Eating Well on a Budget

Buying Healthy Groceries Doesn’t Have to Cost a Fortune

Plan your meals.

Perhaps you follow a meal plan to help manage your weight. People who have diabetes often use a meal plan for blood sugar control. But meal planning goes beyond helping you reach your health goals: Meal planning is a way to help you stick to a food budget while ensuring you eat enough good-for-you foods.

Tip: Get into the habit of planning out your meals for the week. This isn’t always easy to do, especially if you never know what your schedule will be like from one day to the next. But spending some time, say, on a Sunday thinking about the week ahead and deciding what your meals and snacks will be can help you rein in food costs.

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Tip: Prepare double the amount of a meal so you have leftovers for lunch or dinner another day during the week.

Tip: Curious about what your food budget should look like? Check out Iowa State University Extension and Outreach’s calculator to give you a ballpark food budget.

Make a list.

How many times have you popped into the grocery store to pick up a few items, only to come out with an empty wallet and foods you had no intention of buying? Shopping for food without a game plan can lead to all sorts of impulse buying. And supermarkets know this. They use plenty of tactics to get you to buy more, ranging from end-of-aisle specials to free samples to candy bars at every checkout line. And if you’re hungry when you enter the store, chances are you’ll end up leaving with at least one less-than-healthy food item in your bag (those cupcakes that looked good at the bakery counter).

Tip: We all could learn a thing or two from Santa, who famously makes his list and checks it twice. Make your own list of the foods you’ll need for the week (based on your meal plan, of course!) and stick to it. Doing so will help ensure you buy what you need and will keep you honest — you won’t buy what’s not on your list.

Tip: Go grocery shopping after you’ve eaten a meal or snack to reduce the temptation to toss high-calorie treats into your cart.

Tip: If you don’t want to be bothered with a paper list, no worries: There’s an app for that! Grocery list apps for smartphones include GroceryIQ, Fooducate, and Out of Milk. And most smartphones have a Notes or Memo feature that allows you to create and save a list, which you can update as needed.

Skip the convenience.

Washing, peeling, and chopping vegetables and fruits takes time and effort. It seems so much easier to buy bags of prewashed salad greens or tubs of cut-up carrots and chunks of fruit, doesn’t it? Remember that convenience comes at a cost — about three times the cost, in fact. You’re paying a pretty penny for someone else to do the prep work for you. Skip the bags and tubs of pre-washed and cut produce and instead buy whole fruits and veggies.

Tip: If you’re worried that head of lettuce will end up languishing in the fridge, get into the habit of prepping your produce when you get home from the store. You’ll be amazed at how little time it takes, and you may be more amazed that you actually end up eating more produce as well.

Rethink organic.

Not all that long ago, organic foods were a mainstay only of health foods stores and higher-end supermarkets. Today, organic foods are found in almost every grocery store. There has been a lot of hype about organic foods over the past few years, and you might be feeling guilty if you’re not doling out more dollars for these higher-priced items. The term “organic” means agricultural products — including produce, grains, dairy products, and meat — are produced by methods that conserve water, decrease pollution, and enhance soil quality.

While organic foods are less likely to contain pesticide residues compared to conventional foods, according to the National Research Council, the amount of pesticide residue that lingers on foods is very unlikely to pose a health risk. As long as you wash your fruits and vegetables well, most chemicals will be removed. In addition, there’s very little evidence to support that organically produced foods are more nutritious than conventionally produced foods. (Organic cookies, by the way, are no healthier or lower in calories than regular cookies!).

And according to Consumer Reports, organic foods cost about 47% more, on average, than conventional foods.

Tip: If you’re feeling torn between eating organically and keeping food costs under control, check out the Environmental Working Group’s annual list of the “Dirty Dozen” fruits and vegetables likely to have the highest amount of pesticide residues. This year, the list includes apples, peaches, nectarines, spinach, and potatoes. Next, review the “Clean Fifteen,” the fruits and vegetables least likely to contain pesticides. The 2015 list includes avocados, sweet corn, pineapple, cabbage, and cantaloupe. For both lists, visit http://www.ewg.org/foodnews/summary.php.

Tip: You also can find an organic bargain at certain supermarkets, depending on where you live. For example, Trader Joe’s, Aldi, Walmart, farmers’ markets, and warehouse clubs such as Costco, BJ’s, and Sam’s Club generally sell organic products at lower prices than those at regular supermarkets.

