At the beginning of 2009, I had just graduated from grad school and moved to the Phoenix valley without a job with my then boyfriend, now husband Clint. Being unemployed left me with quite a limited budget, but I knew the importance of nutrition and health. Being a recent graduate, I had a fiery passion for my line of work and was anxious to eat well within my means. Although at the time I hadn’t quite figured out how to do that. The first grocery-shopping trip was at the local health food store, and the sea of food labels started to overwhelm me. Even as someone trained in the field of dietetics and as a new“expert” I still did not really know where to start.
We walked out of the grocery store with a hefty bill, but I justified it because I thought in order to eat healthy sometimes you have to spend more money. All those food labels made me feel guilty for buying the products without special labels. On the way out, Clint gently encouraged me to consider not spending as much on groceries until I found a job. He too was being mindful of his spending habits since he was finishing up grad school himself.
Most of us know we want to eat healthy, but it seems like everything that is healthy is expensive. This can cause many people to feel depressed and anxious. The good news is, many of the labels on foods are good marketing and you may pay more as a result. It’s possible to eat well and spend much less! Below are some tips and tricks I’ve learned along the way. My hope is that my personal trial and errors will be useful for you and your family. I also interviewed other dietitians to see if they had tips I wasn’t familiar with. I’ve included their comments and links for more information.
1. Start by downloading a freecopy of Good and Cheap Cookbook.
The same year I was trying to figure things out, I discovered Leann Brown’s free Good and Cheap Cookbook. This was created for people using SNAP to help them eat for $4 per day or less. Leann was a Food Studies graduate student and this cookbook was her master’s project. She collected grocery store prices in low-income neighborhoods of Manhattan and also looked at some national averages. She provides shopping tips, pantry basics, recipes, and other recommendations. Liz Weiss, Registered Dietitian of Liz’s Healthy Table, recently interviewed Leann on her podcast hereif you’d like to hear more.
2. Buy frozen produce when it’s an option.
Often it is cheaper than fresh produce and as an added bonus, the nutrient content is preserved when frozen. You will have less food waste too since it won’t spoil as quickly.
3. Buy produce in season if you buy it fresh.
“Buy vegetables and fruit that are in season, to save a few dollars. Websites including farmflavor.com have a state by state breakdown of what’s in season by calendar month.” –Kristi Coughlin, Registered Dietitian
4. Buy whole foods rather than processed foods.
Often foods in their natural form are often cheaper than processed foods dollar for dollar. Take a quick peek when you go to the grocery store. A container of oatmeal is likely cheaper than most processed cereals for example.
5. Consider buying generic store brands.
They are basically identical. You are often paying more for name recognition when buying national brands. This can save you a lot of money.
6. Try making foods in batches and then freeze them in containers.
You can microwave or reheat them when you are ready to eat them. Cooking in large batches and freezing it often saves money since there is less food wasted.
7. If something is on sale, try to buy it in bulk if you are able to.
You can save money in the long term this way, especially if it’s a staple in your household.
8. Planning meals a few days or week ahead of time, create a shopping list based off of the necessary ingredients and stick to it at the store.
“Meal planning is key to eating healthy on a budget. Scope out the weekly sales flyer at your local grocery store. Plan only the amount you need to avoid wasted food and money, and stick to your list to avoid impulse buys that are beyond your weekly needs.” –Jessica Ivey
9. Consider cheaper protein options like eggs, beans, milk, chicken, cottage cheese, and tuna.
“Stretch more expensive proteins like beef, chicken breast, seafood, etc. by controlling your portions. Account for about 3 ounces of meat per person and bulk up the rest of the meal with low cost staples like steamed frozen vegetables and whole grains like brown rice.” Leia Flure of Moderation Maven
“Top baked potatoes or sweet potatoes with beans and cottage cheese.” Leah McGrath Ingles Market Dietitian
10. Buy calorie dense foods like whole milk, potatoes, rice, pasta, and oats, which can be more filling.
11. Drink tap water or filtered water and skip the bottled water.
This will save you a lot of money.
12. Consider coupons and customer cards.
13. Avoid impulsive buying and don’t shop on an empty stomach.
14. Check the unit price listed on the shelf stickers to see if it’s cheaper to buy multiple smaller boxes of a product instead of one large box or vice versa.
15. Shop alone if you can.
Often friends, family members, spouses, and especially kids can cause you to have more impulse buys.
16. Prepare more of your food at home, rather than eating out if possible.
17. Consider growing your own food to supplement your store purchases.
Some people find growing herbs in their kitchen window is easy, beautiful, and smells delicious. You can try growing some of the produce items you eat the most of or that grow the best in your region.
18. Embrace whole grains and beans.
Quinoa and chili for example are filling and healthy.
19. Consider a meatless Monday.
20. Keep your fridge and pantry organized. Less food will be wasted this way.
21. If you freeze foods, periodically go though your freezer and eat everything in there.
22. Repurpose leftovers.
For example, if you have a bunch of veggies in your freezer you could make a stir-fry, soup, or add them to an omelet. You can also use left over chicken and make it into a sandwich or soup.
23. Try going to the farmer’s market at the end of the day.
Sometimes you can get bargains or an extra helping when they are packing up.
24. If you have a local ethnic market you can often find interesting ingredients for a bargain.
I often shop at our local Asian and Mexican markets because the produce is abundantly cheaper and am exposed to more variety.
25. Buy things from bulk bins if you can’t afford a whole jar of spices.
You can buy as little or as much as you would like this way.
26. Use scraps and bones to make broth so nothing goes to waste.
At home we use our veggie scraps and freeze them—except you anything in the cabbage family as doesn’t make for a good broth. When our large freezer bag is full we make veggie broth and store it in our freezer for later use. We add some mushrooms, peppercorns, seaweed, and salt to taste while boiling the stock. Next we strain it with cheesecloth and put it in in the freezer for later use. I cannot remember the last time we have purchased veggie stock and it tastes so much better! Below is a picture of our process.
27. If you have a slow cooker this can be a great method to cook in bulk and it requires minimal monitoring during the cooking process.
28. Drink water instead of juice and soda.
29. Cut back on supplements.
It’s better to eat food than to take a pill unless your doctor diagnosed you with a nutrition deficiency or you have a medical condition that requires you to take one.
30. Pack your lunch if you can.
31. Consider breakfast for dinner.
“Egg frittatas or quiche are inexpensive and a great way to combine eggs and vegetables.” –Leah McGrath
32. Prepackaged snack foods can eat up a lot of budget.
33. Don’t pay more for special food labels!
Often these labels can make healthy foods appear unhealthy and vise versa. An organic cookie is still a cookie and organic chips are still chips. Natural may not mean what you think it means either. I wrote about that here. Buying foods with these types of labels can cost you more money and aren’t necessarily adding any health benefits. You can focus more of your attention on the ingredients list and nutrition facts however.
“Marketing has created what’s called “perceived value” in more expensive foods labeled “organic”, “farm fresh”, and “non-GMO”. Many of these products can see markups of 60 percent or higher, and nutritionally, there may be little or no difference between such foods and those raised more conventionally. There are of course other reasons why a consumer may want the more expensive items, but if it comes down to cost, conventional can save you money without compromising on nutrition.”–Kristi Coughlin