A common misconception about eating a well-balanced diet is that it can be too expensive. As we are living in a so-called “health revolution,” we often see nutrition influencers on social media or on TV advertising specialty food products. Usually, these products are costly and can quickly consume our grocery budget. With diet culture throwing a new fad diet in our faces every week, it’s easy to get swept into the notion that we must eat a certain way to achieve a health goal. Then, we go all in no matter how pricey it might be.
I’m here to tell you that you can achieve a healthy, well-balanced lifestyle without emptying your bank account every time you hit the grocery store! I’ve always been a big money saver, and so I’m going to share some of my tips for keeping your grocery bill low while prioritizing your health!
- Establish your budget
Your grocery budget or the grocery budget for your family is going to look different than the budget your neighbors have. Figure out what you can comfortably spend with some room for flexibility and go from there. Your grocery expenses might be higher on some months and lower on others, depending on what kind of staples you use and how fast you go through them. Knowing this and having a set range will make it easier to make your grocery list.
- Make a list and eat before you go
If you show up to the grocery store empty-handed and hungry, you are much more likely to start putting items in the cart that look good at the moment. Trying to figure out what you need while you’re at the store is like trying to figure out what outfit to wear after you’ve already left for the day.
- Pick your grocery store and look at the ads
Pick out your grocery store based on affordability and quality of food. If possible, try to keep your shopping between 2-3 stores to minimize costs. When I’m living in the mountains, I shop at Walmart and Harris Teeter. Harris Teeter can be kind of expensive, but they also have really good sales each week which is what I look at when going there. When I’m not living in the mountains, I get all my groceries at Aldi and Lidl (the BEST grocery stores, in my opinion). They are by far the cheapest and have tons of great options. I also like to get specialty items at Trader Joe’s because they are affordable and fun. If you are following a tight budget, getting your groceries at Whole Foods, Fresh Market, or Sprouts might not be the best idea to make your dollar stretch. These stores generally charge a lot more for the same items you could cheaper at Walmart or Aldi. Knowing what kind of budget you’re working with will help you pick the stores that work best for you. Grocery stores also publish their weekly ads online, so it’s a good idea to take a look at the ads when making a list.
- Shop the perimeter of the grocery store first
When you go to the grocery store, the rule of thumb is to spend the most amount of time on the perimeter. This is where you will find your fruits, vegetables, whole grains, meats, and dairy products. As you move inward with the aisles, you’ll find the more processed foods. It’s okay to get a bag of chips or a box of crackers while shopping, but if you spend most of the time walking the middle aisles, you’ll fill your cart up with more processed foods than you realize.
- Buy generic brands
Great Value peanut butter tastes exactly the same as Jif, I promise. Aldi-brand almond butter tastes just like the $12 jars with a fancy name on them. Now, there are definitely some items that taste better when the brand name is bought, such as Kashi cereal or those Hippeas chickpea puffs. In many cases, the store brand is just as high quality as the name brand, but a lot cheaper!
- Don’t go crazy on protein bars
I love a good protein bar occasionally, but they add up on a budget fast. Protein bars are usually $2-3 per bar and if you eat one every day, that’s an extra $60-90 per month you’re spending. It’s okay to buy a few protein bars here and there for when you’re on the go but switching from protein bars to eating more whole foods will save a lot of money in the long run. I used to take a Now Cow bar or a Perfect Bar to work every day for breakfast but the cost was adding up fast. When I started taking a bagel with cream cheese for breakfast, it helped cut those costs back down.
- Keep “specialty items” to a minimum
Specialty food items are fun, exciting, and eye-catching. Many companies produce specialty health food items and influencers promote them on social media and advertisements. They are often labeled to reflect one of the many fad diets like paleo, keto, whole-30, etc. However, 95% of the time these items are really expensive. If there’s a specialty item you’ve been wanting to try, then try it! But don’t pick out 5 other specialty items that same day. Pick out one item to treat yourself with during your grocery trip and try another on your next grocery trip. This way, you still get to have fun trying new items but you aren’t letting your budget get away from you during a single trip to the store.
- Frozen fruits and vegetables
Whatever produce is in season will be cheaper when it’s fresh. Check out this list to see what produce is the cheapest in each season!
If something is too expensive when it’s fresh (like cherries, for example), then check out the freezer section! Buying frozen fruits and vegetables is a great option to save money, and they last a lot longer. Frozen fruits and vegetables are frozen at peak nutritional quality, so they have the same nutrition profile as fresh ones. This goes for canned fruits and vegetables too- but be careful when buying canned fruit. Make sure that it does not have added sugar or high fructose corn syrup.
- Plan your meals in advance
This one goes along with making a list. When making your list, plan out the meals you want to make and the ingredients you’ll need for each meal. I try to use similar ingredients in different recipes so I don’t have a bunch of leftover ingredients sitting around. If you’re making a recipe that calls for broccoli and fresh ginger, try to see if you can find other recipes that call for broccoli and ginger so that you can use them up.
- Try to get all of your groceries on the same trip
I’ve found that I spend less on groceries when I buy them all at once rather than going to the store for “one or two things” multiple times a week. Chances are if I go to the store to buy some zucchini for a recipe, I’m going to be walking out with more than just a zucchini. Instead of making a trip to the store every time you need something, try to buy everything you need for the week during one trip.
- Avoid pre-made foods
Frozen meals add up on a budget a lot faster than buying ingredients to make your own. On top of that, they’re often loaded with sodium and preservatives. It’s okay to buy a frozen meal from time to time but buying them on the regular can get expensive. This also goes for pre-washed and pre-cut produce. Buying produce that’s already been washed, cut, and bagged for your convenience is more expensive, just because you’re paying extra for some simple labor that’s already been done for you. Buying produce in bulk might add 5 minutes to your cooking routine but the money you’ll save in the long run will be worth it.
- You don’t have to buy all organic
We often see organic foods being advertised as the “holy grail” of health. Our favorite influencers do it so we need to do it too, right? Actually, organic produce has the same micronutrient profile as regular produce. When you buy processed snacks that are labeled as organic, the body still processes the carbohydrates exactly the same. Organic sugar is not any healthier than cane sugar. Most foods don’t need to be bought organic, and doing so can cause you to spend extra money. However, refer to this Dirty Dozen list for more information on what foods to consider buying organic if you can. These are 12 foods that are found each year that tend to soak in higher levels of pesticides. If you can afford to buy them organic, then do so but if not, it’s okay—it’s better to buy any produce than none at all.
I hope you enjoyed reading through these tips I had on how to eat healthy while stretching your grocery budget! Remember, everyone has a different budget that works for their family, and eating healthy does not have to be overly expensive. When you find a method that works for you, stick with it! If there’s anything I missed that is useful to you in your grocery shopping, I’d love to hear about it! Feel free to reach out with any comments or questions.