There are plenty of nutrition myths out there, and working as a dietitian, I hear them all day long. Sometimes, I nod and smile, knowing it’s neither the time nor place to interject with my commentary but there’s one in particular that really lights my fire. It also happens to be the one that I hear most frequently:
“Healthy food is so expensive!”
I wish that’s all I needed to say to placate my clients, but no one ever believes me right away. It is entirely possible to eat nutritiously without breaking the bank, and to prove it to you, I’ve gathered up some top, expert tips to show you how it’s done.
Before we get to that, though, there is one slight caveat to my argument. Sometimes, the higher quality option may, in fact, cost more. Companies may charge more for their antibiotic-free meats compared to their standard offerings, for example. And snacking on nuts is probably going to cost you more than picking up an economy-size bucket of “cheez balls” on super sale at your nearest savings club.
However, the cost of a product is not solely incurred at the checkout lane of your preferred retailer. The foods we eat become a part of us and are great contributors to our overall well-being. As a fellow dietitian once lamented to me in exasperation: healthy food isn’t expensive—cancer is expensive; diabetes is expensive. If a diet full of on-sale soda and frozen pizza costs less at the grocery store, that doesn’t mean that relying on it won’t cost you in other areas further down the road. It also doesn’t mean that there aren’t environmental costs to various choices.
Of course, not everyone can afford grass-fed meats and organic almond butter. Fortunately, that’s not the only way to eat nutritiously! “Healthy” comes in many shapes, sizes, and, yes, budgetary constraints. So now, let’s get to what you really want to know: how to shrink that grocery bill without filling your cart with so-called “junk”!
Planning for Success
A meal plan may sound daunting, but it is one of the best strategies for eating well on a budget because it helps prevent over-buying and wasted food. If you’re new to meal planning, start small until you feel more comfortable. In making your meal plan, here are some tips to consider:
Watch the sales. Both Nikki Nies, a dietitian with the Christian Care Senior Living Center, and Savannah Thaler, a dietitian who runs Savvy Wellness and Health LLC, encourage clients to base their meals plans on their stores’ weekly circulars. These ads point out great deals on produce, unprocessed meats and seafood, whole grains, beans, and more.
Keep it simple. Tackling too many new recipes can leave you buying new ingredients faster than you can use up the ones you already have. Thaler advises clients to “stick with a few go-to favorite [recipes] and then choose just one or two new dishes to try.” This also helps streamline meal planning so it’s less of a hassle.
Know your pantry. A disorganized kitchen is a recipe for accidentally buying something you already have, and spending money on a nice jar of peanut butter only to find three perfectly good ones stashed in the back of your cupboard is money you didn’t need to spend. Keep an organized fridge and pantry by clearly labeling leftovers and maintaining lists of staples you currently have versus what you need. Bring that restocking list to the store and stick to it.
Speaking of lists… Make one, seriously. I won’t say it’s never a good idea to take advantage of a deal you see at the store, but more times than not, it’s this kind of spontaneity that leaves us with four pints of Ben & Jerry’s and a guaranteed game of Tetris when you get them back home to your already packed freezer.
Use what you have. Nies loves The Pantry Challenge, which focuses on ingredients individuals already have as the foundation for their meals. When you use what you already have, you don’t need to buy much more than a few fresh ingredients (like veggies or maybe a protein) to fill in the nutrient gaps.
Choosing the Right Store for You
Some areas of the country have more options than others, but take some time to get to know which retailers are available to you so that you can make an informed shopping decision.
Shop around. Although a part of me still daydreams of one day being wealthy enough to do all my shopping at pricey Whole Foods, I’ve learned how many healthy options exist at even bargain-based stores. It’s rare to find one store that will always have the very best deal on every single item on your list, but knowing which places tend to have the lowest prices for the things you need can help a lot.
Think beyond the supermarket. If you want to know the real threat to the traditional grocer’s bottom line, it’s not a brick-and-mortar store at all: it’s the online options. From Amazon to Thrive, consumers have a staggering amount of nutritious foods literally at their fingertips, making them especially helpful for individuals in areas of the country with fewer retail options.
Know when to be loyal. There are advantages to traditional supermarkets, though. Many offer discounts, register and digital coupons, and special deals throughout the year, especially tied to their loyalty cards. Every store has its own policies and benefits, so peruse your options and decide which one fits your needs best.
Get to know your store. Do they double manufacturer coupons? Do they take expired coupons or ones from competing stores? When an item is on sale do you have to buy a certain number to get the deal? What is their policy on rain checks? There’s nothing worse than thinking you’re getting a deal only to realize you didn’t read the fine print.
So you have your meal plan, shopping list, and store. You’re ready to shop! But first, there are some very important, broad-strokes pointers to keep in mind throughout the entire store.
Bigger isn’t always better. This is true when it comes to packaging and true when it comes to carts. Shopping carts at food stores are getting bigger, and with more room comes the subconscious urge to make it look full. Now, if you’re doing a larger trip, you might need a full cart; but if you know you only plan to buy a handful of items, opt for a smaller cart or hand basket.
A deal isn't always a deal. It’s possible for a brand to be discounted yet still cost more than a full-price competing brand. This is especially true when you compare on-sale brand names to their private label equivalents. Emily Holdorf, consulting dietitian and owner of EmPowered Nutrition, emphasizes comparing unit price and total price to determine the best deal. Katie Mulligan, a dietitian who works specifically with low-income families through the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program, adds that “a sale might look like a good deal, but not if you throw half of it away before you get a chance to eat it,” so only buy what you’ll use.
Put in some effort. You have two budgets: time and money. If you want the convenient option, you’re going to have to be prepared to spend more money. If you want to save money, you must invest more of your time. Chop your own veggies instead of buying them pre-sliced, make trail mix from raw ingredients, and portion snacks into bags yourself instead of buying individual servings.
