October 20, 2010

Shopping Secrets: Aldi

With as much cooking as we do, we are obviously going to do a fair bit of shopping, and as everyone knows, that costs money.  And truth is, we do spend a fair bit on our groceries.  Fresh meat, quality spices, specialty items, premium cheeses... that stuff costs money.   And while we are doing okay financially, we aren't exactly rolling in cash.  Having two kids in college makes sure of that.  So how do we afford to buy things like imported cheeses and new cookware?

Our secret to managing that is to save money when you can on items that don't have to cost a lot, so you can afford to spend that extra little bit on those items for which a higher price really does mean better quality.

Now, when I'm talking about saving money on some items, I'm not suggesting one should buy crappy stuff.  Not all brands are the same, and for some products, generic or store-brand items truly aren't as good as the name brands... and in some cases, the off-brand stuff isn't even passably good.   One key is to know for what items it really matters, and for which ones it doesn't.  Another one - and a more relevant one to this post - is to know where you can find a lot of good deals, and where you can get store-brand and off-brand items that really do match up well to the big name brands.

One place where you can find great deals, and great off-brand stuff, is at Aldi stores. 

Aldi is an international supermarket chain.  In the US, it started in Iowa and has since expanded to into the neighboring states and all the way to the east coast.  The chain's motto is "honest to goodness savings," and it lives up to that promise.

Among some people, Aldi has a reputation of not being very good, or at least not the place where the "right" people shop.  In my opinion, that reputation is unearned, and says more about those who hold it than it does about the chain or the people that shop there.   Yes, a lot of people with limited incomes do shop there.  That's smart of them, because shopping there, you can get a lot without spending a lot, and that's important when you're trying to support a family on a very tight budget... which, unfortunately, is the case for a lot of people these days.   More people should be that smart.  And yes, the stores look pretty plain.  There's no decoration to speak of.  But the Aldi stores we've been in have been clean and well-lit, the aisles are easy to navigate, and what the chain saves on decor goes back into keeping the prices low.  I'm cool with that.

Reputation aside, we see a pretty wide range of people when we shop there.  It's a diverse crowd, ethnically and in terms of age and socioeconomic status.   The thing they seem to most have in common is a desire to find a good deal, and I can relate to that. 

We don't do all of our shopping at Aldi stores, or even the bulk of it.  A lot of the stuff we cook with, you aren't going to find there.  Lamb?  Coconut milk?  Fish sauce?  Greek yogurt?  You won't have much luck finding those items at Aldi, or at least not the ones we've been to.   Aldi doesn't try to carry everything, because having a limited selection of items - and thus having to keep in stock only a limited number of things - is part of how they are able to offer low prices.   But what they do carry is, in a lot of cases, quite good, and there are a lot of things you can buy a lot cheaper at Aldi than you can anywhere else, and with no loss of quality.  If you can tell the difference between a black bean chili made using Aldi store-brand beans from one made with brand-name ones, you have a more discerning palate than me, and as Juli would gladly tell you, I can be kinda picky.  Aldi is a great place to pick up a lot of staple and pantry items.  We recently went there to stock up on a bunch of things we use frequently, or which I anticipate using soon, such as canned beans.

The produce selection at Aldi isn't wonderfully diverse, but every produce item we've bought there has been excellent.   Potatoes, peppers, mushrooms, cauliflower, lemons and limes.... great quality, cheap prices.  We've also gotten great deals on whole chickens and on cuts of meat.  Awhile back, when I made the ham and bean soup, I bought the ham at Aldi... a wonderfully flavorful, imported black forest ham at an unbelievably low price.   Some of their cheeses are great, too.  The ricotta I use in lasagna?  Bought it at Aldi.  It's as good as any ricotta produced by any of the nationally-distributed brands I've ever tried, and definitely better than some of them.

Aldi carries some some pretty good imported chocolates and snack items at bargain prices, too.   Yogurt-covered raisins are one of my go-to snack items, and the ones I get at Aldi are every bit as good as the ones I can get at other supermarkets, and a lot cheaper.  Plus, while the selection isn't the most diverse, that isn't to say Aldi stores don't carry some specialty items.  They carry a nice selection of Mexican cheeses, for example.   They have a pretty good selection of frozen seafood, too, and while we haven't yet bought any, that's been more a matter of what I've been cooking and the timing of our shopping than anything else. 

Now, there are some things we definitely won't buy at Aldi again, based on past experience.  Some of their frozen convenience foods - frozen pizza, for example - are, in my experience, pretty bad.   And I mean pretty bad even compared to the normal level of pretty bad one expects in frozen pizza.  Then there was this pre-prepared Caribbean chicken we got there once that was so bad that calling it simply "disgusting and gross" would be a compliment, compared to how dreadful it truly was.  So, while Aldi might well have some good frozen dinners, we won't be buying any of them, and we can't recommend anything from that section based on the limited sample we've tried.  We haven't liked the ice cream products we've bought there, either.

Beyond that, as noted earlier, for some sorts of items, brand really does matter, and lower cost will translate to lower quality.  Chocolate chips, for example.  Or canned tomato products.  I don't know why, but when it comes to tomatoes, there is a huge gap in quality between the bargain stuff and the better name brands (though some of the name brands are pretty bad, too).  I picked up some tomato paste last time we were at Aldi, and I'm glad I tasted it before I put it in the dish I was cooking.  I won't be buying that again.  The canned diced tomatoes are somewhat better.  They're good enough that I'll use them in a dish for which they're not a primary ingredient, but in anything that is tomato-centered - spaghetti sauce, for example - I will be sticking with Contadina, Dei Fratelli and so forth. 

All in all, though, we like Aldi stores.  Shopping at Aldi is one of the things that helps us do the sort of cooking - and eating - we like within a reasonable budget. 

For more about the Aldi chain, check out their website at http://www.aldi.us/index_ENU_HTML.htm .

1 comment:

  1. Juli here. The Aldi chain started in Essen, Germany, and carries a nice selection of German chocolates and other German imports like wine, ham, and cheese.

    I also like their Lacura line of makeup, which has a full line of skin care, with most of the items priced at $2.50. The only thing I didn't care for in the Lacura line was the lip balm- weird flavor.