We all want to be smart shoppers no matter the budget. And when budgets get squeezed, we still want to do the best we can to feed our families healthy. Here are 27 tips to stretch your grocery budget. Some of the ideas you may have heard before, but hopefully some will be new. Plus I’ve listed resources and hot links to help you.
1. Shop Seasonally and Save
Produce is cheaper when it is in season. And at the end of a season if you have freezer space, freeze things that are abundant and lower priced, like berries for smoothies. I freeze them on quarter sheet rimmed baking trays, then store in a zip bag.
For strawberries, quarter them and for smaller berries like raspberries and blueberries freeze whole. They are nicer than the ones you buy frozen at the store.
2. Shop Farmers Markets
Shop farmers markets for quality fresh produce at a good price. To find a Farmers Market in your area, the USDA’s National Farmers Market Directory adn search by your zip code. Try the Local Harvest site as well.
Here is another resource to check out, the Local Harvest site.”The best organic food is what’s grown closest to you. Use our website to find farmers’ markets, family farms, and other sources of sustainably grown food in your area, where you can buy produce, grass-fed meats, and many other goodies”.
3. Know When to Buy Organic or Not
Buying organic means less synthetic pesticide residues in our bodies, but organic is more expensive. If your budget is tight, use the EWG’s Guide to Pesticides in produce to make smart choices. Buy organic if the item is on the Dirty Dozen list (if you can). If the item is on the Clean Fifteen list, don’t worry about organic.
And remember the most important thing – eating plenty of fresh, low sugar fruit and vegetables, whether organic or not, is more important than buying organic.
4. Try Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)
Here is the USDA’s directory for CSA’s. Find out more about how a CSA works and the benefits by reading at this link on Local Harvest.The only catch with a CSA is you might have to be creative as you never know what will arrive in the box.
5. Portion Control
Portion control is not only healthy for your waist but for your budget. For example, 4-6 ounces of protein, like a chicken breast, is a serving. For 4 people, 1 1/2 pounds of boneless chicken should be plenty. When you shop, read the label for the weight. If you shop from a butcher counter, ask them for the weight, not just the number of pieces. And if you do buy or cook extra, save the extra for lunch the next day. Saves time and money.
6. Learn to Love Leftovers
If you buy more chicken than you need for one dinner, you don’t have to eat it all. See the point above about portion control. Cook the extra and use it for lunch the next day. Saves you time and money. Taking leftovers to work from home is cheaper than eating out, and healthier too.
7. Buy a Whole Chicken Instead of Pieces
Most of us eat a lot of chicken. Buying a whole bird versus the pieces is a good deal. You pay a premium for parts because someone else did the labor. I roast a whole chicken once a week and it gives the two of us several dinners and lunches. Then I save the body, stripped of most of the meat, and freeze it. When I get 4 in the freezer, I make chicken stock, then freeze the stock for soups and stews. Homemade broth is the best, and making it from roast chicken bones is very thrifty.
You can also buy a whole bird (watch for the sales) and have the butcher cut it up for you for free. Ask for all of the pieces, the back included, to save and freeze for stock. No butcher to cut it up for you?Learn how to do it yourself with a good, sharp heavy knife. It is not hard. It just takes being a little brave your few times until you get the hang of it. You can do this! Here are photos to guide you.
8. Shop the Bulk Aisle
Check out the bulk aisle for better prices on pantry basics. Store bulk items in glass jars in your pantry, labeled with masking tape and a Sharpie. Be sure that your store has good turnover on the bulk items so the items are not old. This is especially important with dried beans.
9. Go Meatless, Save Money
Plan a few meatless meals per week. Meat, poultry and seafood (animal proteins) are the most expensive part of a grocery list. Go meatless and save money .You can get plenty of protein with plant-based options. Read here for ideas.
10. Add Beans to Your Diet
While canned beans are a pantry staple, dried beans and a little time will save you money. Beans are a good source of plant-based protein and fiber. Dried beans become a luscious pot of plump goodness with a few hours of soaking and cooking. A pressure cooker or slow cooker make the process easier, but you can do it the old fashioned way (as I do) with a nice heavy pot.
11. Sticker Smart vs. Sticker Shock
Many markets mark down their fresh meat and poultry as they get nearer to the “sell-by” date. Watch for the special deal stickers and use it that night or freeze it. Talk with the meat department staff to understand when they do this to take advantage of lower prices.
12. Subscribe for the Specials
Subscribe on the market’s website for their weekly specials, and the sales information comes right to your email. No paper ads to deal with. And as for coupons, use them only if it makes sense and you really need the item. Don’t buy it just because its on sale. I gave up on coupons as so much of the food is junk food, which we don’t eat.
13. Share Warehouse Memberships
Warehouse stores may have great prices, but the quantities are usually huge. Find a shopping buddy and share the quantities to get the better price. This is also great if only one of you has a membership. Sharing is a good thing.
14. Use Community Resources to Help Cover
If you have lost a job and need help until you find a new one, check out community resources to help make ends meet. In Orange Country, CA, Saddleback Church has a community resource called the Peace Center. The food pantry is open to everyone. They provide canned and nonperishable goods as well as many frozen items and fresh produce from local farms, all for free to those in need. You might not need all of what they give out, but maybe a few select items could fill in the blanks and help stretch shopping dollars.
