Grocery Diaries: A Law Student Who Cooks to Connect With Her Vietnamese Culture


Welcome to Grocery Diaries, a new series that illustrates just how varied and personalized “healthy eating” really is. So many factors impact the choices we make at the grocery store, from access and affordability, to health conditions, to our individual cultural backgrounds, to what simply makes us (and our taste) buds happy. So we asked people across the country to share their grocery lists with us, and then called up a few of them to ask for more details. Why do they buy what they buy? How much do they spend? Who are they shopping for? What health conditions or nutritional concerns are they thinking about when they choose, for instance, an almond milk over cow’s milk, or particular flavors or spices or treats? In this Grocery Diaries installment, we hear from a busy law student who loves to cook great meals on a budget.

Name: Courtney Liss
Age: 26
Occupation: Law student
Location: Ann Arbor, Michigan
Race/Gender: Vietnamese-American woman
Health conditions/dietary restrictions to consider: Lactose intolerance 
Grocery shopping frequency: Shops for one person six times a month

Courtney Liss, 26, enjoys making impromptu meals in the same vein as Chopped, meaning she utilizes whatever she has on-hand to cook a great-tasting dish. She frequently tries new ingredients, buys fresh herbs, and experiments with different cuisines when cooking—when she can. As a busy law school student, Courtney doesn’t always have time to cook elaborate meals and frequently relies on a few grocery store staples that she can eat with very little preparation. She’s also lactose intolerant and minimizes the amount of dairy she consumes. (In her opinion, however, a hearty serving of lasagna is worth taking a Lactaid.) 

Lactose intolerance happens when someone isn’t able to completely digest the lactose, or sugar, in dairy products like milk and certain cheeses, the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disorders (NIDDK) explains. This happens if the small intestine doesn’t make enough lactase, the enzyme that helps with dairy digestion by breaking down lactose. Eating milk-based products when you have lactose intolerance can cause a range of truly unpleasant gastrointestinal symptoms, like gas, nausea, stomach pains, and more. Limiting or completely avoiding foods and drinks containing lactose is one way to try to manage the intolerance, as is using products like Lactaid that contain lactase. 

In addition to factoring in her lactose intolerance, Courtney, who is half-Vietnamese, enjoys trying to master cooking various Vietnamese dishes, like Pho. (This is a particularly handy skill since there aren’t a lot of Vietnamese restaurants where she lives in Ann Arbor, she says.) Fortunately, Courtney has access to a lot of the fresh herbs and foods she needs since there are many grocery stores and farms in her area. Here are 10 items she picks up in a typical grocery trip.

There are times when you just need to eat, and you don’t really care what the food actually is—as long as it’s filling. When that happens to Courtney, she throws together her go-to black bean bowl consisting of a can of beans, cheese, and Cholula hot sauce. “It’s something I eat when I don’t feel like I have the energy or mental strength to put together a real meal,” Courtney tells SELF. “I can just eat it, get my protein, and continue doing my work.”

“I love fish sauce,” Courtney says. “It goes in almost every Vietnamese recipe.” Although Courtney loves cooking in general, making Vietnamese food is particularly special to her. “My mom is a refugee, and it feels like a good way to connect back to my heritage,” she says. But Courtney also uses this ingredient in more unexpected ways, she adds, like in spaghetti sauce.

“Curry is an easy thing that I can just whip up that involves a lot of vegetables, especially over the summer when I was subscribed to a farm box,” Courtney says. “Every two weeks I would get a lot of vegetables, many of which I was not super familiar with. Curry was a great way to eat them.”

Courtney generally avoids dairy, unless it’s in food that she loves where she prefers the original to an alternative—like lasagna or ice cream. She buys Almond Breeze in the unsweetened vanilla variety because it’s affordable and shelf-stable. “I use it in place of creamer. I try to make oatmeal with it. It is very good in chai tea lattes. Wherever you would use milk in a sweet application, I’ll use this,” she says.

5. Lemons: $3.59

“I put lemon on everything and in everything,” Courtney says. She squeezes the fruit into tea, on top of avocado toast, into homemade cocktails, and as a final bite of flavor on top of quick skillet meals. A recent meal Courtney improved with lemon was a white bean, sausage, and kale dish. “If I don’t have lemons, it’s like a kitchen emergency,” she says.



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