Allison Koch, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN
5 Budget-Conscious Tips For Getting The Most Out Of Your Grocery Trip
Lately I have been getting a lot of inquiries on how to be a bit more budget-conscious at the grocery store while also making smart choices, especially during these uncertain times. So, without further ado, here are my top 5 tips for getting the most bang for your grocery shopping buck.
1) Always Meal Plan to Create a Grocery List with Purpose
At least once a week (or every other week depending on when you shop), take an hour – maybe two – to look at what is already in your pantry, fridge and freezer and develop a plan for the next week (or weeks) using as much of what you have already as possible. Include what you want to make for each meal and snack, how you will use leftovers as well as identifying what you can prep ahead to help save time during the week. The simple act of planning your meals out for the week (and then sticking to them) can make a big difference in reducing your food costs while also helping you stay on track. It also helps you create a grocery list with purpose and provides you with direction, so you do not have to worry about not having an answer for the dreaded ‘what’s for dinner’ question.
With that in mind, right now sticking to your grocery list may be difficult given stores may be out of what you had planned or want to make. It is important to be flexible and identify similar options when necessary or switch to frozen or canned items that can easily swap in for something fresh.
2) Embrace Whole Foods (No, Not the Store!)
Focus on filling your cart with foods that have limited packaging and that are in their whole, natural form as they tend to cost less and may be better for you compared to items that are pre-chopped, already prepared, or highly processed. This means you may need to do a little more work in the kitchen, but your bank account will thank you in the long run.
Does that mean your favorite boxed or frozen meal cannot fit into a budget-conscious, healthy diet? Not necessarily. It is always nice to have some convenience items on hand when you just do not feel like cooking. But try to limit those items to just once and a while.
3) Fill Up on Fruits and Veggies – Whether Fresh, Frozen, Dried or Canned – ALL Forms Counts
These are crazy times. Your diet may not be the first thing you are concerned with right now. And that is okay. Maybe you are also getting tired of cooking for yourself/your family. That is okay too. I am right there with you and I love to cook. But one thing I would encourage is to not forego all fruits and vegetables in favor of only consuming your favorite comfort foods (for me that is the blue box brand mac and cheese). When we are under stress – whether physical or emotional – is when we need to give our body the nutrition it needs the most.
That being said, typically I recommend eating fresh, seasonal, local produce when possible. Not only does seasonal produce usually taste better (since it is at its peak) it often can be a bit cheaper and pack a nutrient-rich punch compared to out-of-season produce. And local produce helps support local farmers. How do you know what is in season? Usually, what is advertised or at the front of the produce section is also what is in season. Here’s a great resource to help identify what is in season right now.
But right now, fresh, seasonal and local produce just may not be available. In which case, frozen and canned fruits and veggies can be a great, affordable alternative. Frozen fruits and veggies are typically frozen within 24 hours of picking—locking in all that good-for-you-nutrition that is typically lost during the transportation process between the farm and the store. Look for options that are just the fruit or vegetable—nothing added. We always have a variety of frozen fruits ready to go for smoothies, oatmeal, or to top pancakes or waffles. For vegetables, we love the kind you can microwave right in the bag to save a dish from the dishwasher. We always have broccoli, green beans, spinach, edamame, riced cauliflower, and green peas on hand to add to pasta dishes, stir-fries, soups, or as a quick side dish.
For shelf-stable fruits and veggies, look for canned or dried items with limited additional ingredients (i.e., low sodium, no salt added, or packed in juice or water to limit added sugar). Dried fruits are great for adding to baked goods, overnight oats, snack or trail mixes. And we always have a can or two of tomatoes or beans on hand to add flavor, fiber and in the case of beans, some plant-based protein to soups, stews or one-pot grain dishes.
4) Comparison Shop, Take Advantage of Specials and Buy in Bulk
Take the time to compare prices, labels, and ingredient lists while you are at the grocery store. Often the store-brand will be comparable in taste and nutrition but at a much better price point.
Also, when things are on special/sale, stock up and consider freezing if you have space. We do this especially with meat. When boneless, skinless chicken breasts go on sale, we will often buy a bunch and just freeze single or double portions to use up later. It costs a little bit more upfront but saves in the long run. But – there is a caveat here – if you do not think you will realistically use the food, then do not buy it as food waste is the same as throwing your money away and no one wants that!
Last, but certainly not least, for foods that have a longer shelf life like grains (e.g., oats, whole grain pasta, brown rice, quinoa, etc.), baking supplies, cooking oils, nuts and/or seeds, consider buying in bulk as this can help cut down on the amount of time spent in the aisles on ensuing shopping trips and keeps your pantry well-stocked while also helping pinch pennies.
5) Get in the Kitchen!
As you may have guessed, cooking your own meals can be a lot cheaper than eating out, as well as healthier. To create balanced, nourishing, healthy-ish meals to support your body’s natural processes, immune system and overall health, aim to fill at least ½ your plate with fruits and/or vegetables, a quarter of your plate with a carbohydrate source – preferably whole grain if possible, and the last quarter with some quality protein (e.g., chicken, fish, lean beef, tofu, tempeh, beans, eggs, etc.). Use better-for-you sources of fat (think avocado, olive oil, nuts and seeds) to compliment, season and/or cook your meal.
Dust off your favorite cookbooks or simply google it! If I have a couple ingredients I do not know what to do with, I will often google them along with the word recipe to find some inspiration. Some of my favorite cookbooks include: either of Shalene Flanagan’s Run Fast, Eat Slow cookbooks, the Racing Weight cookbook, The Runner’s World cookbook, Meals on the Run, and the Runner’s World Vegetarian cookbook.
I hope these tips help you navigate the aisles while saving dollars and maximizing your nutrition. If you are looking to dive in a bit deeper, over the last couple of weeks I expanded on the topic of grocery shopping and meal planning and shared a series of articles (and recipes!) on my blog aimed at helping you stock your kitchen during the quarantine to limit trips to the store and ensure you have everything you need to cook a nutritious meal or snack. When it’s safe and if you can, stock up on these pantry staples, these fresh and frozen bets and check out my tips for getting the most out of the meat and dairy departments. Last but not least, be sure to download my FREE grocery list/meal planning worksheet (scroll to the bottom of the post and enter your email to immediately receive a link to download the resource).
Check it out and let me know what you think!