On a Budget: 7 Tips for Healthy Food Shopping

By Ali Luke
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This is the first post in a four-part series on “Dieting on a budget” – tips and tricks for sticking to your healthy habits when money is tight.

Food prices have soared recently, with increases as high as 20% on bread, 60% on rice and 81% on pasta. (UK statistics – see Families struggling as bills beginning to bite.) Perhaps your healthy shopping list is starting to seem expensive – especially when you see big tins of cookies, bags of chips and super-sized candy bars on offer. But with a few tweaks to your usual purchasing habits, you could save money and eat well.

1. Buy local, in-season foods

Local, seasonal produce is usually cheaper than foods which have to be imported. Not only is it better for your wallet, it’s better for the environment: your food won’t have clocked up thousands of air miles on its way to your plate.

2. Stick to basic fruits and veggies

Staying simple can save a lot. Shop simply for carrots, onions, apples, and so on … rather than spending several dollars on a tiny bundle of asparagus or a few pieces of baby corn. Save these more exotic vegetables for an occasional treat.

3. Never buy “diet” products

I don’t mean avoid “light” versions of foods (though low-fat ranges are often more expensive than the regular equivalents). “Diet” products are those hugely pricey shakes, “meal replacement bars”, energy gels and other weird and wonderful potions that bear little relation to actual food. These are overpriced, and of questionable nutritional value.

4. Buy in bulk – but buy the right things

Buying twice your usual amount of snack foods because they’re on offer unfortunately doesn’t always mean they’ll last twice as long in the cupboard … the more buy, the faster we tend to get through it. So don’t stock up on those boxes of chocolate cookies just because they’re on offer … instead, look out for buy-one-get-one-free deals on store-cupboard staples like dried pasta, tinned tomatoes, crispbreads and anything else that will keep well or which you can freeze.

5. Shop when products are reduced

Most stores will cut prices on their perishable foodstuffs near the end of the day — if the “use by” date is the current day, they’ll have to be binned if they’re not sold. Go shopping an hour or two before the store closes — you can often pick up some great bargains. The best products to look out for are bread, fruit and vegetables and chilled foods.

6. Try cheaper supermarkets

Don’t dismiss the idea of switching to a cheaper store for part of your weekly shop. In my experience, it’s not worth buying fresh foods there, but dried and tinned goods are often available at bargain prices. The main store near my office (Sainsbury’s, a mid-range supermarket chain) sells boxes of Cadbury’s brunch bars for £1.79 a box — compared to £1 at the aptly named “Poundland” opposite.

7. Plan your meals and only buy what you need

Do you often end up throwing food away because it’s gone off before you’ve had a chance to use it? If so, resolve to sit down this weekend and plan exactly what you’ll need – before doing your weekly shop. It’s usually cheaper to buy larger quantities, so try to organize your main meals so you’ll be using some of the same fresh ingredients two or three times during the week.

Have you found any good ways to shop on a budget? Let us know in the comments below…

(And look out for the next post in this series – Seven ways to exercise on a budget.)

Photo above by yanyanyanyanyan.

23 Comments

  1. Ella

    I’d like to save my food budget with online coupons or deep discount provided by some sites. With coupons ,I get more or better with the some money.

    Reply
  2. John

    Thank you for the informtion

    Reply
  3. Heather

    As a veteran of supermarket employment, most of the time items sold end-of-day are reduced by as much as 50%. It is not to say these items are “bad” or “spolied” but merely unfit to be sold the next day due to specific rules and/or laws. These items usually have a longer shelf life than actually noted; cosider edible 3-5 days after sell by date. Also, when fresh items arrive, there is a need for shelf space, therefore, reduced prices to push the products out. 🙂

    Reply
  4. drewcifer

    Trent,
    The local supermarket near me runs specials that differ depending on the product – some are a much cheaper price and others not so much. For example, packages of ground (minced) chicken breast are normally $3.89/each but are $0.99/each on the “sell-by” date on the package. The are ok to freeze as is, so I try to stock up. One the flip-side, most produce is about $0.10-$0.15/lb less, so not as deep a discount, but those pennies add up.

