Fans of the Simpsons may recall the episode in which Marge takes a trip to the local big box store, Monstromart (tagline: “Where shopping is a baffling ordeal”). Marge finds a 12-pound box of nutmeg and Barney tries to engage a life-sized Mrs. Butterworth bottle in conversation. For singles or couples, any grocery store can seem like Monstromart, with family packs of pork chops and 10-pound bags of potatoes. But with a few tips, shopping for two doesn't have to be an ordeal. And you won't have to buy 12 pounds of nutmeg.
Pick your market.
If you have a choice of places to shop, there are a few things you should look for. Stores near college campuses will cater to students – singles and couples, for the most part – so they'll probably have meat and produce packaged for single shoppers. Urban markets also tend to cater more to singles and couples than do suburban markets. If you can't pick a store with a shopping base of singles or couples, check out the meat and seafood department to see if they have an actual counter – that way you can buy only what you want. Check out the produce section to see what's available loose. If you can patronize a farmers' market, it can be a great way to buy produce in small quantities (unless you're like me and go crazy buying everything in sight!)
Get to know your meat department.
I mean the people who work there, not the selection they carry. Even if there’s not an actual meat counter in your store, the people in the department can be a big help to singles and couples. If the meat department has cutting equipment, they'll likely be happy to cut a rack of ribs in half or carve off a steak from a rib roast. Even if they don't have the equipment for butchery, they're still usually willing to repackage meats, so you can buy two pork chops or Italian sausages instead of the four or five that are in the package. I like to shop at the same market most of the time, because it’s easier to develop a relationship with these very important people if you see them often.
Become friends with the produce manager.
Just like the meat department, knowing the people in your produce department can reap big rewards. All the produce that’s packaged in bulk? Much of it can be broken up; all you have to do is ask. While it's true that some packages can't be split, you might be surprised what the produce staff can do for you. I've had produce clerks cut cabbages and melons in half for me or open a three-pack of zucchini so I could buy just one.
Learn to think in small sizes (usually).
Even though I've never shopped for a big family, I inherited my parents' sense of thrift. Since it's almost universally true that bigger sizes of packaged food items are less expensive per ounce than smaller sizes, I always felt that I was wasting money if I bought the smaller size.
For example, the 3-ounce package of brand-name cream cheese costs almost as much as the 8-ounce package of store-brand, so I'd invariably pick the larger size. But after I used the ounce I needed for my recipe, I'd forget about the rest for weeks, when I'd find the rest of the big package turning pink and slimy. Likewise, buying three or four potatoes will probably cost more per pound than buying a five-pound bag, but if half the bag goes bad, it's not such a good deal.
On the other hand, in some cases it does make sense to buy a larger package; if the food can be frozen easily, I buy larger sizes and freeze the extra. For instance, even if butter is available in half-pound packages, it's insanely expensive compared to a full pound, and it only takes a minute to put half of that in the freezer, where it will keep for months.
Use the specialty sections.
Many food markets today have prepared food sections ranging from delis to salad bars and even to olive bars and make-your-own granola bars. These sections can be a boon for couples or single shoppers -- if you know how to use them. Keep in mind that a small amount of trimmed and chopped celery from the salad bar will be vastly more expensive per pound than a bunch of celery from the produce section, but if all you really need is a quarter-cup and you'll never use the rest of the bunch, it might make sense to buy the chopped stuff. (Personally, I rarely have trouble using up a bunch of celery so I don't take that route, but everyone's different.)
The bulk food aisle can likewise be a great place to shop for two. If you don't mind getting your foods in bags rather than sturdier packaging, you can buy as little or as much as you want -- especially helpful with spices and herbs and perishable foods like nuts.