You may have noticed that a recent trip to the supermarket has ended with greater pain at the checkout. Though the cost of food had already been inching upward in recent times, the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the rise in the price of many groceries, causing consumers to leave stores feeling a little lighter in their wallets. Overall, the cost of groceries grew 2.6% in the month of April. But that doesn’t mean you can’t eat healthfully while still keeping your food budget in check. Try these tips and tricks when spinning your wheels at the grocer to keep that number at the end of your receipt from soaring.
Why pay more for well-marketed national brands when store brands of everything from pasta sauce to frozen vegetables to canned fish may offer a cost advantage? “In many cases these products are nutritionally comparable or even superior to big brands,” says Bonnie Taub-Dix, R.D.N., creator of BetterThanDieting.com and author of “Read It Before You Eat It — Taking You from Label to Table.” She notes, “But it’s still important to compare nutrition labels.”
America’s favorite meats like chicken breast and salmon aren’t necessarily the most cost-effective. Often, you can get more protein for your buck by opting for less popular animal proteins such as chicken thighs, mussels, bone-in pork chops, canned sardines and top round steak. Purchasing and cooking a whole chicken can yield plenty of juicy meat at a significant cost saving per ounce.
Without the added cost of packaging and advertising, those bulk bins offer a viable option for less expensive versions of staples like oats, flour, nuts, and seeds. Plus, you can purchase only what you need, which cuts down on costly food waste.
Price increases in the meat, poultry, fish and egg categories have been among the steepest. Taub-Dix says making meatless meals more often using plant-based proteins including tofu, lentils, and beans can save you cash. “But some processed plant-based items like packaged meatless burgers aren’t the cost saver you’d expect and you have to read labels carefully so you’re getting a product that is comparable to its animal-based counterpart,” she adds.
When in season, buying fresh veggies and fruit is a good bet. “But buying some of your out-of-season vegetables and fruits from the frozen food section can offer considerable cost savings and even help reduce the trips you need to make to the store,” Taub-Dix says. For instance, a pint of fresh blueberries may cost $5 which is what you can get an entire bag of frozen berries for. As a bonus, frozen produce is harvested at peak ripeness and quickly frozen to maintain nutritional firepower.
Be the chef
It’s true that many restaurants need your support more than ever, but it’s also true that dining out and ordering take-out frequently is perhaps the quickest way to blow up your food budget. A study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that meals prepared at home allowed people to improve the quality of their diet at less cost. By contrast, eating out regularly was associated with higher food expenditures, yet lower diet quality.
Watch out for greenwashing
Food labels such as “hormone-free,” “freerange” and “all natural” often raise the price tag. Sadly, these nebulous terms too often lack any real muscle and might not be worth the extra cost. “Do your label reading research and look into the business practices of particular brands to determine where a splurge is worthwhile,” notes Taub-Dix.
Slash your grocery bill by taking a do-it-yourself approach to food. That means shelling your own shrimp, shredding your own cheese, deboning your chicken and chopping your own fruits and veggies.
Come with a plan
“Shoppers who show up at the grocer with a prepared buying list are less likely to make impulsive buys of foods they didn’t need,” explains Taub-Dix. Try planning a week’s worth of dishes, make a detailed list of necessary ingredients, and stick to it. “And organize your list in a way that corresponds to the layout of your store so you save time by not needing to backtrack,” Taub-Dix adds.
Shop close to home
Check out your local farmers market, if open depending on your location, for locally grown options. Depending on the market, conventional and organic items may be available at lower cost and higher quality than what is offered at the grocery store. “Before you commit to buying anything, do a lap of the market to compare the prices and quality from different stands,” says Taub-Dix.
If you’re single or part of a small family, pair up with a friend or neighbor and split items purchased in large quantities such as bunches of herbs, family packs of meats, and bags of potatoes. You’ll waste less and reap the cost savings of buying in bulk. “Just keep in mind that buying in bulk is only a cost-saver if you actually use up the entire item,” cautions Taub-Dix.
Snack then shop
It’s a good idea not to push a cart with a growling tummy. “If you go shopping hungry, everything starts to look good and you’ll end up buying stuff you don’t need or don’t end up using which will cost you money,” says Taub-Dix.
Don’t settle for junk
Most people assume that an unhealthy diet is much cheaper than one based on whole food, but the cost difference isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker. According to research from Harvard School of Public Health, the healthiest diets cost about $1.50 more per day than the least healthy diets that are skewed towards processed foods. Use the tips above and you may get it even closer to being on par.
(Reprinted with permission from Environmental Nutrition, a monthly publication of Belvoir Media Group, LLC. 800-829-5384. www.EnvironmentalNutrition.com.)
©2020 Belvoir Media Group. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.