    Drew

    Reply
  5. Pher

    ALDI is my main shopping source. I took $40 there, and purchased 4-top sirloin steaks, 2 packages of beef stew meat, frozen chicken breasts (boneless), 4-1 lb of ground turkey, 2- ham steaks… and still purchased other items, like frozen veggies, fresh fruit and whole wheat bread. If you havent had the opportunity to shop at Aldi, give it a chance, you might be surprised. ***BUT, still be a good shopper, compare with other stores, as some have sales that might beat Aldi on certain items.

    Reply
  6. Jean

    Great article! I love Aldi’s! I live on a Beef Farm (www.wvbeef.com) and recently purchased Rhode Island Red Chickens to raise eggs. Healthy diet without a lot of preservatives is way to go. Corn is going to impact the beef biz.

    Reply
  7. Spectra

    Oh yeah, our Aldi is ALWAYS busy. I never used to shop there until my husband turned me onto it when we were dating…he and his roommates in college used to go there all the time and the first time I went there, I couldn’t believe how cheap all the food was! I also have their shipment schedule memorized so I go there when they restock everything so I get the best selection on the produce.

    Reply
  8. Spectra

    This is why I desperately want a big freezer…so I can buy 1/4 steers from the farmer that my inlaws buy their beef from. They are grassfed and they taste so awesome. I would buy from him now, but the minimum I can get is 1/4 of a steer and I totally don’t have the space for that now.

    Reply
  9. Ponytail

    For the person who asked… when I worked in a supermarket, we had to balance getting rid of food that was approaching the sell-by date with making sure we weren’t giving it away. I never started marking food down before 3pm and on a weekend, more like 6pm (we were open until 11pm though). My local Tesco has everything marked down by 8.30pm (good for drunken meals !) and Asda marks down mid-day.

    Has that helped any ?!

    Reply
  10. Lucy

    Where I do my grocery shopping, the sales start on Tuesdays. If I wait until Saturday to do my grocery shopping, many of the sale items are gone, or I’m left with the worst choices (poor cuts of meat, sad produce, etc). So, find out when your store starts their sales and go that first day. You’ll get the best selection and there will definitely be enough of the sale items. And, it’s probably not as crowded, so you get your shopping done faster!

    Reply
  11. LosGatosGirl

    I can’t agree with #7 enough. The most expensive food we buy is that which we throw out.

    #4 is so true….again, for a similar reason. If I buy split peas or lentils, and cook something up and find out no one likes it, I’m stuck with it. Test out with a little first, and then buy in bulk if it makes sense.

    Love your blog. Thanks!

    Reply
  12. Vaughan

    Every 3 or 4 months the major supermarkets put whole chickens on sale for $0.59/lb. or $0.69/lb. (USD). I stock up and then roast one every week.
    Lately, pork has been much cheaper than beef.
    I buy many bulk items from Henry’s Market, a small local chain (Southern California). They sell nuts, grains, legumes, raisins, pastas and many other items in bulk. They always have better prices on produce than the major chains. Butter is also cheaper there because it’s a one pound block, not 4 – 4 ounce blocks.
    The 99 Cent Only Store sell produce, but you have to be careful there, the fruit is often over ripe. For the best selection, shop in the mid to late morning.

    Reply
  13. Mr Calorie Counter

    I shop at the markets in the organic section. It is cheaper as they work on turnover and it is generally hand picked from country properties. I also buy my meats from a wholesale butcher. He sells to restraunts. It great quality and cheap. Only catch is that i have to buy in bulk.

    Reply
  14. Rebecca

    We also eat a lot of venison (my dad hunts). Sometimes, we mix ground venison with ground beef to get rid of some of the gamey taste. Where steak is concerned, I almost always cook it in some sort of gravy or sauce – it makes it more tender & adds some flavor.

    Reply
  15. Rebecca

    I LOVE Aldi! We’ve been shopping there the last couple of years, and have noticed traffic picking up there in the past few months. Everyone always complains that you can’t get “everything” there, but we just plan ahead and go to a major grocery store once a month (with list in hand), and can normally get all we need at Aldi.

    Reply
  16. Spectra

    Roo meat sounds interesting. We try to eat meat sparingly because it’s fairly expensive. I try to stretch it as much as possible. I sometimes buy TVP and mix it with ground beef when I make tacos and chili or I’ll add rice or beans to things to make them stretch.

