How to Shop & Eat Healthy on a Budget
It’s Wednesday afternoon. You’ve already eaten your leftovers from last weekend, so you have to cook tonight. You still have a lot to get done at work before you head to the grocery store and try to put something together for dinner. Thinking about how much time it takes to shop, prepare a meal, eat, and wash dishes, you see yourself running around for another few hours. You might not relax until 8 pm at the earliest.
Instead of choosing to cook up a full meal, you pick up something instant at the store. As you eat your instant meal, you think to yourself that you should be eating healthier….if only it didn’t take so much time and planning or cost so much money.
Has this ever happened to you? It’s definitely happened to me on more than one occasion. I even have my favorite go-to meals of sweet potato gnocchi and wild mushroom and black truffle flatbread from Trader Joes. This year though, I’ve been working to eat healthier while being mindful of my dollars. Part of that has come in the form of meal planning. The other part has been shopping smarter to make my dollars go further. Take a look at the following tips for eating healthy on a budget and see what you think.
Eat what’s in season
This is one of the best ways to get cheap and tasty food. Seasonal produce tends to be cheaper because it’s more plentiful and may be locally grown. It’s not only produce but other food items like seafood as well. Have you ever tried to get cherries or crab out of season? Whew, they’re pricey. Stick with what’s in season to get the biggest bang for your buck.
Visit the farmers market
In SF, there are many high-end farmers markets, where you’ll pay a pretty penny for anything. But there are also more run-of-the-mill ones where produce is cheaper than at the supermarket. Some sellers even have promotions such as a bag full of vegetables for a dollar in order to offload some of their older produce. This is even more likely at the end of the day when prices are cut to make some last sales. If the vegetables look a little past their prime, cook them that day, which will extend their life a few more days.
Shop ethnic grocery stores and mom and pop shops
Sometimes the best deals are found at ethnic markets and individual stores like mom and pop shops. In my experience, the fruits and vegetables are a lot cheaper and fresher than in chain supermarkets. You’ll also find more variety of items. Plus you can feel good knowing that your dollars are supporting local business owners.
Eat ethnic foods
Eating ethnic foods can be a cost-saver as well. Many cultures have tasty dishes made with inexpensive items. For example, Chinese fried rice is made with leftover rice, vegetables, and meat. Many other Asian dishes use only a small amount of meat for flavoring, leaving other cheaper items like vegetables and carbs to make up the bulk of the dish.
Cut back on processed boxed foods
When you buy single servings of frozen pasta or pizza from the supermarket, those can easily run $5 each. They’re also heavy in sodium. But when you buy the ingredients yourself, such as dried pasta and a jar of sauce, you can make a large batch for yourself that lasts for days and costs less than that a serving.
Buy frozen fruits and veggies
Frozen fruits and veggies can be a lot cheaper than buying fresh. It depends on the produce and the season, so do some price comparison before buying. When I see a small basket of fresh berries for $5 or $6, I’ll pick up the frozen option instead. If you come across a great deal on fresh fruit, you can also buy a bunch and freeze them for later use.
Buy store brands vs. name brands
Most supermarkets have their version of common food items right next to the big name brands. Often the ingredients are the same or similar. They may even come from the same manufacturing plant or packaging facility. The only difference is the cost. Test out a few and see if cheaper options work well for you.
Buy what’s on sale
Scour the ads of your groceries stores to see what’s on sale that week. Then you can plan meals around those items. If you’re like me and don’t want to browse paper ads all the time, try signing up for email newsletters from your favorite grocery stores. You’ll know what’s on special that week just by reading their subject lines or within a few seconds of opening their emails.
Make large batches of food
Large batches of food help in so many ways: saving money on food, saving time on cooking, and less meal prep and clean up. If you cook on Sunday night, then you then have your “instant” meals ready for evenings later in the week. No need to stop at the supermarket and shop for instant meals because they’re already in your fridge. And if you make too much to eat within a few days, you can freeze the rest to eat at a later time.
