I’m fortunate in that I don’t have to worry too much about my grocery budget, in part because we so seldom eat in restaurants, instead funneling that money into the ingredients for delicious, healthy home-cooked meals. But while I don’t mind spending money on nutritious, high-quality food (both to please my palate AND to invest in my current and future good health), I don’t like wasting money, either. I like to get the healthiest possible food at the best possible price. Here are 10 tips that I lean on heavily to accomplish that goal:
  1. Shop sales. This may seem like a “duh” tip, but a lot of people fall in the trap of going to the store with the mindset of “I want this and this and that and that,” and then they find out that “this” and “that” cost a lot more than they expected. If you like to plan specific recipes, then you need to sit down with the store ads when planning your menu. If you have good, basic cooking skills but not a lot of time, it can be easier to go to the store and buy the cuts of meat or the varieties of produce that are on sale. I do this all the time. If Whole Foods is having a screaming deal on pork shoulder or chicken breasts, then guess what’s going to be on my menu? If asparagus is priced out of sight, then guess what won’t be on my menu, even if I’m craving it. I can wait.
  2. Shop in season. Yes, asparagus can be expensive even in season, but your best bets of getting the best deals on fresh produce is when its on sale or in season. And when it’s in season, it’s more likely to go on sale. When Whole foods had 16-ounce cartons of organic strawberries on sale for 99 cents for ONE DAY ONLY last month, Jeff bought two huge grocery bags full. We ate some fresh, and froze the rest. Per pound, that was less expensive than decent pre-frozen berries.
  3. Eat less meat. I’m a carnivore, it’s true, but if I had trouble affording meat, or quality meat, specifically, I would move closer to a vegetarian diet in a heartbeat. When meat is in a meal, dishes like chili with LOTS of beans, stews or stirfries with LOTS of veggies and spaghetti sauces with LOTS of tomatoes can stretch out a smaller amount of meat with less-expensive ingredients. It’s good for you, too!
  4. Go frozen. I’m a big fan of fresh veggies and fruits, but really, there’s nothing wrong with frozen. It’s even easier to stock up on sales (freezer space permitting) when you don’t have to worry about it going limp or getting moldy.
  5. Keep a well-stocked pantry. Shop for items like whole grains, dried or canned beans, canned tomatoes and other non-perishables when they are on sale. Then you can shop your pantry instead of needing to run to the store for every little thing…at whatever price it’s selling for at the moment. No pantry? Use any available space. Under the stairs, in the coat closet, under your bed.
  6. Buy a freezer. This is an example of spending money to save money AND an example of investing in your health. If at all possible, having a stand-alone freezer gives you so many options, especially if you eat meat. We enjoy the most fabulous grass-fed beef and humanely raised pork (pork isn’t grass-fed, really) year round because we buy annual shares (1/4 of a beeve, 1/2 of a pig) from local farmers. And the price per pound is waaaaaay less than what you would pay for the same quality beef in a store. Heck, it’s less than what you would pay for most cuts of inferior industrial meat. We also use our freezer space to stock up on sale Whole Foods strawberries, extra produce from our garden, berries that we gather from U-pick farms in the summer, even organic in-season fruit (like peaches) from Costco. We also are able to create our own healthy, economical freezer meals from extra portions of soups, stews, chilis, tomato- and meat-based pasta sauces, and so on. When we roast a chicken or turkey, the carcass gets boiled for stock, which we freeze for later. Bread freezes well, too.
  7. Eat less. Seriously. If you know you could stand to lose some pounds, reducing your portion sizes can help get you there while reducing the amount of food you need to buy.
  8. Don’t overbuy. This was one of my problems when I did most of my produce shopping at Costco. Yes, their prices are good (as is probably the case at other price clubs), but we had a lot more waste than we do now that we get most of our fresh items from our weekly Full Circle CSA box and supplemental forays to Whole Foods or a farmer’s market. And we are saving money.
  9. Eat what you do buy. Don’t go shopping for more fresh food unless you’ve surveyed your fridge for food that needs to get used up. And while a well-stocked pantry is a fabulous thing, be realistic about how many cans or jars of any one thing you need to have on hand. “Non-perishables” do perish, eventually.
  10. Don’t spend on beverages. Water is the best beverage you can drink. From the tap, filtered if need be. Stay away from soda. It’s not good for you, and money spent on soda is money you could be spending on healthy food. One of my favorite bits from “Food, Inc.” is when Joel Salatin mentions how he encounters people who complain about a carton of organic eggs from pastured chickens costing $3…while they’re drinking a can of soda that cost 75 cents. A dozen quality eggs = several quality breakfasts. While you’re at it, skip the $5 (or more) lattes and switch to drip coffee or Americanos. I’m serious…don’t call Whole Foods “Whole Paycheck” and then spend $5 or $6 on a calorie-laden coffee drink every morning. Do you know what I could buy for $5? I could buy two gorgeous organic chicken breasts, or five pounds of organic strawberries on sale, or several heaping helpings of lentils and whole grains from the bulk bins. I should mention that I own quite a large chunk of stock in a certain global coffee company with a green-and-white logo, so when I come right out and say “stop buying expensive coffee drinks if you think you don’t have enough money to buy healthy food,” you can be sure that I mean it. Invest that money in your health!
Tomorrow, I’ll talk about what to do when money and time are tight, and why, even in those difficult circumstances, it’s worth it to find a way to put simple, healthy meals on your table.