With a little know-how and advance planning, you can enjoy nutritious foods while sticking to a tight budget.
The key to smart, budget-friendly grocery shopping is to plan ahead for the week. Plan meals around fresh produce, lean proteins and low-fat dairy items that are on sale to save money while eating healthy, says Sarah Krieger, MPH, RDN, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Krieger suggests checking store sale flyers, and then check available coupons on the same items for additional savings. Compare national brands and private store labels for the lowest price. Once you've identified sale items, plan to incorporate them into simple meals — baked, grilled or broiled lean meats and fish, vegetables and whole grains are delicious and healthy with few added ingredients. Also, use the unit price to compare cost of varying sizes of products.
Use your weekly meal plan to create a master grocery list, and stick to it. Prioritize your food dollars for nutrient-rich vegetables, fruits, low-fat dairy, lean protein and whole grains. To keep your grocery list from growing too long, prepare meals that include similar ingredients throughout the week. Skip highly processed items and packaged snack foods, which can increase your total spending and fill your cart with not-so-healthy items.
When it comes to vegetables and fruits, Sara Haas, RDN, Academy spokesperson, recommends shopping seasonally. She explains that local, seasonal produce is at its peak flavor and is generally more abundant, so it's sold at a lower price. Take a family trip to your farmers market to stock up on locally-grown fare and connect to those who grow your food. If the produce item you want isn't in season, Krieger suggests purchasing frozen. Frozen vegetables and fruits are comparable in nutritional quality to fresh, but check the ingredients list and avoid those that have added sugars or salt.
The Environmental Working Group has published the "Dirty Dozen," a list of conventional produce items that contain generally higher levels of pesticide residue than other produce items. This is in addition to publishing the list of the "Clean 15" — items with the lowest levels of pesticide residues. For those interested in organically-grown produce, these lists can help prioritize spending for organic products.
Krieger suggests purchasing a larger quantity of meat that is on sale, and preparing enough for two or more meals. Enjoy leftovers later in the week or freeze for future use. Because meat is often the highest dollar ingredient in a recipe, Kristi King, MPH, RD, spokesperson for the Academy, suggests planning a meatless meal several times each week, or try replacing half the meat in dishes such as chili, meatloaf or burger patties with beans or chopped vegetables. Incorporating more non-meat proteins, including beans, nuts and eggs, can be cost-effective and nutritious.
"Whole grains and dried beans are generally inexpensive and are an easy way to get more nutrition for your buck," says Haas. Stock up on these nonperishable items when on sale, or take advantage of the bulk bin to purchase only the amount you need. Dried beans, peas and lentils are great options to keep on hand. You can buy in bulk, prepare ahead time and then freeze so you have protein- and fiber-rich foods on hand at all times.
Once you've done your shopping, make the most of your food spending by cutting down on waste. Plan to use highly perishable items — such as fish and seafood, salad greens, berries and fresh herbs — early in the week, and save more hearty items for later in the week. Enjoy leftovers for lunch or create new meals from leftover ingredients. Cooked meat and vegetables can be revamped as a filling for a casserole, frittata or soup.
Reviewed August 2015Jessica Cox, RD, is a culinary nutritionist and chef based in Birmingham, Ala.