Choose less expensive meat or meatless meals
Meat is often the most expensive part of a meal. Try picking less expensive meats or cuts of meat to reduce meal costs. Less preferred cuts can still taste good when cooked with the right recipe and spices. I’ve heard that slow cookers are great for this. My preference is to eat meatless meals focusing on substitutes like vegetables and tofu.
Plan out your snacks and buy accordingly
One of the things that trips me up in my quest to eat healthy is when the occasional hunger pang strikes and I don’t have anything to eat on hand. Most bakery or convenience stores have only sweets and other processed foods are available. Similar to meal planning, it’s good to plan out your snacks for the week and then have them on hand ready to eat.
Look at the cost of an item per unit
A quick look at the unit prices of items while comparison shopping will tell you which item is the better deal. Sometimes this is tricky when you have two items side by side and one will offer the price per carton and one will have price per ounce. With a bit of math, you’ll figure out which is the best deal. Sometimes I’m surprised at the huge difference in price for essentially two versions of the same item.
Use a coupon or rebate app
I’ve read lots of reviews of people saving money on groceries by using apps such as Ibotta. With Ibotta, retailers offer rebates on items that you purchase. You scan barcodes and receipts from qualifying purchases to receive a rebate, which can then be cashed out. I haven’t tried this myself although I’ve heard good things about this method of saving.
Check out co-ops
While they’re not always cheaper than the typical supermarket, I’ve noticed that co-ops tend to specialize in high quality, seasonal, and rarer foods. My favorite part about co-ops is bulk bins, which is great for buying just the amount you need of something. You may have to buy a membership to take advantage of the co-op or its discounted prices, but the cost can take care of itself if you shop there often enough.
Shop at lower-priced supermarkets
I’m sure you’ve heard of Whole Foods referred to as Whole Paycheck. Yes, it can be pretty expensive there. I’ve seen the exact same items cheaper at Safeway or Trader Joes, which is why I like to shop around. I make it a point not to do the bulk of my shopping at more expensive stores like Whole Foods and only stop there for their unique or sale items.
Food outlets are another supermarket option. The food is still good but the items may be overstock or their expiration dates may be approaching. The items are sold cheaper to move them off the shelves. The only issue I’ve found with going to food outlets is that you don’t know what items or brands are going to be on the shelves until you get there, so you have to keep an open mind about what you’ll find.
Grow your own herbs and veggies
I like this option mostly because it’s fun. Whenever I cook and it calls for a teaspoon of some fresh herb, I’m disappointed about having to buy the whole package at the grocery store. I use only a small portion and the rest ends up going to waste. That’s why I like to grow my own herbs, so that I can just have what I need and save a few dollars in the process.
Substitute items and spices when cooking
Alternatively, if you have a dish that calls for an item or spice that you know is going to be expensive, that you have to buy in large quantities, or that you will never use again, see if you can find a substitute or can leave it out completely. And if it’s just some parsley or green onion for garnish, go ahead and leave it off.
Drink more water
Drinking water keeps you fuller and more hydrated. It also saves you the cost of purchasing other drinks that have sugars and calories. If you can’t or don’t like drinking water straight from the tap, try a a water filter to improve the quality and taste.
Set aside time to meal plan
The best way to shop and eat healthier is to set aside time to plan your meals and prepare your food. See if you can carve out a few minutes each week to plan your shopping and meals for the week. Making a meal plan for the week ahead will keep you on target when shopping and ensure all your meals are healthy.
In the long-run, you’ll likely find that meal planning and preparation actually saves you time. No more frantic Wednesday night runs to the grocery store thinking about what meal to cook, only to pick up an instant meal. I’ve been doing really well with eating healthy on a budget so far. No recent evening runs to the grocery store trying to put a last-minute meal together. I’m keeping my fingers crossed, meal planning, and using a few more of the tips above to see that it continues the rest of the year.
Now I’d love to hear from you. What are some ways that you shop and eat healthy on a budget? Have you tried some of the above tips? How do you make time to plan and prepare your meals?