I Followed My Mom Around Costco and This Is What I Learned

published Aug 7, 2015
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(Image credit: Emma Christensen)

You guys, I had no idea my mom was such a Costco fanatic. All I did was mention that I was thinking of getting a Costco membership, but wasn’t sure all the bulk purchasing made sense for my small household of two. It was the kind of random, off-hand comment one makes to one’s mother on the weekly Sunday afternoon phone chat. But in response, I received a lecture on financial planning and budget shopping — the likes of which I hadn’t heard since I left for college.

And so it came to pass that on a recent trip back home to Minnesota, my mother and I filled the trunk of her car with cloth grocery bags and hit up the local Costco. I was about to see my mom’s smart shopping in action.

My mom writing her shopping list (Image credit: Emma Christensen)

My Mother’s Costco Plan of Attack

My parents live in a rural part of Minnesota, roughly 20 minutes from the nearest town and 45 minutes from the closest Costco. My mom makes a Costco run once a month to pick up fresh bulk produce and restock the cupboard with dry ingredients. She always makes a list, and she rarely deviates from it.

Unless errant California-residing children are visiting, my mother cooks for just my dad and herself most days. The budget isn’t quite as tight as when I was a kid growing up, but my mom is still thrifty — she is the queen of using every last scrap. She fully admits that if you’re shopping at Costco for just two people, you have to be really smart and strategic about what you buy and how you cook it, otherwise you end up wasting too much.

My mom is particularly proud of the ways she’s figured out to use up fresh bulk produce from Costco. “My friend who usually comes with me on Costco trips thinks I’m crazy when I buy so much produce,” she says, “But we eat it! We really do!” My mom argues that buying big bags of greens and flats of fruit actually forces her and my dad to eat healthier. She can’t stand to waste it, so they might as well eat it. Told you she was a smartie.

With that, here goes. Here’s what I learned — and what we bought — on this epic trip to Costco.

Mom’s favorite pasta (Image credit: Emma Christensen)

1. The dried pasta is worth a second look.

My mom and I start our visit to Costco in the dry goods and pantry section. Mom always starts here, then moves to the produce and refrigerated sections, and finally to the frozen foods. This is deliberate and strategic, because she doesn’t want the refrigerated and frozen food to warm too much before she leaves. She also has thermal freezer bags ready to keep everything cold on the long drive home.

She loves one particular brand of organic dried pasta, Garofalo, and says she has stopped buying anything else. She says the texture is always perfectly al dente when she follows the exact directions on the package. She usually cooks the entire bag and then uses the pasta throughout the week for quick pasta salads and pasta casseroles.

Dried tortellini for pasta salads and soups (Image credit: Emma Christensen)

Mom also buys bags of dried cheese tortellini. “I don’t really use this for straight-up pasta dishes, but it makes great pasta salads in the summer, and soups in the winter,” she says as she tosses a bag in the cart.

2. Costco has seasonal jam.

“Oh, fig jam! That’s a new one!” she exclaims as we pass by. My dad owns and operates an artisan bakery in Northfield, Minnesota, so they end up with lots of bread at home. Lots of bread requires lots of jam, therefore she has several jars stashed in the cupboards.

She likes that the jams change seasonally at Costco — cherry (her very favorite), raspberry-rhubarb, strawberry, and apparently now, fig — depending on what has been recently harvested and delivered to stores. Mom is also an avid reader of nutritional info and likes that this jam has more actual fruit and less sugar than other jams they used to buy.

Jams stockpiled in my mother’s cupboard (Image credit: Emma Christensen)

She already has plenty of jam back home, so she reluctantly decides to put the fig jam back on the shelf. “Although, it might be gone next time. You never know.” With a sigh, she moves on.

As we continue to weave through the aisles of dry goods, my mom points out a few other things they usually get here, but don’t need to buy today: olive oil, maple syrup, nuts, dried fruit, a gluten-free flour mix for the bakery, and a few snacks (she’s a big fan of the chocolate-covered pretzels, and now, so am I).

Mom uses greens in just about everything she cooks, using up this giant bag! (Image credit: Emma Christensen)

3. It’s possible to use up this huge bag of hearty greens.

Finally, we get to the produce section and the true heart of our Costco trip. Mom’s eyes light up as we move into the big refrigerator room and button up our sweaters.

Here is the giant bag of greens that so confounds my mother’s friend. “She [mom’s friend] just can’t imagine what we do with all these greens, but we eat them in everything!” my mom says. Indeed she does. In just the few days I was home, we had these very same greens in lunch salads, a pasta sauce, and a frittata. As we stand next to the a pallets of greens stacked higher than her head, she rattles off all the other ways she uses the greens: salads when the greens are really fresh, stir-fries, sautéed side dishes (with bacon), frittatas and sauces, panades like this one (made with Dad’s bread), and tomato sauces.

More bags of greens and vegetables. Just in case she doesn’t have enough. (Image credit: Emma Christensen)

She says a bag of these greens stays reasonably fresh for about three weeks, although she’ll have to pick out a few slimy leaves by the end. If she has any left after all her cooking, she sautés it and freezes it in little bundles. These get tossed directly into soups during the winter.

