Eating well is expensive, right?
That might depend on what “eating well” means to you. In response to this question I often hear a myriad of responses including the following:
The light frozen meals/snacks or other healthified version of convenience foods.
“Primal” or paleo style staples (grass-fed meats, wild fish, ghee)
Less processed food.
Kombucha, cold-pressed juice, chia seeds.
Though any of those can be healthful ways to eat, I like to bring people back to the basics for the purpose of keeping things simple, practical and sustainable. If you were to say that it’s challenging to eat satisfying and nutritious food on a budget, I would definitely agree that it does take some extra time and planning to make it happen but it is not impossible. In this post I’ll be sharing six ways to save some cash on your grocery bill without resorting to boring or nutritionally lacking meals.
Eating well does not have to be fancy, but it does have to taste great.
Make a Plan
First and foremost, if your goal is to save money on groceries, you absolutely must make a plan. It can be simple (write down what you need on scratch paper) or super structured (by using a meal planning app) but it’s absolutely necessary to prevent aimless wandering and grabbing things that don’t work together. I dedicated an entire post to this so if you’re interested in learning how to get more organized with meal planning be sure to check that one out.
I also like to plan some overlap of ingredients so if, for example, I won’t use an entire bunch of greens in one meal, I have an idea of where I can use the rest to minimize waste. Remember to plan for breakfasts, lunches and snacks too. This will help limit the need to grab something expensive from a coffee shop, convenience store or vending machine because you need something in a pinch.
Shop Store Brands and/or Sales
Grocery stores sell store brands that are basically the same as their more high-end counterparts, just with no-frills packaging. In fact, most store brand items are actually manufactured by those higher end names. I typically do a quick scan of the ingredients to make sure there aren’t any unnecessary additives but most of the time I find them to be identical, with a much more reasonable price tag.
My favorite store brand is the Whole Foods Market 365 brand but every store has a generic option (and if you prefer organic, most grocery stores are responding to an increase in demand for these products and carry an organic version as well).
When products you buy often are on sale, stock up! Consider purchasing more than one if the item isn’t perishable. Think nut butter or canned items like beans and tomatoes. This will also make improvising in the kitchen a total breeze. If you keep some key pantry staples on hand, you should always be able to throw together something simple and healthy.
Go More Plant-Based
Meat and poultry are usually the most expensive items on your grocery list. On the other hand, plant-based staples like beans, lentils, tofu, and whole grains are a total steal and can be just as delicious if you take the time to learn new and interesting ways to prepare them.
I’m not suggesting that you should go full-on vegan tomorrow, but you might consider making meat more of an accompaniment on your plate as opposed to the main entree. For example, you could flavor an entire pot of soup with a couple of slices of quality bacon, or make burgers 3-4 oz instead of 8. You could also use half the meat in spaghetti sauce and bulk it up with some diced mushrooms or lentils. The result will still be full of flavor at a more reasonable price (the environmental benefits are a nice bonus too!).
In addition to plant proteins, several lesser known items in the produce section are magical when it comes to flavor. Who said you need to buy expensive condiments to make a dish pop? Fresh herbs like cilantro and parsley usually cost less than a dollar per bunch and add freshness to just about anything. Other examples: citrus (such as lemons, limes and grapefruit) and aromatics like onion, garlic, ginger, chiles and chives. All of these can add an extra wow factor that makes people say “what is that flavor?” and are all really inexpensive.
While going veg even just some of the time can be an economical lifestyle change, be cautious of imitation products like frozen veggie burgers and meat alternatives, nut-based cheeses, yogurts and milks, and any other processed plant-based foods. These can actually end up costing you more than the traditional versions – sometimes a lot more. Just something to keep in mind as you peruse the grocery store aisles!
Want to start cooking more plant-based meals but not sure where to start? Check out my cooking challenges!
Scope Out the Bulk Bins – Compare Prices
The bulk bins are your friend. 95% of the time when in need of nuts, seeds or dried fruit I find that they are less expensive in the bulk bins than if I were to buy a whole package (just be sure to compare the price per pound to make sure because this isn’t always the case).
Bulk bins also allow you to purchase the amount you need rather than a large amount of something expensive that might not be used as often. Example: I once needed almond meal for a baked good and a 1 lb bag was nearly $16.00! Since I knew this wasn’t going to be a staple in my kitchen, I found it in the bulk bins for significantly less and bought just the one cup that I needed for a few bucks.
These also come in handy for expensive dried herbs and spices. If you need a teaspoon of a more obscure spice, keep in mind that that flavor tends to fade at about the one year mark so buying an entire canister might not be the best idea. If your grocery store carries these in bulk, you can save a lot of money by taking advantage of these.
Years ago I relied heavily on store-bought bars (either boxed or individual ones) almost every week for an on-the-go snack option. One day I actually thought about how expensive they are compared to homemade versions and realized that I have all of the ingredients at home anyway (and it takes less than an hour to make them). Now I usually try to throw together muffins, snack bars, oatmeal balls or something similar on Sundays so I have a high-fiber snack to grab all week without spending extra cash on a packaged option.
Here are a few favorite snack recipes that I make often and modify based on my mood or what I have on hand:
Use a Rebate App
I have been using a smart phone app called Ibotta for over a year and find it to be a great way to get cash back on items I would be buying anyway. I find Ibotta to be extremely user-friendly and I love that they are local to Denver.
So what is it? Ibotta is an app that you can use to “unlock” rebates on certain products (unlocking might entail watching a 30 second video, or answering a product-related question but sometimes you don’t have to do anything). You purchase said items and once home, scan the barcodes and take a picture of your receipt. Money is then automatically added to your Ibotta account!
When you earn at least $20, you can either deposit the money to PayPal or Venmo, or use it to buy gift cards. I typically let it build up for a while before transferring to PayPal and then my bank. It’s kind of like an extra little savings account that’s out of sight and out of mind.
It does take some extra effort to browse rebates, select the ones that look good, unlock them and then remember to scan the barcodes when you get home. But if you seek out the bonus opportunities (where you can earn extra cash for redeeming certain combinations) I think it’s totally worth the time. I actually think it’s kind of fun and can gameify grocery shopping in a way.
Just a note: if you sign up for Ibotta using the link above, I’ll get a little bit of cash.
What are your favorite tips for eating well on a budget or alternately, do you set a food budget?
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