When I was growing up, my mom was the family chef. But she also had a full-time job, so my brother and I were raised on a Midwestern diet of meatloaf, spaghetti and meatballs, and the popular Pittsburgh Sunday dinner, City Chicken and mashed potatoes.
However, after my parents became empty-nesters and retirees, they became total food obsessives. The DVR at my parents' house was literally filled with cooking programs starring Alton Brown, Mary Ann Esposito, Lidia Bastianich, barbecue pitmaster Aaron Franklin, or my dad's absolute favorite, episodes of America's Test Kitchen. It was not unusual for my folks to cruise the grocery store multiple times a week for a dinner recipe that took all day to prepare, even though there would be just the two of them at the dinner table.
So when my dad passed away unexpectedly in early January, it left a huge hole in our lives, particularly for my mom who got married at 24 and moved from her dad's house to her husband's. In their 44-year marriage, the longest they'd been apart is 10 days.
Two weeks after my dad's funeral, I lured my mom to New Jersey to stay with me for a week. And as I dragged her along to the grocery store to prepare meals for my own family, it was also a chance to get her acclimated to shopping for one. Funnily enough, as we cruised the aisles at Aldi, it also gave us a chance to share some really nice memories of my dad. Here's what I learned and what ended up in our cart.
1. If you're not going to make your own salad dressing, Aldi has the one to get.
My mom tells me that my brother and sister-in-law sing the praises of Aldi's salad dressings, particularly the Specially Selected Three-Cheese Vinaigrette made with apple cider vinegar mixed with Parmesan, romano, and asiago cheeses. "This one is really hard to find!" she adds, snatching two bottles and tossing them into the cart. We also speculate on the Aldi brand versus the more recognizable version, which have similar labels and are placed side by side on the shelf, with the Aldi brand at a steep discount. Hmmm … but we decide to save the blind taste test experiment for another trip.
2. The prices are legit better than Costco and other places.
"Holy cow, that jar is bigger than Costco. And a better price, too!" Mom says, sending me to retrieve a huge jar of chicken flavor bouillon for $4.75. There are a zillion things you make with bouillon, she tells me, from risotto to soups to veggie dishes to any chicken dish where dried-out meat is a real concern. However, this size jug would last one person well into the next presidential administration, so it's a pass for now.
But right next door is a box of roasted red pepper and tomato soup that perfectly mirrors another organic variety I got mom hooked on that costs three times this much. We're both pretty stoked about this $1.99 version, so we buy some for her, and some for me. (Thanks, Mom!)
3. The grab-and-go meals are good options when you don't have time to cook.
"Even when it was your dad and me, we never could use up a whole head of lettuce before it turned," says Mom, eyeballing some vacuum-sealed ready-made salads. "These look good." I also spy some quinoa meals that are similar to my current go-to I packed my lunch for work options. I see all the exact same flavor combinations as the organic brand I usually buy at double this price. Dang, Aldi, where have you been hiding these?
We also get pulled in by the "Try Me, I'm New" sticker on a Morabito Tomato Pie. Into the cart it goes for a future Friday night.
4. Aldi has quality meat.
My dad's Restaurant Depot runs were the stuff of legend, so he left behind a very full freezer of very large cuts of beef. However, Mom sees some much smaller cuts of Black Angus. "Black Angus is good stuff," she says, digging through the selection of vacuum-sealed packs. Where we do a hard pass, though, is at the $1.99 braunschweiger. "Ugh, your dad loved that stuff," Mom remembers. "Disgusting."
5. The produce is limited but what's there gets an A+.
Aldi's selection of fruits and veggies is limited, but what is available looks really fresh. Still-green bananas are $0.49 a pound, which is the super-special price my grocery store offers only when it's trying to unload the last of a shipment. There are trays of firm avocados, and bags of green kale, lettuce, and other leafy greens. Mom heads straight for the citrus. "I always liked grapefruit, but your dad didn't so I got away from buying these," she says. "I think I'm going to try them again."
6. It's okay to save money and splurge on calories.
We both let out a squeal of delight upon finding an off-brand of hazelnut spread (most of you will recognize this as Nutella) for a fraction of what that other jar costs. "The calories are just through the roof, but it's worth it," Mom says. Heck, if we can't stress-eat a few hundred calories of chocolate-y nutty gooeyness now, I don't know when we ever can.
Thirty minutes later we'd spent less than we would have on lunch at the neighborhood diner, and we had a number of quick and easy meals each of us could enjoy. But taking that time to share some together time, and some silly memories of my dad, was simply priceless.
Have you been to Aldi with your mom (or dad!)? Did you learn anything fun or new? Share your experiences in the comments below.