It is possible to eat healthily and not go broke. With some advance planning, you can grocery shop on a budget without resorting to becoming an extreme couponer (although that's fine, too, if you enjoy the hunt for a deal).
One of the best ways to grocery shop on a budget is to buy fresh and versatile ingredients and prepare food from scratch, according to Leanne Brown, author of "Good and Cheap," a cookbook for people with very tight budgets, particularly those on SNAP/Food Stamps benefits.
Brown offers her cookbook as a free PDF (ahora en Español!). It's been downloaded more than a million times and is an excellent resource for anyone interested in being more mindful of their grocery shopping expenses. If you can swing it, you might want to even buy the book and mark the recipes you love to make on a regular basis.
Even if you don't buy the book, there are other easy ways you can save money at the supermarket. Here are eight of the best ways to grocery shop on a budget.
Buying food that's fresh, in-season and versatile is not only a healthier approach than buying processed food, but it also allows you to extend your budget substantially because you'll have access to fresh foods and staples you can use for weeks or months.
For example, a single 16-ounce bag of dried lentils that costs a few dollars and lasts two to three years can yield stews, dips, spreads and even meatballs or burgers. Not a fan of lentils? You can buy other types of low-cost, shelf-stable dried beans and peas that can similarly produce more than a dozen dishes.
Purchasing versatile foods also means fewer visits to the grocery store, ideal for those who want to limit their trips to the store due to the coronavirus pandemic.
In-season items generally are less expensive and taste better than when they're brought in from elsewhere off-season. Other produce staples like lemons can last for more than a few days but add powerful flavor to your meals. Brush up on what's in-season and consider recipes with those ingredients in mind.
In addition to buying what's in-season and on sale, consider what you can freeze for later so you can take advantage of sales. Items like tomatoes, which are abundant and delicious in the hot summer months, can be frozen with a little prep work or made into a sauce that can be frozen, too. You can also freeze carrots, onions, corn and even fruits like berries and grapes.
Not all vegetable waste needs to end up in the garbage or compost bin. "The No Waste Vegetable Cookbook: Recipes and Techniques for Whole Plant Cooking" will help you re-think your vegetable scraps. Author Linda Ly shares seasonal recipes that will help you cook greens, beans, roots and herbs using every edible part of the plant. Who knew you could use carrot tops and tender stems to make salsa?
Another great way to use vegetable scraps is saving some to make vegetable stock later. This is how you can do it in three easy steps:
The water becomes your vegetable stock, which can be refrigerated up to four days or frozen up to three months.
Herbs and spices can add punch to your food while offering health benefits, too. Look beyond black pepper and salt and introduce basil, cilantro, cinnamon, garlic, turmeric and other herbs and spices to your diet.
Many herbs can be grown indoors alongside a sunny windowsill from seed and will produce months of fresh growth. A packet of basil seeds might come with 100 seeds and cost a couple of dollars. Plant new seeds every couple of months so once one plant dies off (usually after four months in a planter or six months when planted outdoors), you'll already have new growth from the latest one to use. Even dried basil can last months, depending on how often you use it for recipes.
Many grocery stores have their own apps where they list sales and include coupons. As the app gets better at predicting your shopping patterns, it'll provide available coupons when items you frequently buy go on sale. Be careful about the price, though. While sometimes the sales are good, offers like a “buy one, get one half off" isn't really a deal since you're having to buy two items to get the second one at a discount, effectively only 25 percent off.
If your grocery store doesn't have an app, check out the weekly newspaper sales papers to give you an idea of which shops have some of your staples on sale. If it's possible for you to visit several places to get the best deals, make a list of which stores have which sales so you can make sure to maximize your time (and budget) at each stop.
Don't forget smaller or international neighborhood grocery shops, some that are within walking distance since they tend to be located in dense communities. You can often find staples (and harder-to-find ingredients) at lower costs from shops that import from specific parts of the world.
Prices are often misleading. What might look like a great price initially may be more expensive if the packaging is different. As the price of raw materials has increased on some items, manufacturers have responded by making them smaller to stay within a certain price point for customers.
Things like chocolate bars, for example, used to be larger in size. Today, those same chocolates are smaller yet more expensive. Why? Cough it up to an economic term called "shrinkflation" describing when an item shrinks in size (or quantity) but keeps or raises its price. This concept isn't restricted to chocolate bars. You'll see the same happening with cereal boxes, meat and other packaged items.
Get good at reading the fine print and breaking down how much an item costs per ounce or per serving size. It may be worth buying the larger and more expensive package.
Marketers are geniuses at creating end-aisle displays and promoting impulse purchases. It's their job, after all. It doesn't mean you have to participate in their marketing efforts. Making a list means you're more likely to stick to buying just what you need and keeping your budget intact.
That's not to say you can't take advantage of any really good sales once you get to the store, but it will help you temper any last-minute and expensive purchases. Also, the perimeter of the store is typically where the fresh food is located so try to shop there instead of down the aisles where the packaged and processed food is on the shelves.
Many people like to prepare some of their meals for the week on Sunday afternoon. The day of the week doesn't matter but setting aside some time to make several dishes using similar ingredients can save you time and money.
Make it a party and ask your roommate or a friend to join you. You can swap recipes or double up recipes so you both have extra meals to enjoy. If you make some you can freeze, you can also have emergency dishes for those days you're too exhausted to make something from scratch, especially if you're cooking for just one person.
Finding creative and smart ways to shop for groceries on a budget doesn't mean having to sacrifice flavor, money or time. With a little advance planning, it's possible to save money and time while eating healthier meals.