“These giant bags are just $2.50! You’d pay triple that for the same amount at the grocery store. $2.50!”

Mom also points out the bags of shredded salad mix. These include things like shredded cabbage, broccoli, and sprouts: “Look at all the good stuff in this mix.” She likes these too, and cooks with them almost exactly the way she cooks with the bag of greens: fresh salads for lunch and sautéed on the stovetop for dinner.

Brussels sprouts that actually taste good! (Image credit: Emma Christensen)

4. Costco has the sweetest Brussels sprouts. (And good snap peas, too!)

Because apparently all the salad greens aren’t quite enough, my mom also grabs a bag of Brussels sprouts. “I’d given up on Brussels sprouts before trying them here. They’re actually sweet!” She tells me these sprouts last a whole month in the fridge, so there’s plenty of time to eat them up.

Mom switches between Brussels sprouts and snap peas on each trip, buying whichever looks better or whichever she’s in the mood to eat. For dinner tonight, she’s planning to make maple-mustard glazed Brussels sprouts from Mollie Katzen’s Moosewood Cookbook — this is a favorite recipe of hers and my dad’s, and leftovers make a great cold salad for lunch the next day.

Mom chooses her fruit very carefully (Image credit: Emma Christensen)

5. The fresh fruit is hit or miss.

The fresh fruit is hit or miss, my mother cautions as we trundle our cart into that part of the store. “When fruit is in season, you can sometimes get really good deals, but you have to have a plan for using it up.” She always swings through just to see what’s there and what looks good — on this trip, she decides some melons are worth trying, and adds them to the cart.

The one thing she almost always buys, she tells me as we walk away, is pineapple. Always pineapple. “It’s $2.99! Year-round! And it’s always good. You can’t beat that in Minnesota.” She mixes pineapple with other fresh fruits to have with yogurt for her breakfasts.

Mom ponders the salmon choices. (Image credit: Emma Christensen)

6. The salmon is a steal.

Salmon is my mother’s other big Costco triumph. As she leans over the case, examining each package for color and quality, she tells me that tomorrow she’ll cook the salmon in the slow cooker — her favorite way to prepare the enormous fillets that Costco sells. “We’ll have salmon with some Brussels sprouts for dinner, but then we can make pasta salad or fish cakes with the leftovers.” She pauses and thinks for a minute. “Or we can make creamed salmon on rice. That’s a good recipe, too. Or some soup with salmon and potatoes would be really nice.” She grins and pokes me with her elbow, “See! There’s so much you can do with it!”

And if she gets tired of salmon for too many meals? You guessed it: she freezes the leftovers.

Divide these giant packages into 1-pound portions to freeze (Image credit: Emma Christensen)

7. Costco meat can’t be beat.

Every few months, my mom says she picks up a big six-pound package of ground beef. She splits the big package into one-pound portions, then freezes them right away. These are easy to thaw whenever she wants some ground beef for pasta sauces, soups, or frittatas, and she likes the quality better than what she can find at their local grocery store.

She tells me she also shapes some of the raw beef into hamburger patties and freezes them with slips of wax paper between each layer. Whenever my dad brings home leftover burger buns from the bakery, they have a spontaneous Burger Night.

Costco is also where my mom buys her roasts and the bigger cuts she cooks in the slow cooker; she likes that they have a lot of cuts that the grocery store doesn’t carry. She feels the quality of the meat at Costco is generally really good and the price just can’t be beat.

Berries in case of fruit emergencies! (Image credit: Emma Christensen)

8. The frozen berries are a must-get.

Mom’s freezer is already so packed that she mostly skips the freezer section, but the big exception is frozen berries — she always makes sure to have a bag or two squirreled away for Emergency Fruit Situations. Such a situation might arise if she and my dad run out of fruit mid-week and can’t make it into town for a resupply, or during the prolonged fruit emergency that’s also known as “winter in Minnesota.” My parents take their fruit seriously.

What she does with these frozen berries is really pretty ingenious: She cooks down about a third of the bag of fruit on the stovetop, along with a little sugar, until the fruit is totally juicy, then whisks in a little cornstarch to thicken it into a sauce. Then she stirs in the rest of the bag of fruit so there are some big chunks of fruit mixed in with the cooked-down fruit. Not too sweet, nice fruit flavor, nice sauce-like texture — it’s a total win. This ends up being a really delicious sauce that’s perfect for yogurt (mom’s breakfast) or ice cream (my midnight snack).

She carefully portions the sauce into individual containers. One goes in the fridge for eating right away, and the rest (of course) go into the freezer. A little parchment pressed against the surface helps prevent ice crystals from forming and ensures the sauce doesn’t get watery when thawed.

Checking out with our Costco bounty (Image credit: Emma Christensen)

9. And the food court is a must-visit.

On our way out of Costco, with our bags of carefully packed booty, my mom points out the concession stand and mentions how much everyone loves the hot dogs. “But me, I love the churros.” She pauses and gives me a side-eye look. “Want to split one with me?” What’s a good daughter to do? I said yes.

Do you have tips to add — either from your own experience or your mom’s?