How to Save Money on Groceries and Stay Healthy
Ed. note: This post was written by our healthy living contributor, Heather Caplan, R.D., a registered dietitian from healthy living destination Spright, which offers simple, helpful everyday eating and fitness guides.
You don’t have to be an extremely frugal shopper to keep your grocery buys within a budget, yet one of the most common barriers to healthy eating is the stigma that health foods are expensive. Markets like Whole Foods aren’t helping this argument, though they are trying to slowly back out of it. Either way, buying in bulk, planning meals and snacks, and knowing your best local options and markets will keep your bank account happy. Use the following tips to keep your grocery bill within your budget.
Not all recipes have to be followed to a T, and not every meal requires an elaborate recipe. Rather, take a Chopped–style assessment of what you have on hand, and know there’s always a way to throw it together. Most of my home-cooked meals simply consist of one or two vegetables sautéed, roasted, or chopped up for a salad; one protein (eggs, fish, pumpkin seeds, etc.); and a starch of sorts.
When a fruit or vegetable is in season, it’s more likely to be on sale. There are many items available inexpensively all year, such as bananas, carrots, cucumbers, and salad greens, while others are more expensive when they’re out of season. Browse your local farmers markets and review this list of seasonal produce to know what’s in season.
It’s now common to see bulk bins for dry grains, legumes, and nuts, which is a great way to shop for everything in one place. If your store doesn’t have this option, try buying from Amazon, where I order raw almonds, cashews, and dried fruits monthly. Amazon is also great for heavy items like oils, or on-the-go things such as snack bars (Lärabars are another monthly order for me).
Knowing what you plan to cook ahead of time is a great way to not only keep costs down but also prevent midweek trips to the store (which usually result in buying more than what’s needed). Depending on the week’s schedule, try to plan at least three meals, even better if you make enough to leave leftovers for additional lunches, dinner, and/or a snack.
I buy these 10 items almost every week: eggs, peppers, hummus, frozen or fresh fish, salad greens, bananas, carrots, seasonal fruit, trail mix, and quinoa.
Now that you’re ready to shop with your budget in mind, here are some best practices for navigating the store as a savvy, health-conscious buyer.
You can’t go wrong here! Most Americans aren’t getting the recommended five to nine servings per day of fruits and vegetables. Start with the produce section, and fill up your cart with fresh fruits and vegetables.
The best option: Drink plain water. Skip sports drinks, juices, sodas, and energy drinks, which are mostly added sugar or artificial sweeteners with no nutritional benefit.
Accept nothing less than 100% whole grain. Don’t be fooled by marketing claims such as “made with whole grain” or “multigrain.” The brown color of the bread isn’t proof of whole grain, either. On the ingredient list, look for the words “100% whole grain” and double-check that whole grain—not any type of flour—is listed first.
When selecting a cereal, check that the first two ingredients on the label come from the following choices: whole grain (e.g., whole grain wheat, whole grain oats), bran, nuts, real fruit, or soy. Also, check the label for at least three grams of fiber per serving.
For milk, yogurt, and cheese, buy organic as often as possible. Avoid products with added sugars and/or a long list of ingredients. Most dairy products can be made at home, if you’re so inclined, so the process shouldn’t involve a lot of additives or artificial flavors!
If you seek out dairy alternatives, such as almond or soy milk, check ingredient lists and nutrition labels to avoid added sugars.
Choose lean cuts of meat, such as “loins” or “rounds.” (If possible, try buying meats from your local farmers' markets first!) If you do consume deli meats, choose ones with less than 250 milligrams of sodium, less than two grams of saturated fat, and at least eight grams of protein per serving. Go for options from the deli counter versus packaged meats.
Look for fruits and vegetables without added sauces or seasonings. Frozen fruits and vegetables can be just as healthy as fresh produce, as long as they're not hiding sugars, oils, or other additives. As always, check the ingredient list. Frozen proteins, such as organic meats or wild-caught fish, can be great for stocking up for home-cooked meals.
Select fruit packed in water or its own juice, not in syrup. Choose tuna packed in water, not in oil. As a general rule, canned goods are high in sodium, so look for products marked “low sodium” (140 milligrams of sodium per serving or less).
Look for items, such as an energy bar or trail mix, that are within the range of 150 to 250 calories, contain less than 300 milligrams of sodium and 10 grams of sugar, and have at least three grams of fiber and five grams of protein per serving.
Shop a few grocery essentials below.
Any other tips for healthy and budget-friendly grocery shopping to share? Tell us below.