15. Be Willing To Shop Around
Be willing to shop at a variety of stores to get what you want and save money, but beware you don’t spend a lot of extra gas money trying to save grocery money. Stores like Trader Joes are known for their great prices. Another chain called Food4Less has low cost deals on groceries. Find these types of stores in your area and get to know them.
16. Try Lower Cost Cuts of Meat
Ask the butcher about lower costs cuts and how to cook them. Boneless, skinless chicken breasts cost more than bone-in chicken thighs. The thighs have lots of good flavor and are easy to cook in many tasty ways.
Lower cost cuts of beef may not be as tender, but are full of beefy flavor. Slower cooking renders tougher cuts tender and flavorful. Think stews and other long cooking methods, and of course using slow cookers. It’s also hard to beat ground meat, both beef and dark turkey. Good prices and many ways to cook, plus it freezes well for when it’s on sale.
17. Skip High Cost, Poor Quality Liquids: Drink Water
Skip poor quality liquids like soda (terrible for you in all forms) and juices. Sodas (diet or regular) are just colored, artificial chemical water. Juices are just liquid sugars; not healthy at all. Both are expensive. Drink lots of fresh water. Add slices of citrus or cucumber for a little refreshing flavor. Use the dollars saved for more important groceries, like protein and produce.
18. Shop Online and Save
Thrivemarket.com is an online market whose mission is expanding access to healthy living. They sells healthy foods for wholesale. I’ve saved a lot shopping at Thrivemarket.com. It is a membership site ($5 a month, $60 a year), after a trial period, and they offer a nice discount on your first order. Shipping is free over a low amount. And for each membership, they give a membership to low income families. Great resource. Thrive Market is fairly new, and they add new brands and products continually. They have the best price on cashew butter, which I cannot live without, and nut butters can be pricey.
19. Buy From the Growers
One of my basic staples is raw almonds used for snacking and for making almond milk. I buy almonds in bulk, direct from the grower in California. I buy 10 pounds at once and get free shipping plus a low price on the quality almonds. Here is the link for D&S Ranches. Sounds like a lot at once, but it’s not really, as they hold in the pantry for months.
20. Embrace Eggs
Eggs can be enjoyed for any meal, not just breakfast. Eggs are an excellent source of protein and inexpensive for what you get. Poach, scramble, hard boiled or turned into omelets, eggs are a good source of low cost, healthy protein. Eggs are versatile and affordable.
21. Plant a Garden
Plant a garden – especially fresh herbs in pots. Great to cook with and lots cheaper than buying them. If you have room, plant vegetables, lettuces, have fun and experiment. There is something incredibly, simplistically satisfying about cutting fresh herbs from your yard and using them in your food. Right now I have thyme, oregano, basil, and chives growing.
22. Stop Eating Bad Stuff at Breakfast
Stop eating expensive, highly processed, sugary cereals that are unhealthy for breakfast. Try steel cut oats (buy in bulk) or Greek yogurt, make smoothies, or scramble eggs. And making coffee at home is sure a lot cheaper than that local coffee place with the green mermaid.
23. Analyze Your Spending
Analyze where your grocery money goes. What costs the most? Is it healthy like whole fresh foods and produce or unhealthy stuff like junk food, processed or packaged food? Make smarter, healthier choices, save money, feel better. Are chips, cookies, snack foods in your cart? They are expensive and give you zero nutritional bang for your buck. Focus on whole, fresh foods. Skip junk, processed and most frozen, packaged foods. They are costly and unhealthy.
24. Adventure Into Ethnic Markets
Ethnic markets can transport you around the world. Venture in and explore. Good prices in spices and staples are to be had. You never know what you might learn or find. Around our area there are Asian, Indian, Persian, Vietnamese,and Japanese markets as well as chains like Wholesome Choice.
25. Skip Bottled Dressings
Is your refrigerator door filled with bottled salad dressings? Many are filled wtih unhealthy ingredients, sugar, HFCS, poor quality fats and preservatives. Toss them and make your own with a healthy oil and vinegar. Opt for extra virgin olive oil as your base and add red wine vinegar, or one of the many flavored vinegars for fun. The basic ratio is 3 parts oil to 1 part vinegar to start. Adjust for your taste preference. Citrus juice works well too instead of vinegar. Add a little Dijon for flavor and creaminess or a little tahini (sesame seed butter).
26. Don’t Buy Bottled Water
Bottled water can be pricey. Buy refillable bottles and and a good filter and refill your own to carry for pennies a day, plus it’s better for the environment.
27. Make a List and Follow It
And lastly, make a grocery list and follow it. If its not on the list, skip it. Don’t get tempted into buying stuff you don’t need or have not planned on how to use wisely. The stores job is to get you to spend money. Don’t fall for it.
With all of this cooking at home, you will save money, because going out costs more and is not as healthy.
6/20/16 One new tip added post publication: Try shopping at your local 99 Cent or Dollar store. A friend of mine has been buying her produce there, including organic options, recently and saving a bundle.