The home chef won't compromise on quality, but she makes mindful choices to determine what's splurge worthy — and what isn't.
Zlata Faerman
Credit: Courtesy of Zlata Faerman

Zlata Faerman lives in Wyckoff, New Jersey with her husband, five-year-old son, and a beloved childcare provider to assist the two working parents. And that's a lucky household: The professional publicist is also a talented home chef, regularly whipping up inventive, magazine-worthy spreads (that she also shares on social media for drooling followers).

Faerman estimates she spends about $300 per week for the household of four. "We stay committed to not spending frivolously on items or services we don't actually need," she says, explaining that quality food is her priority, and not her preferred place to cut back. This is especially true during the pandemic, she says, when they're eating almost exclusively at home versus dining out.

"Outside of mortgage and taxes, food definitely is the category where a majority of our money goes," she says. But she makes that money count on fresh, high-quality, nutritious, and versatile ingredients. Here's her strategy. 

A Layered Approach to Grocery Shopping

Rather than think of her grocery budget on a weekly cycle, Faerman buys in larger quantities, less often, and at a range of stores, meant to last over several weeks.

"I was a huge advocate of Baldor Foods when the pandemic first hit," she explains. "The company normally serves high-end restaurants with their food, and when quarantine started, they pivoted their model to serve consumers as well. I absolutely loved getting farm-fresh food delivered right to my house."

But once she began to feel more comfortable leaving the house as COVID cases fell around the northeast, she was back to her standard grocery purveyors. 

"We spend about $300 to $400 at Costco every two to three weeks, and $150 to $250 at Trader Joe's every two to three weeks," she explains. She supplements that with nominal expenditures at farmers' markets as needed for fresh, local fare.

And she tries to plan ahead so as not to pay the oops-I-ran-out tax on essentials. "There is a Shop Rite and a Stop & Shop less than two miles from my house, but I find them to be unreasonably expensive," she says. "I'll only go there for quick refills on stock items like my coffee creamer or eggs.

Deciding When to Splurge

To Faerman, organic is important — but she's analytical about her choices so as not to spring for the upcharge when it's not really needed. "I splurge on organic — produce, poultry, seafood and more — when it's available and when I know it's important," she says. 

But she deems the designation not necessary or even relevant for some produce items. "For example, I skip the organic avocados because their hard skin deems it unnecessary, but always splurge on berries," she says.

She calls grade-A maple syrup her top indulgence, along with manuka honey, and snacks like goji berries and the medjool dates her son loves.

Beware the Bulk or Bargain Buy

Some shoppers might be inclined to buy big when they see a great sale or a value price on a bulk buy. And that can be an effective cost-saving strategy — but only if that food doesn't end up going to waste in the end.

"You save money when you actually use the food," Faerman says. "Do not buy anything that you don't really see yourself making before it goes bad." If you do end up with extras, keep an eye on them so you can toss them in the freezer before they pass their prime. "If you find that you probably won't use it, freeze to preserve," she says.

Saving Strategies

Some of Faerman's favorite grocery pickups are not splurges at all — like fresh flowers from Trader Joe's, which instantly brighten a space but don't break the bank.

And she loves to buy a pantry staple in large quantity and use it many different ways, which is both a cost-effective strategy and a creative challenge. One of her top go-tos? Quinoa.

"Quinoa's versatility is really wonderful when it comes to meal planning," she says. "Get it in bulk at either Costco or some big-box retailer. In a pinch, I've gotten a package at Trader Joe's, but the smaller quantity is only good for one time and not ideal for meal planning."

With the staple always in the house, she makes it go far for variety, flavor, and nutrition, too. "Since quinoa is a protein, it's a great option to throw into pretty much any dish to make it healthy," she says.

For instance, she makes a quinoa salad, as a lunch option or a side with dinner, with diced tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, and feta, dressed with some squeezed lemon juice. 

She'll also use it in bowls: "Same concept as the salad, but heartier because you include veggies like roasted squash, beets, asparagus — anything you want." Or she'll mix quinoa with marinara sauce, Parmesan cheese, egg, and basil for a flavor and nutrition-packed dish: "Bake, and boom!"

The options are endless. "When I'm in a rush, I'll have leftover quinoa topped with some parmesan and keep it simple," she says. "And there are even so many dessert options for quinoa, from baked goods to throwing a bunch of ingredients together and forming tasty treat balls."

Elevating Leftovers

Faerman makes cost-effective use of leftovers — but takes her time preparing them so they feel like a first-class meal instead of sloppy seconds. "Never heat leftovers in the microwave," she says. "Instead, depending on what it is, you can reheat on the stove in a pan, add some water, bring to boil, cover for steam heating; or in the stove, set to around 300 degrees," to improve the flavor and texture.

Even better, she'd rather make an entirely different meal with a whole new flavor profile out of her pre-prepared food. "I like to reuse food that I make to create other dishes," she says. "For example, if I make roasted sweet potato crisps or fries and also roasted vegetables, the next day I'll take the sweet potatoes and veggies and heat them up on a pan with water, crack an egg or two on top, cover so the egg cooks, add feta and some spicy mayo." And that makes an incredible lunch composed of, but barely identifiable as, leftovers.

For Faerman, smart grocery shopping isn't about couponing: It's about making mindful choices, bringing home quality food — and making it go far.