Buying healthy food isn’t just for the wealthy. Eating and cooking healthy can be affordable and accessible for everyone. With the right mindset and knowledge, you can enjoy eating healthy and not have to devote all of your paycheck to your groceries.
What's Your Budget?
One of the best ways to make healthy eating and cooking stick is to have a weekly budget. The better grasp you have on what you can or are willing to spend each week, the better you can set yourself up for success. If you start buying really expensive healthy food with no budget, after a few weeks it could be hard to afford it and you could revert back to cheaper, unhealthier ways. But with a specific amount set, you can make healthy eating sustainable for you and your wallet.
To determine your budget, look at your finances. How much do you pay a week for groceries or food? Are you budgeting in other financial areas? Do you need to buy coffee a few times a day, or is one time enough? Could you stop or reduce some services to get a little extra cash for your food budget?
With a better picture of where your money is going, you can decide if you want to start moving some of your money around. Eating from home and bringing a packed lunch can also help make some more money available, especially if you currently eat out a lot.
If budgeting is new to you, try free budget management software like Mint. The software links your bank and credit card accounts and can give you an idea of how much you spend and possibly overspend.
Where to Shop
Once you've determined how much you're going to spend on groceries, it's time to consider where you're going to shop. There are several places to get your groceries in addition to a grocery store. Don't feel limited to only shopping at one kind of place. Explore multiple options and see what works best for you.
1. The Grocery Store: The most obvious option is a grocery store. Nowadays, there are several kinds of grocery stores you can consider. In addition to big box grocery chains, there are also smaller, more health-focused grocery chains that can offer more variety and possibly better prices. And of course, you have higher-end health food grocery chains. Depending on your area, there could also be some independent health food grocery stores as well.
Visit all of the different stores in your area to look at the selection of food and prices. Prices of the same product can vary from one grocery store to another. Snap pictures of the price labels at each store and compare them to see which store is the best place to buy your food. You may find that to stay within your budget, you'll need to shop at more than one store.
2. The Farmer's Market: Farmer's markets are perfect places to find fresh, seasonal produce for a reasonable cost. Things in season tend to be cheaper since they're so abundant. Be mindful, not everything at a farmer's market is affordable. Prepared foods, dairy, and fresh animal proteins can easily get very costly.
If you're looking to stick to a budget at the market, focus primarily on produce. Grocery stores usually have more affordable pricing for staples like legumes, grains, dairy, and animal protein. Check Local Harvest to find when and where farmer's markets are happening in your area.
3. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA): In CSA, you pay a farm or a company representing several farms for a box of produce (and sometimes extras like dairy, honey, or meat) they're growing. Prices and the level of service vary from farm to farm. Local Harvest can show you where you can find local CSAs, and there are several larger companies that offer CSAs. Depending on what size and level of CSA you get, this can be affordable to a bit pricey. If you're new to vegetables and interested in trying new things, a CSA is a good thing to consider. Much like if you shop at a farmer's market, you would have to go to grocery store for your non-produce pantry essentials.
4. The Internet: In addition to CSAs, the Internet can be a good source for shelf stable grocery items. If you know you eat a lot of a certain food or ingredient, check the Internet to see if you can find it cheaper in bulk. Specialty food websites and Amazon are a good resources to check. Make sure you have the space and a way to keep your ingredients fresh. Or, if you're just cooking for one or two, consider splitting a large bulk purchase with friends.
How to Shop
Once you decide where to shop, there are several ways to maximize your money and get good food in the process.
1. Make a List: Knowing what you need to get and what you’re cooking each week can prevent you from overbuying or going back to buy things you forgot.
Grab a piece of paper and write down some things: what meal ingredients you have already, what you know you need to stock up on, and what meals you’re making this week. Try to use up the groceries you have first, and then start thinking of what you need to buy to make the rest of your meals. Add those ingredients to your stock up list and bring it with you on your shopping trip.
