For as long as I can remember, the grocery store has been my happy place. There’s just something about that time spent browsing the aisles that’s an immediate anxiety reliever. Yet, I know many (probably most) people don’t share my same feelings. And I too find grocery shopping difficult when I’m squeeing it in amongst a thousand other to-do list items. With lack or preparation or time, this activity quickly turns into more of a chore than a pleasure.
Likewise, as a graduate student, I’m very conscious of how much I spend on groceries each and every week. Over the years of shopping and cooking for myself, I’ve discovered several tips and tricks that have helped me balance healthy eating on a slim budget.
For those who need a push to start cooking at home or feel lost among the sprawling aisles, I’m here to give a bit of grocery guidance. Below are my solutions for effectively shopping on a budget to make for a happy, healthy body and wallet!
Make a plan, and create a list
Step one is to prepare. I know, UGH. But I promise you, taking a few minutes to plan out what you need will eliminate that “oh Lord, where do I even begin” feeling while walking into the produce section. Take a peek at your week’s schedule to see how many days you’ll be cooking for, and then brainstorm a few meals that use similar ingredients. This way, there’s a bit of overlap, and nothing goes to waste, especially when cooking for one.
And though making stops at multiple stores isn’t always ideal, your wallet will certainly thank you. Next time you’re shopping, take note of the prices on produce and packaged items at one store versus another. For example, I typically spread out my shopping between Trader Joe’s, Central Market and Whole Foods, knowing where I can get the best deals on certain items. Likewise, Costco also has majorly upped its game with organic items, and of course, it’s ideal for buying in bulk.
Bring your own reusable bags
For one thing, this simply helps reduce waste, which is always positive. I carry my Simple Ecology produce bags with me during grocery hauls, and it makes me happy to know that I’m taking small steps to limit my plastic use.
Likewise, just pause next time you use a disposable bag for every. single. piece. of. produce. Is this even necessary? Given you’ll wash your fruits and veggies when you return home, just lay them in your cart as is. I promise you that these small contributions matter!
Shop sales, but be smart
Sales seem like a no-brainer when it comes to saving money, but they can also be a trap. I’ve often been sucked into buying items I genuinely don’t need and wouldn’t typically purchase otherwise, only to get home and realize what a waste it was. Before you check out, assess your cart and really scrutinize your purchases. Are these items necessary or were you drawn in my the flashy advertising?
But that’s not to say that sales aren’t also incredibly helpful. Take advantage of membership programs at the stores you frequently visit, like Amazon Prime at Whole Foods, for example. Knowing what’s on sale will allow you to better prepare your grocery list and meal plan with specific, money-saving produce and products. Plus, sales are the perfect opportunity to stock up on bulk items you’ll need in the future.
Embrace frozen foods
For so long, I’d walk by the frozen food section without even a thought. But upon learning more, I’ve started to give the freezer way more credit. Fruits and vegetables are picked at the peak of freshness, then flash-frozen, so they retain all of their wonderful vitamins and minerals. Plus they just taste better!
Produce that’s traveled across the world to get to your local store is likely no longer in its freshest state, and thus, not as healthy for you as it could be. Another bonus is that frozen foods are often much less expensive, even organic varieties. For a list of produce that’s actually better purchased frozen, read up here.
Take advantage of bulk foods
One of my favorite parts of grocery shopping is browsing the rows of mesmerizing bulk items. Typically, packaged products are more expensive than buying in bulk, as you’re paying for the brand name. Instead, stock up on nuts, seeds, flours, dried fruits, beans and rice in the bulk section. Plus, I’ve recently realized how much I can save on purchasing my spices and coffee here as well. You’ll also find that grabbing these pantry staples in larger, less expensive quantities means fewer trips to the store every week to restock.
You CAN buy organic on a budget!
To reduce your consumption of pesticides, GMOs and chemical residue, I highly encourage eating organic as often as possible. While organic produce is indeed more expensive, I believe this personal investment in your health is worth every penny. With the expense in mind, I’ve learned that you can find organic items for significantly less at certain stores, such as Trader Joe’s.
Other helpful tools to use for guidance are the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 lists. These include the produce that tests highest and lowest for pesticide use, respectively. Going off of these, you should try to buy organic varieties of the “dirtiest” fruits and veggies and settle for conventional on the “clean” items if need be.
First, in-season produce simply tastes better and pushes you to include a wider variety into your diet. Yet it likewise guarantees that foods are at the peak of freshness with the highest nutrient content and the fewest pesticides. Your wallet will also thank you, as seasonal ingredients are the most widely available and therefore less expensive.
In a larger sense, eating seasonally helps to preserve the environment and supports local farmers who choose sustainable practices. Because of this, I much prefer and urge you to shop at your local farmers market above anywhere else. There, you’ll know that everything you buy is seasonal, fresh and organic.
Take inventory before heading out
One of the main mistakes we all make when it comes to grocery shopping is double purchasing. The amount of times I’ve returned home from the store with a stock of almond butter, just to realize I already had two jars tucked away is absurd.
Learn from my mistakes and take a peek into your fridge, freezer and pantry before heading out. You’ll thank yourself for these few minutes of preparation (and your wallet will too).
Focus on a plant-based diet
I abide by this rule myself, and there are myriad health benefits from incorporating plant-heavy meals into your routine. This includes eating whole, minimally processed foods, excluding refined foods (like added sugars, white flour and processed oils), and paying special attention to eating organic foods when possible.
While I do eat and enjoy the benefits of meat, fish and poultry as well, these items should complement a plant-based diet, not serve as the main component. Dr. Mark Hyman believes that this food group should be viewed as a “condi-meat” to a primarily veggie-filled plate and diet. Plus, these items are always the most expensive in our carts, so cutting back on your intake will promote your health and savings. When purchasing meat, though, make sure that you’re getting the highest quality, grass fed, organic and hormone-free varieties.
While grocery stores are truly my happy place, I know that’s not the case for most of us. Yet with a bit of preparation and a few tricks, this weekly errand can become much less of a chore. Just keep in mind my essential grocery hacks for a healthier body, a heartier bank account and a happier shopper 🙂 .