Shopping for food can be hard when you are on a tight budget. You may think that it isn’t possible to buy healthy foods without spending a lot of money. This is not true. With careful meal planning and shopping, you can eat well and save money. Here are some tips that can help.
Let the Plate Be Your Guide
Many people plan their meals around meat. They may leave grains, vegetables, and fruit for side dishes. However, according to http://www.choosemyplate.gov, most of your diet should be made up of vegetables and fruit. At least half of your grains should be whole grains such as whole wheat breads, pasta, and brown rice. Meats and dairy products should be treated as side dishes and eaten less often. This is both less costly and more healthful. Here are a few examples of meals made mostly with whole grains, fruits, and vegetables:
- Chili—beans, vegetables, and meat, served with a salad
- Stir-fry—vegetables with a small amount of meat served over rice or pasta and a salad
- Stews or soup—beans, vegetables, pasta, rice, meat or chicken, served with salad
- Taco—beans or meat with lots of lettuce, tomato, onions, and a corn tortilla
Make It From Scratch
Many of the prepackaged, boxed, canned, and frozen foods you buy from the store are higher in fat, calories, sodium, sugar, and cost than foods made at home. They may also be lower in vitamins and minerals. You pay for the fancy packaging and ease of these items, but you get much less for your money. For example, you will get more popcorn from a bag of unpopped corn than a bag of already-popped popcorn. The pre-made popcorn costs a lot more and has more fat and sodium than what you can make at home. Making food from scratch may take a little more time, but it can be well worth it in terms of cost and nutrition.
Have a Game Plan for Shopping
Have a game plan for shopping that includes what you are going to buy and where you are going to buy it. Here are some tips on making a shopping plan:
- Plan meals and snacks several days in advance. Then write a shopping list—and stick to it!
- Check prices at different grocery stores. Shop at national chains and discount food outlets. Do not shop at convenience stores.
- Go to stores that sell generic foods, store brand foods, and foods in bulk.
- Be careful with coupons. They are often for foods that cost more. Do not buy junk food or something you normally would not buy just because you have a coupon.
- Never shop on an empty stomach.
- Look for sales on items that are on your list.
When shopping, it’s also important to look for foods that are fresh. Check the dates on items like meat, cheese, and yogurt. If you aren't able to eat the item before the date, then you shouldn't buy it.
Check the Unit Prices of Items
The unit price tells you the cost of a product per unit. For example, a unit could be by the ounce, pound, or number of items in a package. Unit prices are usually marked on the shelf below the product. For example, let's say you are looking for canned beets and there are three different brands to choose from. If you look at the unit price below each one, you can find the brand that is cheapest, especially if you buy the largest can. It only makes sense to buy the largest can if you are sure you will use it all.
Read Food Labels
It is easier to make the most nutritious choice when you know how to read the nutrition facts label. These labels contain the nutritional information and are found on most packaged foods. Use the nutrition facts label to focus on the facts that are most important to you, such as the fat, sugar, or sodium content. These labels make it easier for you to compare similar products.
Buy in Bulk…When It Makes Sense
Save time and money by buying in bulk. You can buy in bulk through supermarkets, buying clubs, food co-ops, farmer's markets, and warehouses. When you buy in bulk, you can purchase a product in multiple or large units that can be stored, or from an open container in the store, such as a bin of rice where you can scoop out as much as you want. Before buying in bulk, keep these tips in mind:
- Buy only products that your family will like and use often enough that they won’t spoil or expire. Otherwise, you will waste food and money.
- Not all bulk items are bargains. Make sure the item is really a good buy and saves you money. Check the unit price. Do not just look at the size of the package.
- When you buy in bulk, you buy more than you can use before your next shopping trip. Be sure you have enough money to do this.
- Know what type of storage is needed for the product and have enough space to store it.
- Beware that buying in bulk can lead some to overeat or eat too quickly. If this happens, you could run out of food or money before the end of the month. Make sure you can store food so that it will not get eaten too quickly.
- Freeze prepared items in small containers rather than one large container so you only need to thaw the servings you need.
Know proper storage times for different foods. For example:
- Ground meats: 3 to 4 months in the freezer
- Hot dogs: 1 to 2 months in the freezer
- Eggs: 3 to 5 weeks in the refrigerator
- Opened lunch meats: 3 to 5 days in the refrigerator
- Bacon: 7 days in the refrigerator
- Fresh chicken or turkey parts: 9 months in the freezer
Eat at Home
Eating out can cost a lot and the food is often high in fat, salt, and sugar. A spaghetti dinner at a restaurant could cost $10 or more, but only a few dollars if you prepared it at home. At a restaurant, your extra costs go toward profits and tips. Consider having a potluck. When you entertain guests at home, ask them to bring a dish.
Bring some healthy snacks and drinks with you when running errands or shopping with your family. That way, if hunger hits, you will not be tempted to stop at a fast-food restaurant or buy snacks from a vending machine. Whether you make snacks at home or buy them from the grocery store, it is cheaper than buying them in the mall.
American Dietetic Association
Choose My Plate—US Department of Agriculture
Canada's Food Guide
Dietitians of Canada
Charts: food safety at a glance. FoodSafety.gov website. Available at: http://www.foodsafety.gov/keep/charts/index.html. Accessed January 27, 2021.
Eating better on a budget. Choose My Plate, US Department of Agriculture website. Available at: http://www.choosemyplate.gov/ten-tips-eating-better-on-a-budget. Accessed January 27, 2021.
Lino M. Nutrition doesn't have to be expensive. Choose My Plate, US Department of Agriculture website. Available at: http://www.choosemyplate.gov/sites/default/files/printablematerials/USDABlog-NutritionDoesntHaveToBeExpensive.pdf. Accessed January 27, 2021.
Last reviewed November 2020 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Last Updated: 1/21/2020