Taking a stroll through the supermarket at 6 or 7 a.m. with a food enthusiast or a chef is slightly different than going with two kids on a Saturday at noon. Although COVID-19 has made shopping online, pick-up services and delivery more attainable, there is nothing quite like walking into a grocery store or farmers market and actually buying with intention.

For Chef J of Hester’s Nette, a catering business in Alexander City, buying fresh food in bulk is important. When he arrives at the store, he heads straight for the butcher’s counter to see what they have to offer for the day.

But for food enthusiast Brian Smith, hitting the market before others have the chance is key.

“Personally, I like the farmers’ market. I will get up at the crack of dawn and drive an hour if I have to. What I would really like is for these local farmers to sell directly to me. Then I would be serving the best possible produce to my clients at a wholesale price and supporting local,” Smith said.

Although the meat may be the main ingredient of Smith’s affair, he preps and plans around the produce selection for each meal.

“It is important to set meals around the produce because people want quality and freshness. I like fresh produce. If I like fresh produce, other people will also like fresh produce,” he said.

Chef J said for him the meat, the spices and the color of the food sets the standard.

“When I go to the butcher counter, I examine the packaging. I do not want to buy meat with air in the packaging. That takes away from the quality of the meat and could mean contamination. I want to look for a fresh cut of meat or a set of wings that is tightly wrapped. Color is important, too. You want your meat to be vivid in color – the whole plate should be bright when you finish cooking,” said Chef J.

“I mean, honestly, with the right spices a good cook can make even the worst cut of meat taste good,” he said. “But we don’t want to do that. We want pretty, colorful plates with good cuts of meat and healthy sides.”

Chef J is in the midst of coining a new idea with his customers that involves a healthier side choice. He would rather pair a double cheeseburger or wings with crunchy asparagus or green beans versus French fries.

“It’s not something people around here do. But see, when you order a double cheeseburger and French-fries, you are getting double the grease, double the fat. It’s just not healthy,” he said. “I would love to see my customers choose a healthier side over those high fat, high carb sides any day.”

Chef J also recommends looking at what serves the purpose of your meal. He urges people not to buy based on price, but rather quality and cut. Smith encourages saving money by going directly to farmers.

“Again, you are buying in bulk at wholesale prices, which is money smart. Plus, you are helping your local businesses, and the food is guaranteed fresh,” said Smith. “Most local farmers are not pumping their cows and pigs with hormones because their families are eating them, too. The vegetables and fruits will be fresh and well maintained because it is their source of food as well. Our farmers are not processing their food like you see at these big plants.”

And so there you have it. There is no right or wrong way to shop like a chef. Some like an orderly process with a detailed list and others want to go straight to the farmer.

Tips for Shopping like a Chef:

Prepare. Pick a meal or meals. Design them or settle on recipes that you know. Make a list of the ingredients that you need. *Keep an ongoing list of common ingredients that you use. When you are low, add that product to the shopping list.

Always eat before you go shopping. Hunger buys are a real thing, and they tend to be unhealthy and wasteful.

Do not buy based on price. Buy because the ingredients are nutritious.

Shop the perimeter of the store. This is where the healthier foods tend to be placed.

If you are buying dry food, like rice or pasta, look for bulk sales. These foods have longer shelf lives and can be bought in larger quantities.

Sales on produce indicate which produce is in-season. If there is a sale on it, it is probably in-season, which means it will be fresh.

To avoid crowds, shop early in the morning.

Be open to trying new herbs and spices. Adding a different flavor changes the whole taste palette.

Do not be afraid to try something twice. Maybe it is perfect the first time or maybe it isn’t, but never lay down the spatula without giving it a second go.

This one is last because it is the most important: Support small businesses and farmer markets.