Best buys at warehouse clubs.

Speaking of warehouse clubs, shopping at these stores can seem appealing because of the bulk discounts they often provide. However, very few people leave these stores without spending what can amount to a small fortune. While buying paper towels and toilet paper in bulk may save you some money, not everything is a bargain at these stores. When it comes to food, one of the mistakes often made is buying perishable food: Unless you’re feeding a family of 12, that bag of oranges or avocados likely will go bad before you can eat them all.

Tip Planning your meals and snacks for the week can help you determine how much food you’ll need and if it’s worthwhile to buy perishables in bulk. If you end up throwing out food you’ve purchased at a warehouse store because you can’t eat it all before it expires or goes bad, warehouse shopping may not be the best option for purchasing your perishables.

Tip: Ask a neighbor, relative, or friend to pitch in with you and split the food.

Tip: Healthy foods worth purchasing at warehouse stores include peanut butter (which has a shelf-life of a year), lean meat (as long as you have the freezer space), seafood, almond milk, and olive oil. You’re less likely to save money on cereal, canned food, granola bars, and coffee. Stick to your local grocery store for many of these items.

Pay a visit to the dollar store.

Before you turn up your nose at setting foot into your local dollar store, consider this: You can find some healthy bargains here! Many people shop at dollar stores for cleaning supplies or paper goods. But who would have thought you could whip up a nutritious meal from dollar store foods?

Tip: The types of foods sold in dollar stores can vary by store. Here’s a sampling of what you might find: salsa, canned tuna and beans, dried beans, peanut butter, nuts and seeds, oatmeal, brown rice, dried and canned fruit, frozen vegetables, eggs, milk, coffee, and tea. These foods are staples and are the basis for any healthful eating plan.

Shop smartly.

Sure, reading a Nutrition Facts label is important if you’re counting calories or carbs. But savvy shoppers do more than check out the grams of saturated fat. Along with making sure a food item is nutritionally sound, it pays (literally) to read the shelf tag, too. Located on the shelf below the product, the tag gives the unit price of a food item, or the cost of one unit, such as one ounce.

Tip: Compare the unit prices of similar items, such as different brands of soup or yogurt. Choose the brand with the lowest unit price.

Say cheese, please.

Cheese can be high in calories and fat, especially saturated fat. But nutritionally speaking, it does have its merits. For example, cheese is an excellent source of protein. It also contains conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a type of fat that actually may help reduce body fat deposits and help fight cancer and heart disease. In addition, some studies show people who eat cheese are less likely to gain weight than those who don’t. All in all, cheese, in moderation, can be part of a healthy eating plan.

Tip: Whether you like your cheese shredded or grated, it pays to buy cheese in bulk and shred or grate it yourself rather than paying for the convenience of buying it pre-shredded/grated. But if you find a good price at a warehouse club or big box store, buy the shredded/grated version and freeze what you don’t use.

Spice it up.

Seasonings are a fantastic way to add flavor to foods without calories, fat, or carbs. And if you’re watching your sodium (salt) intake, what better way to jazz up your meals? Unfortunately, many herbs and spices can cost a small fortune.

Tip: Some of the best deals on spices can be found at your neighborhood dollar store and ethnic grocery stores, as well as at warehouse stores that sell spices in bulk. Shy away from pricey spice blends such as pumpkin pie spice or meat rubs. You can easily make your own blends for a fraction of the cost in just a few minutes and then store the mixture in an airtight container.

Grow your own herbs.

Like spices, herbs are a mainstay for anyone who is health conscious. Fresh herbs impart a bright, fresh flavor to any dish. But fresh herbs at the supermarket are not cheap. And chances are you only need a sprig or two, yet you’re forced to buy much more than you really need.

Tip: Consider growing your own herbs. For the cost of what you’d pay for a bundle of parsley at the grocery store, you can buy an entire plant and reap its benefits all year long. Herbs, of course, grow well outdoors, but even in winter, you can enjoy an indoor herb garden. All you need is a sunny spot. If you don’t have a green thumb, choose herbs that are fairly easy to grow such as parsley, mint, rosemary, and chive.

The bottom line.

Healthy eating does cost more than eating less-than-healthy, about $1.50 more per day. But don’t let this reality stop you from seeking out nutritional bargains, even if it means doing your homework and branching out to stores at which you usually don’t shop. Your health is worth every penny!