2. Eat Seasonally: Eating produce in season can save you money. The law of supply and demand applies here: the more abundant a fruit or vegetable is, the more reasonably priced it is. When you buy produce out of season, you're also paying to help ship the food from another part of the country or world where it is in season. If you buy seasonally for your state or region, the food comes from close by, making the costs more reasonable. To check what's in season right now where you live, check Local Harvest or search "what's in season for [your state] right now."
3. Do the Math: Food and ingredients are sold in a variety of different sizes. For frequently used or shelf-stable foods, consider which size is the best for you. Buying a slightly bigger version than your usual option also means you'll have it longer, and won't have to be constantly replenishing your supply.
For potential savings, figure out the cost per ounce. Most price tags will list the price per ounce, but if not, simply divide the price by the number of ounces in the package. Do the math for a few size options so you know which size would be better for you in the long run. Consider this option for staples you'll use a lot, like spices or cooking oils, so you don't have to worry about waste.
4. Bulk Bins: Bulk bins are good places to get a price break on staples like legumes, nuts, grains and dried foods. Less money is involved in packaging these foods, meaning you get the savings. If you eat a lot of certain food or use a lot of it in cooking, buying bulk will lower your cost per ounce. Buying from bulk bins also can help you get the exact amount you want. If you're interested in trying something new, you can buy a few ounces and try it in one meal and not be stuck with something you won't use again.
5. Buying Generic or Store Brands: Generic brands are cheaper than brand names. In the past few years, healthier store and generic brands have been popping up, giving you healthy choices for less. The healthier store brands cost slightly higher than the regular store brand, but they also usually offer no salt added, or BPA-free lined options.
6. Buying Dried Staples Over Precooked: If you have the time, consider buying dried beans and grains over precooked packages or cans. A 15 ounce can of beans is perfect for instantly adding to a meal, but if you're looking to stretch your dollars, consider buying the 1 pound of dried beans and cooking them up yourself.
If you have a few hours at night or on the weekend, you can make 6 cups of beans from 1 pound of dried beans over the 1 1/2 cups that one can of beans provide. You can portion out the beans and freeze them, defrosting them when you need them. Consider this option if you're eating more of a plant-based diet and want the beans for protein and heft to your meals.
7. Stock Up: Though produce and minimally processed foods don't go on sale a whole lot, when they do, consider stocking up. Buy just enough to get some savings, but don't buy so much that you won't know what to do with it. Stocking up in a smart way can give you more money to use for next week's groceries or for something else. If it's on the perishable side, ask yourself if you have room to freeze it and store it. You can portion out and freeze meat, fruit, herbs, bread, beans and much more. Before buying it, check to see if what you're buying can freeze well and the best way to preserve it.
As you start to shop healthier, observe what’s working each week. Is you budget right for what you need? Are you buying too much for a week? Do you have leftover food or food that goes bad because you’re not eating it all? Adjust each week to what’s in your fridge, and make meal plans so you know exactly what you need and what you need to buy. The more you can use what you have and get what you need, the more you’re setting yourself up success in healthy eating.
Healthy Eating 101 will continue with swaps and suggestions to up your healthy eating game and get more nutrient-dense and filling foods.
Aimée Suen is a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner who shares nourishing, gluten-free recipes and nutrition wisdom at Small Eats. She is driven to help others enjoy whole foods and empower them to find their own healthy in all aspects of life, one small step at a time. When she’s not in the kitchen, she’s practicing yoga, in the gym, or learning something new. You can find Aimée on Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest.
Second Photo Credit: pogonici/Shutterstock.com; Third Photo Credit: Jasminko Ibrakovic/Shutterstock.com; Fourth Photo Credit: Matej Kastelk/Shutterstock.com; Fifth Photo Credit: Daisy Daisy/Shutterstock.com; Sixth Photo Credit: Stokkete/Shutterstock.com; Last Photo Credit: Rawpixel/Shutterstock.com.