    Also, my brother in law hunts so when he gets a decent size deer, we eat venison from him for a while…it’s a tad gamey tasting, but it’s very lean and you know the deer are grass-fed and not raised on corn. Ground venison is terrific in lots of dishes and I like venison steaks pretty well.

    Reply
  17. Gabrielle

    If you have the option of buying strait from the suppliers (ie the farms) then that is the best thing to do. Try and work out a deal with any local producers that will be mutually beneficial. Cutting out the middle man is always good. I also want to add something to RooGrrrl’s point; roo meat is the leanest meat in the world so it’s very healthy, but it’s best not to attempt to catch your own.

    Reply
  18. RooGrrrl

    Roo meat is cheaper than beef, and local and sustainable here in Australia. I don’t eat much meat, but when I do buy it, I buy the “value packs” of chicken thighs, packs of sausage and other things and freeze them. I use dark meat chicken because it has more flavour and I can add a small amount to a casserole and it goes farther. It’s the same with the sausage. Using meat more as a flavouring than a dish on its own is not only healthier, it’s more economical.
    I also buy a whole grain bread mix and make my own bread in the breadmaker I bought second hand.
    I also buy nonfat dry milk and keep a litre in the fridge to use in recipes and in coffee. My husband still likes fresh milk for his cereal, but we go through it a lot slower when I have my backup “fake milk”.

    Reply
  19. Spectra

    I’m sort of a supermarket pro when it comes to getting the most for my money and still eating well. We have a discount grocery store chain (Aldi’s) where I do the majority of my shopping…the food costs a fraction of what it does at the regular grocery store. They only sell “private label”, aka generic, brands but I can’t really tell the difference most of the time. I buy my oatmeal there and most of my basic produce (lettuce, carrots, broccoli, spinach, tomatoes, celery). I also buy my frozen and canned food there. Anything I don’t want to buy there, I buy either locally from farmers (my eggs and sometimes cheese) or from the farmer’s market (heirloom tomatoes, mushrooms, etc.).

    Also, there are other ripoffs to be aware of in the store: boxed breakfast cereals–most of them are like $4 a box if they aren’t on sale and most of them are high in sugar and low in everything else. Try to stick to oatmeal, steelcut oats, grits, or other whole grain plain cereals for breakfast and if you REALLY want boxed cereal, buy it on sale or buy the generic stuff. Chances are your kids won’t know the difference between Froot Loops and Frootee O’s or whatever. Canned soup is also a huge ripoff. Some of those “gourmet” types are as much as $2.50 a CAN. For about $10, I can throw together a huge pot of homemade soup…save your celery tops, onion skins and ends, carrot ends/peels, etc. in a bag in the fridge. When you get enough of them, put them in a big stock pot of water and some herbs and salt and cook them for a long time. Strain out all the pieces when you’re done and you have homemade veggie stock. Then add whatever you want to it to make soup…noodles, rice, veggies, beans, chicken, etc. Bonus: it has a LOT less sodium than the canned stuff too.

    Reply
  20. Mike H.

    Great tips and very timely! We try to shop on a budget but our food bills still seem outrageous. I’m going to make a diligent effort this month to follow some of these tips and see how it goes.

    We’ve saved a bundle on meat/cheese as my wife and her buddies make a monthly jaunt down to the U.S. (45 min drive) and hit Trader Joe’s, Costco and another store (of which the name escapes me). You might argue the gas/environmental impact cost, but when 4 of them go, it evens out. It’s incredible how much cheaper it is and the quality is great too.

    Reply
  21. Ranae

    Point #7 is key! Sticking to a grocery list helps reduce costs. You can always shop the newspaper ads as many meats are featured week to week. Then, plan your menu around that, make your grocery list and stick to it when you shop. This not only saves money by not buying other items that are meant to entice you at the store, it helps you remain true to your meal plan.

    Reply
  22. Trent

    I’m intrigued by point 5. How dynamic is the price for fresh goods in a supermarket? How often does the price change? Does it change throughout the day?

    Maybe someone here who has worked in a supermarket will know…

    Reply
  23. monica

    I’m all about buying in bulk, especially for oats, rice, dried beans and dried fruit. You could also add to this list: sub half your meat with beans and legumes. Meat is pricey, but beans are (arguably) just as (if not more) nutritious and cost way less.

    Reply