    • Frozen spinach (buy in Anchorage)
    • Chickpeas (online)
    • Rice (online)

First, I list out the meal and the ingredients that I need to purchase (often there are additional ingredients needed, but I just list the ones that I don’t have on hand already). Then, I list out where I am going to purchase the item from. Anything that says “buy in Anchorage” will be bought at the Fred Meyer store there that has a Bush Order department. Anything that says “online” will be bought at Target or Amazon. (Note: Target and Amazon are two of the only grocery stores that offer free shipping to rural Alaska. Amazon only offers their Prime items though and you cannot order any of their Pantry items. Target offers free shipping as long as the order is over $25.)

After I make my list in this fashion, I then go through and make a master list without the actual meal listed, just the ingredients. I use tally marks to indicate that another recipe calls for the same ingredient. After my big master list is completed I start ordering. I will open up tabs in both Amazon and Target’s websites and then I type each ingredient into both, comparing prices. Some things I just know are cheaper one place or the other. For example, canned goods are cheaper on Target and Amazon sells giant Costco-sized jars of minced garlic. Others I can’t remember or sometimes aren’t available one place or the other though, so it takes some work.

Yesterday, it took me 4-5 hours total of work time to get this all ordered and completed, despite the fact that I already had my meal planning finished. It’s a big project to meal plan for so many months at a time though, and it’s so important that we don’t run out or waste what we do have. I did get a bit lucky this time though because I happened to be visiting my dad and he lives on a lake, so I spent my 4-5 hours of work sitting outside listening to the waves. Not too bad, eh?

When we lived in civilization, I used to do weekly meal planning and we’d stick to it about 50% of the time. Now, my weekly meal planning all comes out of this huge yearly meal planning spreadsheet. Last year, we ended the year with a fair amount of food waste though, and I really want to avoid that this year. I’m hoping that a more strict weekly meal planning guide and a whole-family effort will allow us to keep the waste down. I also ordered slightly less than usual of a few things because they were things I noticed we didn’t really use last year. I came home equipped with a list of things NOT to buy (or to buy less of) for this reason. Hopefully, we can stick to it and try to ensure we use all of our food items wisely this school year.