Your budget is tight, but you can’t face one more day of ramen noodles. Everyone knows it’s expensive to eat “healthy”, right? Wrong! Here are a few tips to help you stretch your grocery dollar for the freshest, tastiest options all year round.
I love fresh fruit: grapes so ripe they explode in my mouth, juicy, drippy peaches, oh-so-sweet watermelon, or a crisp apple. But if I went to the store and looked for juicy, drippy peaches in the middle of winter, I’d have to pay an arm and a leg, if I could even find them. The key to eating delicious fresh fruits for cheap is to buy them when they are in season. Apples get harvested in the fall, so you’ll find lots of cheap, tasty options filling the shelves. Then when you’re starting to get tired of apples, citrus fruit comes into season, growing in the sunny south. Eat your fill of oranges and grapefruits. Strawberries start the spring, and then summer comes, the obvious peak of fruit seasons with a new super-cheap glut each week.
The same is true of fresh vegetables. When the supply is plentiful coming out of the farms, the stores have set a good price to get people to buy all the produce before it goes bad. So go crazy in May for cheap asparagus, or in July when zucchini is practically given away. And there’s bonus to this strategy—fruits and veggies that are picked at the peak of their season taste better than the stuff grown in greenhouses at the “wrong” time of year.
Not saying you have to go vegetarian (though if that’s your style, great!), but consider how much meat you eat right now. If you have meat at one meal every day, try to cut back at least one meal per week. Make a meatless-Monday part of your routine! Some say it’s healthier for you to eat less meat, especially processed or fatty meats like sausage or lunch meats. Vegetarian protein sources—nuts, beans, dairy, whole grains, or even soy products like tofu—are typically less expensive than meat.
Shop the Perimeter
That’s a fancy way of saying “stick to the edges” at the supermarket. Most grocery stores arrange their products so all of the processed foods—pretty much anything that comes in a package with a brand name on it—are in the middle aisles of the store while all of the fresh things including produce, breads, fish, and meat, are arranged around the outside. Typically these processed foods contain much more salt, sugar, and added colors or preservatives than similar items made from your own fresh ingredients. It’s also almost always cheaper to buy ingredients and cook food yourself instead buying a pre-made version. If you have the time to make your own soup, for instance, some noodles, chicken, and a few veggies will likely cost you little more than $5 for a vat full—much cheaper than the $2 per can you’d pay in the pre-made soup aisle.
Find the Hidden Discount Spots
Sticking to the edges of the stores will likely help you stumble upon another budget-shopper’s treasure chest. Most grocery stores have at least two bargain areas—a “dry food” shelf of things like day-old bread, holiday-themed items from last week’s holiday, and cereal in boxes that got a little bent during shipping and a “cold food” area with meats or dairy that are getting a little too close to the “best by” date. Sometimes there are different spots for bargain dairy, meat, fish, produce, boxed and canned good, and even flowers.
A few key things to know about the bargain zones: the dates on foods are not “expiration” dates. These stamped-on dates aren’t regulated, so each food producer can choose how they want to label their foods. They typically will use wording like “best before” to let you know that the product is going to be freshest before that date, but there’s no reason to think it will spoil on the date listed. Use your eyes and nose to scope for freshness. Most meats go to the bargain area at least two days before their “best before” dates, so if it looks okay and you can cook it soon, go for it! Or remember that you can bring it home, throw it in the freezer, and it should last a long time.
Can’t find the bargain spots at your grocer? Ask a friendly looking employee. Sometimes the clearance racks are hidden around a back corner or near an employee-only area.
Most grocery chains will mail out their weekly advertising one day before new sale prices go into effect. If you don’t get them in the mail, you can always check online for the weekly ad. Grocery stores typically run a few items at very low prices just to entice people into the store. If you’re able to visit a few different places, you can pick up just those very low priced items at each store and really save.
It’s even worth comparing between items that are listed as “on sale”. Sometimes a sale at one store will still be more expensive than the normal price at another. If you pay attention to your favorite products at a few different stores, you’ll soon be able to recognize a truly good sale when it comes around.
Stock Up and Preserve
When that good sale does hit, go bananas! Stock up! If you love one kind of cereal and eat it every morning, when that cereal is half price, buy as much as you think you’ll eat before it goes bad (or as much will fit in your apartment!). Being able to buy in bulk can save you loads in the long run. But if you know you have more varying tastes and will probably be tired of that cereal after three or four boxes, keep that in mind. Wasting even one or two boxes will likely offset the sale savings.
When produce or meat goes on sale, you can’t just stack it in your closet for later. But if you have some freezer space, most fruits, vegetables, meats, and even things like hard cheeses and milk can be frozen for later. Look online for the best way to preserve your favorite items in the freezer.
Another easy option is to cook your items into big casseroles, stews, or other meals that are easy to freeze and reheat later. Set aside one weekend to cook up a frenzy with your cheap eats, then enjoy the results for weeks or months to come.
Canning is another great way to preserve some foods without needing space in the freezer. Look for a class taught by a reputable expert; university “extension” classes are a good place to start. Be sure to learn the right way since improper canning can lead to some very nasty bacteria in your food.
It is possible to get your daily dose of fruits and veggies, enjoy delicious fresh treats, and do it all on a budget. Do you have other great ways to stretch your grocery dollars? Let us know below!