There’s an old rule of thumb that you should never go grocery shopping on an empty stomach. But I beg to differ.

A few weeks ago, my husband and I found ourselves in desperate need of baby food. We’d fed our ten-month-old son the last jar of Gerber lasagna over lunch, and had nothing to give him for dinner. In fact, we had nothing to give ourselves for dinner either. We had to go grocery shopping, and we had to eat.

We settled on a plan that would allow us to do both: first, we’d swing by our local supermarket to pick up the essentials – including several jars of baby food. Then, since going home and cooking that food would keep us from eating until an impossibly late hour, we’d head on to our favorite (and frugal) Mexican restaurant nearby. I could already taste the pork enchiladas on my tongue. Yum.

Free Samples, Aisle One

With our two children in tow, my husband and I decided to each take a kid and split up in order to conquer our shopping list. I’d take produce and dairy while my husband would conquer processed foods (sorry, cereal’s a staple in my house) and fresh meat.

As I walked into the produce section, my daughter spotted a cache of strawberries – with cream cheese yogurt dip – available for us to sample. A free appetizer, I thought to myself, why not? Just as we were finishing our fresh fruit, my husband texted me from the meat department:

“Cajun shrimp samples here. Come get one.”

Never one to pass up fresh seafood, I plunked my daughter back in the shopping cart and headed off to the meat aisle to nab some more free samples.

Once we’d reunited with my husband and son, we decided to just check off our shopping list together. Returning to the front of the store, my husband grabbed one of the strawberries, while noticing that sugar snap peas were also available to sample nearby. Just as we were finishing those, I saw gala apple slices with caramel sauce in the adjacent aisle. We zigzagged through the produce section, stuffing our mouths with sample after sample, careful never to break the two cardinal rules of supermarket samples: (1) one sample per person and (2) never, ever double dip. Before moving on to the cereal aisle, we’d already indulged in five different fruit and veggies.

Second Course, Please

After a quick stop to pick up cereal for the next morning’s breakfast, we headed on to the dairy section, only to find more samples. A grocery store employee was there, handing out crackers and Boursin cheese. I’m a fan of any type of cheese, but this stuff was rich, creamy, and utterly tasty.

As we made our way to the frozen foods section, I thought I smelled pizza. Turning the corner, I saw yet another employee, and, yes, he was serving slices of DiGiorno frozen pizzas. I handed a slice of pepperoni to my daughter, while I took a piece of supreme for myself. Further down the aisle, there were barbeque chicken wings available to try. My husband and I each scarfed down a honey BBQ wing, while my daughter refused to eat it because it was “too spicy.”

Hot & Fresh

Winding our way through the prepared foods section, daughter started shouting that she wanted macaroni and cheese. I tried explaining to her that we weren’t buying any blue boxes on this shopping trip, and that dinner was going to consist of tacos. Unrelenting – typically of a three-and-a-half year old – she continued to fuss at an obnoxiously high volume until one of the workers behind the counter overheard her. He stopped us and, scooping up a small cup of macaroni from the case, handed it over to my daughter with an equally small plastic spoon. She was in heaven. We thanked the kind man and continued on.

That’s when we saw it – the Holy Grail of supermarket samples: sushi. Every Friday during Lent, our grocery store sells fresh sushi, rolled in house by a team of chefs. Today’s selection included not one but three full-sized samples: a traditional California roll, a salmon roll, and a crunchy avocado roll with peanuts and the most amazing sweet and sour sauce drizzled on top. My husband and I each scooped up the avocado roll (at this point, my daughter was refusing to eat any more, claiming she was full), then looked at each other quizzically: did the one sample per person rule apply to the sushi as a group, or to each type of sushi roll? With a shrug of my shoulders, I reached over and picked up a California roll, prompting my husband to do the same. Three sushi samples later, we headed up to the front to pay for our groceries.

Don’t Forget Dessert!

On our way up to the register, we had to pass through the bakery. I could smell the aroma of fresh pastry and frosting coming from behind the counter. That’s when my daughter remember the free cookie samples our store handed out all day, every day. Suddenly, she decided she had a little extra room in her belly for a sugar cookie, and happily took her treat from the bakery attendant.

Still Hungry?

After paying for our groceries, my husband and I wheeled our cart out to the parking lot and began loading everything into our trunk. As we climbed into the front seat and buckled our safety belts, he turned to me, casually asking, “Still want to go to dinner?”

I paused. I considered my stomach, full of all our free samples. After all, we’d eaten:

  • Strawberries with cream cheese dip
  • Sugar snap peas
  • Carrots with ranch dressing
  • Apples with caramel
  • A small cup of mixed field greens with balsamic vinaigrette
  • Cheese and crackers
  • A slice of pizza
  • Chicken wings
  • Three sushi rolls
  • A cookie

I was satisfied. I didn’t need to eat any more.

So we went home, where we fed the baby his turkey dinner with mixed vegetables from a jar.

Reader, what are the best grocery stores in your area for free samples? What’s the most unexpected sample you’ve ever seen at your store?

Libby Balke

Libby Balke