While the least expensive foods are often not the most healthy options, it is possible to eat well on a budget. According to Susan Tucker, nutritionist and health coach with Green Beat Life, LLC, developing a "genuine interest" in healthy eating is a key to finding an affordable solution. She states, "Once you see eating well and clean as an investment in your health and wellness - and your life - then you begin to find ways to keep costs down. It becomes a natural part of your life, just like anything else that is important to you."
According to Tucker, "Food items found in the bulk section of the grocery store are great for saving. You can buy as much or as little as you like without paying for the packaging." Nutritious, budget-minded bulk choices Tucker recommends include:
- Grains (brown rice is a particularly good option for healthy eating)
- Whole grain flours
- Dried fruits
Sheryl Cuevas, founder of TheCentsAbleShoppin.com and a Savings.com Grocery Pro, suggests, "Visit your local Hispanic or Asian markets to pick up items in bulk for much less than the traditional grocer."
Tucker advises, "Store brands are all great for saving. Once you identify a healthy, and for the most part, natural grocery store where you want to shop, find out if they have their own brands of food items. These will be the least expensive."
Cuevas states, "Store brand items typically run anywhere from 15 to 30% less than national brands, and in most cases they are almost identical in taste." Cuevas points, out, "In most cases the private label has a money-back guarantee."
Examples of items Tucker recommends looking for in store brands include:
- Dairy products
- Soy/nut milks
- Canned/frozen goods
- Nut/seed butters
Fresh produce is key to any healthful eating approach. Finding the best deals depends on what is season, as well as making wise choices about where to shop and what to buy.
When to Buy
Cuevas points out, "Buying produce in season is cost effective because you're essentially being rewarded for what is in abundance at the present time. You're also getting a better taste. When food is not in season, it's usually shipped from another area of the world - and since it's transported from a distance, the food loses flavor and moisture."
Where to Buy
To get the best deals on produce, Tucker recommends, "Look where the produce is from and buy local. This will be your best deal. Farmers markets are great for this." Cuevas points out, "You will never find out of season produce at a Farmers Market. You will find great prices on some things, so it's important to get what they have. It's also a great time to try new items."
Lowest Cost Produce
Cuevas points out that potatoes and sweet potatoes are great low-cost options. She says, "They can be picked up for cents on the serving." These items are generally available for good prices year-round.
When to Purchase Organic
It's also important to make wise decisions about when to purchase organic produce. Tucker states, "If you are concerned about pesticides, which we all should be, the Environmental Working Group shopping guide includes a list of the Dirty Dozen (the top 12 contaminated) and the Clean Fifteen (the least contaminated) produce. They also provide a full list of everything in between."
She suggests, "Keeping their app in your handheld device for when you go shopping is ideal. Then you can make decisions on what produce to buy organic, and how important it is to spend or not spend a little extra for this."
How Often to Shop
The frequency with which you purchase produce is important. Tucker reminds, "Eating healthy means eating fresh!" She suggests, "Shop for produce two or three times a week. If we buy too much produce at once, it often goes bad, and it can get very wasteful." You'll spend less if you don't purchase more than you will use before it spoils.
Tucker points out, "Produce shopping is the one part of your shopping that can be done more frequently. Map it out and find places you can go on your route home from work or near your gym or yoga. Make it convenient!"
To get the best deals on meat from the grocery store, Cuevas recommends, "Establish rapport with your local grocery meat counter to determine when they discount their meat each day. The savings can lead to items 30 to 50% off, if not more."
Tucker emphasizes the importance of choosing meats carefully, and suggests that supermarkets may not be the best places for health-minded consumers to shop. She states, "If you are choosing animal protein, it is important to eat high-quality, organic, free-range, grass-fed forms, so this is one area where you may need to spend a little more. Your local farmers market or food co-op would likely be the best deal."
Tucker states, "Dairy, meats, poultry and fish are among the food groups manufactured with hormones, antibiotics, and preservatives, not to mention the animal cruelty factor. Unfortunately, to avoid these, we may have to spend a bit more on animal protein that has been manufactured with kinder and healthier practices."
Tucker advises, "One tip for saving on protein bars and powders - don't buy them! If you are eating a healthy, balanced and diverse diet, you really don't need them. Protein bars are really like a dessert or candy anyway. You can save a lot by not getting dependent on them, and getting your protein from real food sources."
If you do want to use these items, be careful what you purchase. Tucker explains, "As far as protein powders go, you will want a good quality item with natural ingredients. Many are loaded with stuff, like added sugars, and the same for protein bars, which have added oils." You can save money by making your own protein bars from healthful ingredients.