We all know it’s important to eat more fruits and veggies, but it can be discouraging when they seem to spoil so quickly despite your best efforts. If you're finding that your family just can't manage to make it through your produce for the week, you can always buy less. In addition, there are plenty of other ways to save some green on your greens!
Embrace ugly produce. Jenna Gorham, owner of Jenna Gorham Nutrition Counseling, steers clients toward discount produce racks: “Even if the fruit or veggies look a little past their prime, they can easily be frozen” to use later in smoothies, oatmeal, yogurt, stir-fries, or pasta. This emphasis on choosing “ugly produce” not only addresses budgetary concerns but also helps to seriously combat the rising cost of food waste in this country.
Stop buying blueberries in December. In other words, “buy in season…to save money and to enjoy more flavorful, nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables,” explains Irene Gardner, dietitian of IG Nutrition. She also recommends buying and freezing extra berries in the summer (when they’re on sale!) to last through the winter. Exactly what is in season at any given point can vary from one region to the next, but if I need a quick refresher, I love Williams-Sonoma’s online reference.
Fresh isn’t always best. In fact, many dietitians (dare I say basically all of them?!) recommend frozen produce! Gardner explains that these products are “flash boiled to preserve color and then frozen,” keeping nutrients and fiber high. Plus, frozen fruits and vegetables are extremely convenient to keep on hand, one of the few exceptions to the rule that healthy convenience foods can’t be cheap. Philadelphia-based dietitian Brooke Mullen points out that they’re also perfect for winter, when fresh, in-season produce is less plentiful.
Proteins, especially animal-based ones, can really drive up a grocery bill. Beyond simply looking for good deals and sales as we’ve discussed above, it can be even more impactful to think outside of the box when it comes to the protein in your meals.
Look beyond the meat department. Dietitian duo Angie and John Lamberson stock up on proteins like canned salmon and tuna, peanut butter (go natural!), and even eggs. I also like to remind clients that even the “expensive” eggs ($4.50 a dozen) are still only $0.75 for two! (And you’re probably spending more to feed your Starbucks habit.)
Use less meat. According to Mulligan, though meat is often the most expensive ingredient, you can stretch it by adding beans, lentils, chopped walnuts, and minced mushrooms to burgers, chili, stews, and casseroles. In general, we don’t need nearly as much protein as we think we do, and filling about one-quarter of your plate with a high quality protein should be plenty for most people. It can be hard to move away from that “meat as the center of the plate” mentality upon which many of us were raised, so consider starting with dishes like stir-fries, casseroles, and pasta where it’s more common to find meat as more of a garnish.
Or, forgo the meat altogether. Meatless Monday (or, if you’re feeling spunky, perhaps Vegetarian “Vednesday”?!) is a nice way to get your feet wet with vegetarian meals. Nies loves versatile tofu, which “costs an average $1-2 less than boneless chicken breast or pork.” Thaler recommends dried beans for protein, and even freezes hers once they’re cooked in individual servings to up the convenience factor, another tip that has become a staple practice in my kitchen.
You may have heard to shop only the perimeter of the store, but that's not to say that's where all of healthy foods are! Dip into the aisles for healthy pantry staples, like beans, whole grains, nuts, and canned tuna.
Bulk up. Gardner loves to buy whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds in bulk. You can buy exactly how much you need so there’s no waste, you’ll get a great deal, and you’ll help the environment by reducing packaging, too! Remember, though, buying bulk in perishables in riskier, since if you can’t go through the full amount before they go bad, you aren’t saving yourself any money.
Don’t overlook store brands. Store brands (“private label”) have really stepped up their game, so you don’t have to worry about getting an inferior product. In fact, I just about wax poetic about my store’s private label, all-natural peanut butter. That same store sells an organic brown rice whose fiber content knocks the socks off of every other brand on the shelf. You’ll also find private label rolled oats, quinoa, hummus, and frozen vegetables in my kitchen at pretty much any given moment. What many people don’t realize is that grocery stores hire regular food manufacturing companies to make these private label products, so pretty much you’re getting the brand name products you’ve grown to love for a discounted price, because private label doesn’t need to waste money on marketing or advertising.
Stop spending money on drinks. Juice, soda, and other specialty drinks are pricey and about as far from nourishing as it gets, but paying for plastic bottles of glorified tap water isn’t much better! Invest instead in a good, reusable bottle and a water filter. The planet will thank you, too.
Lastly, don’t be afraid to ask for help.
You aren’t alone, and you don’t have to do this alone. Government agencies such as WIC, SNAP, and the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program are all there to help! If you qualify but don’t apply, you’re missing out on free money that you could be using on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and more.
If you don't qualify for these government benefits, you still have options. Food pantries and other local organizations can also be of great assistance, and more and more they’re asking donors to consider the nutrient density of the items brought to them. There are even organizations like The Great American Milk Drive working to bring the more perishable items to donation centers across the country.
I know that there are stigmas against some of these assistance programs and organizations, but don’t let pride or principle stand between you and taking charge of your health. The odds can be stacked quite high against us at times through no fault of our own. If you’re following a lot of tips in this article and still struggling to make ends meet, you could truly benefit from these services. Shake off those feelings and accept the help that is so willingly being offered—people really do want to help!
Maybe we can’t all afford organic kale and pasture-raised chicken, but luckily, we don’t have to in order to be healthy. Forget about flashy package claims and news headlines; go back to the basics, put in a little effort, and focus on putting one foot in front of the other. Everyone deserves to fuel their lives with good nutrition, and with little tweaks to planning, shopping, and cooking habits, everyone can!
Where will you start?