Healthy eating doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg. By making a few lifestyle changes and taking the following steps, you can take your diet to the next level without breaking the bank.
- Commit to Food Prep
Those convenient pre-packaged meals you can nuke in the microwave or stick in the oven right out of the package (my grandfather likes to call them “heat-‘em-and-eat-‘ems”) are notoriously high in sodium and saturated fat, and even the light and reduced-fat versions are packed with potentially harmful additives like preservatives, dyes, and artificial sweeteners. To eat well and save money, expect to spend around 15 minutes preparing each meal yourself (excluding the time it takes for the food to cook).
SHORTCUT: If you simply can’t spare the time to cook on a daily basis, prepare all your meals for the week on Saturday or Sunday and store them in the fridge or freezer to reheat at mealtimes.
PRO TIPS: To prevent freezer burn, splurge a little on the good kind of freezer bags (Glad or Ziploc brand—you can wash and reuse these if you’re careful) and a set of high-quality, airtight storage containers in different sizes (you can usually find a good selection of these at T.J. Maxx). Label your containers with their contents and the date they were frozen and always eat the oldest foods first.
- Shop Every Week
When you shop only once or twice a month, you run the risk of buying way more food than you need because you’re trying to plan too far ahead. Shopping weekly minimizes this risk and enables you to take advantage of coupons and price cuts, which usually change from week to week.
PRO TIP: See if your grocery store has a value card or a frequent shopper card you can use to earn points redeemable for coupons or get automatic discounts on certain items. If sign-up is required, don’t cop out because it’s inconvenient; filling out a form by hand or online takes a few minutes at most and the savings will make it worth your time.
SHORTCUT: For free, easy access to weekly deals, visit your grocery store’s website and sign up to receive its sales ads via email. Alternately, you can download Grocery Pal, a free app available for both the Android and iPhone that lets you browse coupons and compare prices at all the grocery stores in your area—all you have to do is register an account (also free).
- Plan Meals Ahead of Time
If you’re the kind of grocery shopper I used to be, you probably make up meals on the fly as you throw a little bit of everything in your cart. All that extra stuff adds up fast, and it usually winds up languishing in your pantry or freezer until well past the expiration date. Planning your meals beforeyou shop will help you identify exactly what to get and how much of it you need so that nothing goes to waste (and so you don’t rack up an astronomical grocery bill).
PRO TIP: Meat is usually the most expensive item in the cart. There are other, cheaper ways to get your protein, and I’m not just talking about tofu. Protein-rich double-hitters include veggies like beans (dirt-cheap and they go a long way if you buy ‘em by the bagful), peas, and hummus, a spread made from chickpeas that comes in delicious flavors; dairy foods like skim milk, plain Greek yogurt, and low-fat cottage cheese; and out-there grains like buckwheat (great for pancakes) and quinoa or, if you’re feeling less than adventurous, pasta made from ordinary whole wheat.
SHORTCUT: Simplify the entire process by choosing meals that use the same ingredients. Fitness Magazine’s website features a meal planner with a month’s worth of meals to choose from, all based on the same 10 “superfoods.” And if you really want to take the easy way out, plan to cook those same meals each week; if you start to get bored, just switch ‘em around.
- Make a List (and Stick to It!)
A grocery list is your main tool for saving money at the grocery store, and steadfastly sticking to it is the key to using it effectively. And don’t just list your recipe ingredients and call it done; you’ll also need to add kitchen staples like olive oil, cooking spices, baking soda, and condiments as well as household necessities like toilet paper.
PRO TIPS: If you generally buy the same things each week, a checklist app will allow you to reuse the same list each week and keep track of what’s in your buggy. I use Evernote myself, but Grocery Pal has a built-in list function (see #1 above) and there are several other free apps to choose from if you want something simpler.
SHORTCUT: If you always shop at the same store and have a pretty good mental image of the store layout, you can organize your list in the order that you encounter each item on your usual path through the store; this will keep you from having to scan the entire list to check off each item as you place it in your buggy and reduce the risk of making it all the way home only to discover you overlooked something essential (like toilet paper).
- Timing is Everything
Be aware of what fruits and veggies are currently in season; if you shop for strawberries in the winter, you’ll be shocked at the price tag. Also, some grocery stores will slash prices on produce that’s due to go bad in a day or two, so rearrange your meal plan to take advantage of these opportunities. And be aware that the produce section tends to get picked over as the day wears on; to get the best fruits and veggies, you’ll want to get to the store early.
PRO TIPS: Fresh is obviously best, but fruits and veggies have nutritional value in all their forms—canned, frozen, dried, and 100% juice—so if the food you want is out of season, it may be cheaper to opt for one of these. Just make sure there aren’t any added calories in the form of butter, sauces, or high fructose corn syrup and opt for the store brand to save the most money.
SHORTCUT: Canned and frozen vegetables are also quicker and easier to cook with because they’re pre-washed and pre-sliced (or shredded, or blended, or what have you). Juice is good for breakfast on the go, and dried fruits make great energy-boosting snacks.
- Think Outside the Store
Grocery chains aren’t the only places to get fresh fruits and veggies—farmer’s markets are experiencing a sort of renaissance, thanks to a recent surge in demand for organic and locally grown food. The U.S. Department of Agriculture maintains a directory of over 850 farmer’s markets across the country that’s searchable by zip code, so it’s easy to find out if there’s a farmer’s market near you.
PRO TIP: When you visit a farmer’s market, don’t be put off by the appearance of the fruits and vegetables you’ll find there, which tend to be smaller and uglier than those you’re used to seeing. Keep in mind that the majority of fruits and vegetables sold at farmer’s markets were grown using natural fertilizers on a family farm or in a backyard garden and are free of the growth hormones and dyes that give grocery store fruits and veggies their impressive size and bright, shiny color.
SHORTCUT: Farmer’s markets are also a great place to find handcrafted jewelry, potted flowers, and homemade soaps and baked goods, so if you’ve got a little extra spending money, take the opportunity to stock up on gifts for loved ones while you’re there.
- Grow Your Own
If there’s not a farmer’s market within driving distance and you’re not opposed to hard work, you can always start a garden of your own. You’ll have to spend a lot up front, but look at gardening as an investment; one blogger (a certified Oregon State University Master Gardener, no less) did the mathand found that a well-planned, 200-square-foot vegetable garden can yield a return in savings of nearly $150 in the first year alone—and the bigger the garden, the bigger the savings, up to $500 in the first year for a 500- to 700-square-foot garden.
PRO TIP: Don’t fret, City Mouse! Thanks to the versatility of container gardening, even high-rise apartment dwellers can become gardeners—all you need is a spot somewhere that gets direct sunlight, like a porch or a table under a window.
SHORTCUT: If you don’t have a green thumb, find out if any of your friends are gardeners and offer to water their plants while they’re away or help out with weekend weeding in exchange for some free produce. Gardening is hard work and most people wind up growing more than they can actually use anyway, so your friend will likely be grateful for the offer.