One of the great misconceptions about healthy eating concerns expenses. Maybe you’ve visited a Whole Foods store and were terrified of losing your whole paycheck to its usually high prices, or perhaps the organic shop in your neighborhood seems unreasonable in its asking price for your favorite nondairy milk. Certainly, some healthy foods can be pricey. Overall, however, eating well is doable on any budget. Some of the best ways to save on your expenses are simply a little planning and some smart shopping.
Buy in bulk. It’s often more cost effective. I’m not just talking about stores like Sam’s or Costco (although if your family already has a membership to one of those stores, I would certainly take advantage of that). Many stores have a bulk bin section, or you can shop online at places like www.amazon.com or www.bulkfoods.com. Sometimes you can buy several pounds of something for the same amount you’d spend on a single individual package of the same product. Even in regard to something like oatmeal, you’ve probably noticed that for the same price of one of those boxes with 6 packets of instant oats you can buy a much larger tub and simply flavor it yourself. Oatmeal was definitely one of my staple foods during college. If you like the portion control provided by the single-serve packets, it’s simple enough to take a few minutes to measure out your own portions.
Stick with staples. You can live well on beans, rice, and produce. Dry beans and lentils are often $2 or less for one bag, which can easily feed you for a week. Rice is another inexpensive item, especially when you buy in bulk (I don’t recommend the “steam in the bags”—are they convenient? Sure, but you pay more for packaging than actual product!). When it comes to vegetables, supermarkets often have sales on frozen varieties (my Kroger has 10 bags for $10 almost every week—sometimes they cost even less) and you can squeeze about three meals out of each bag. The $1 value menu doesn’t seem like such a great value by comparison now, does it?
I concede that a pot of beans and rice for dinner or oatmeal for breakfast may not always seem like the most exciting choice, but they are affordable and healthy. These foods can also be big time savers, because you can cook a big batch of them over the weekend and eat the leftovers throughout the week.
Staples versus convenience foods. You might be surprised at where the line actually is. I mentioned beans are pretty cheap, but if beans are $1.60/can are they a good food for a staple? Actually, canned beans are more a convenience than a staple. If you’re looking to save, dried beans are cheaper. Do you drink nondairy milk? That seems like a staple, doesn’t it? Is it really worth the $3.50 for a half gallon? You can actually make your own (like coconut or almond) at a much lower cost!
Frozen versus fresh. I already mentioned this, but my local grocery stores often have sales on frozen store brand varieties. These sales tend to envelop all kinds of vegetables, so you can mix and match your options (mixed vegetables, peas and carrots, corn, Italian style, Mexican style, Normandy vegetables, and so on) depending on whether you want to use them in a stir fry, soup, or just as an accompaniment to something else.
Of course, there are still deals in the produce section. While, on a good day, the apples at the supermarket are about $1.50/lb you can often buy a 3lb bag for about $2.50 to $3. Bags of potatoes also tend to be pretty cheap, and as for other produce check to see what is in season to determine what will be most cost efficient for you to purchase.
Explore the ethnic section. Compared to the baking aisle, spices are often much cheaper and foods such as dried beans and rice are also. If you have an ethnic market in your town, prices are often even cheaper there.
Shop around. I know, I know—how fun is it to visit two or three stores when you can just buy everything at one and be done with it (okay, confession—I really love grocery shopping, so that actually sounds like a lot of fun to me)? It may sound convenient, but you could miss out on some great deals if you don’t shop around. When your parents are paying for your groceries, you might not think going out of your way to save an extra $1 is that important and just buy what you need all at one store, regardless. When you’re on a tight budget, though, you really learn the benefits of pricing various items, using a weekly meal planner, checking for coupons, and taking a good look at sales. I highly recommend checking local ads and visiting several different stores (as long as they’re fairly close to one another! No need to drive twenty minutes out of your way to save a few pennies) to figure out where you can buy staple items or whatever you need for the best price. Some stores (like Wal-Mart) even allow you to get price checks on certain items if you bring in a competitor’s ad.
Waste not, want not. When eating healthy on a budget, try not to let anything go to waste. Not a fan of those raw broccoli stalks? Chop them up and use them in a stir-fry or repurpose them together with your other vegetable scraps to make soup stock.
Stick to your list. One last tip is to create a weekly meal planner and/or shopping list. If you shop more than once a week or go to the store without a plan, you tend to purchase more than you would otherwise. It’s easy to get sidetracked or drawn into the snack displays.