Soy products are a healthful protein option that can be affordable. Tucker suggests enjoying "store brands or mainstream brands" of the following:
- Protein enriched veggie burgers
Other Protein Options
Cuevas states, "Many items that are high in protein are typically on sale week after week. She states, "Eggs are a great start; one dozen eggs may be captured as low as $1 - $1.25 on most weeks."
She adds that other high protein items that can be picked up on sale frequently include the following:
- Cottage Cheese
- Peanut butter
- Greek yogurt
Cuevas adds, "Lentils are also a great source of protein and, in most cases, are cheaper when picked up in bulk versus bags." They aren't the only affordable protein option to consider in the bulk section. Tucker points out, "Remember that grains, legumes, nuts, seeds and vegetables provide protein too! Head to the bulk and produce sections for these."
Budget-Minded Strategies for Healthy Eating
Following a few key meal planning and preparation strategies can help you keep your grocery costs down.
Balance Health and Budget
Tucker advises, "Spend more on those items that are a vital investment in your health, e.g. that if you don't spend on, they could have a detrimental effect on your health, like some animal proteins and some produce. Spend less on everyday items to stock your fridge like nut butters, sauces, canned legumes or soups, and healthy frozen meals or items. But always buy the healthiest versions of everything. Watch for added sugars, salt, oils and preservatives. "
Tucker advises, "Have a meal planning strategy and you will save money and time. It is not that you have to plan every meal, every day. But, you should get to know what ingredients you need to make your top favorite or regular meals. Then these are always at your fingertips and you are not giving in to unplanned eating and unnecessary purchases."
Stock Your Pantry
Cuevas advises, "Stock up on inexpensive items so you have them on hand, and plan your weekly meal plan or menu for your family based on your stockpile. If you manage to build up an arsenal of inexpensive necessities in your pantry, you can formulate your meal plan around those inexpensive items by just adding the meat of your choice."
Use a List
Tucker recommends, "Make a grocery list each time you shop. Creating and bringing a shopping list to the grocery store has proven to save not only money, but time."
Make Your Own Food Items
Tucker advises, "Start learning how to make your own food items, like nut milks, hummus, soups, sauces, and easy everyday meals. This not only gives you control of the ingredients, but it keeps costs down. If you tend to buy smoothies and fresh juices often, invest in a blender and/or juicer. This will save you a lot and help you keep it clean!"
Tucker suggests, "Set aside two hours on a weekend, or one to two evenings a week to prepare food for your workweek. Bringing your own meals, including snacks, to work can save you up to $400 a month. This preparation can include making a soup or a grain salad for the work-week, or having salad or fruit items chopped and in containers ready to go. We all want convenience, so applying this to food and our kitchen set up really supports healthy eating on a budget."
Shopping for the Best Deals
There are a number of shopping techniques you can use to get the lowest prices on the items that you do decide to purchase. According to Melea Johnson, the Money-Saving Expert behind Freebies2Deals.com, "Using coupons and price matching is really important when it comes to groceries. By doing so, you can save anywhere from 30%-50% off your grocery bill!
She points out, "Kroger-owned stores like Smith's, Safeway, Ralph's all have a digital coupon page that will allow you to clip e-coupons and add them to your shopper's card. When the grocery store asks for your shopper's card to scan, all of the digital coupons you clipped will come off your bill. It's super easy and something I think a lot of people don't know about. These Kroger stores have an App too! So if you are on the go, or at the store, you can clip the coupons digitally right off of your phone and they will upload to your shopper's card for you to use."
Johnson stresses, "Too many people purchase items that aren't on sale. If you can think ahead of time and purchase extras when there is a great deal or sale, you will save a lot of money. Then when you run out, you will have another item already stored away ready to go instead of having to run to the store and pay full price."
Johnson recommends Ibotta, "a free app that pays you cash for everyday purchases" and Checkout51, another app that lets you earn cash back for grocery purchases. Johnson states, "They are both great ways to save money on groceries."
Cuevas recommends, "Download the free Favado grocery-savings app to review the sales at your local store before going shopping. You can create a grocery list to continually track the best deals on your favorite items and brands, and locate coupons for additional savings at the check-out counter - all on your phone."
Make Wise Choices
When shopping for groceries, strive for a balance between minimizing your expenditures and making healthy food choices. Tucker states, "Cheaper items will usually have more additives and are more processed, for example, dairy, meat, fish and poultry; many canned goods, baked goods and almost all snack foods. Unfortunately the better the quality, and often that means fewer - and more natural - ingredients, the more expensive they may be."
She is optimistic, though, stating, "The good news is that this is all starting to change. As more and more people value healthy choices and want to know what is in their food and how it is manufactured there are more choice available for the health-wise shopper. Do some research and you will start to find more and more affordable items out there that are in line with healthy eating."