10 Ways to Save Money on Food Shopping

How to eat cheap - but healthfully - despite rising grocery costs.

By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

We're paying more these days not only at the gas pump but also at the grocery store. Blame it on rising oil prices, disappointing crop yields, global warming, and/or the weak dollar. Robert Earl, director of nutrition policy for the Grocery Manufacturer Association, says there are many factors affecting food prices.

What it all means is that shoppers are looking for ways to save money when they're food shopping without sacrificing nutrition. WebMD asked some experts for tips and strategies on saving money on your grocery bill while still eating healthfully.

Planning Can Help You Save Money on Food

Planning ahead is the most important step to getting more bang for your buck at the grocery store, says Katherine Tallmadge, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.

"Take inventory of what you have on hand so you don't overbuy, create a detailed shopping list based on your needs and weekly menu plan, and take into account how you plan on using leftovers," she says.

Have a light snack before you go shopping, and stick to your grocery list to help avoid impulse purchases or costly mistakes like falling for the displays at the end of the aisles.

Before you plan your weekly menu, check the ads to see what's on sale and use coupons to take advantage of sales and money-saving coupons. You can even sign up online to receive coupons and email alerts from your favorite grocers.

Healthy Food Is Cheaper Food

Eating healthier foods can actually save you money, according to a 2002 study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. The researchers found that when families went on weight loss diets, they not only lost weight but reduced their food budgets.

The savings came from reducing portion sizes and from buying fewer of the high-calorie foods that tend to increase the amount spent at the grocery store, according to authors of the yearlong study. People tend to spend a lot on those "extras" -- foods that add calories but little nutritional value, like sodas, bakery items, and chips.

You can get more for your money if you consider the nutritional value of food for the price. For example, sodas and flavored drinks deliver mostly empty calories and could easily be replaced with less expensive sparkling water with a splash of a 100% fruit juice like cranberry.

"When my clients start eating more healthfully, their grocery bills plummet," says Tallmadge, author of the book Diet Simple.

She recommends comparing food prices based on the number of servings you'll get, along with the food's nutritional contribution. For example, a pound of peaches yields three to four servings. So when you divide the cost per pound, the cost is usually quite reasonable.

"The ideal food is nutrient-dense, not calorie-dense, and the least expensive may be fresh, frozen or canned," Tallmadge says.

And if you're craving something sweet?

"Save money by passing on calorie-dense cakes and cookies; instead, opt for seasonal fruit," says American Dietetic Association president Connie Diekman, RD. "Fruit is fat-free, high in nutrients and fiber, and a natural energizer."

Look for sales or coupons for light ice cream or nonfat frozen yogurt to enjoy with your fruit, and you have a delicious, fat-free, low-calorie dessert.

Here are 10 simple strategies to beat the rising cost of food and help your grocery dollars go further:

1. Buy produce in season. Check the food section in your newspaper to find the best buys for the week, based on fresh produce in season. Food in season is usually priced to sell. During the summer months, corn on the cob can cost as little as 10 cents an ear; at other times of the year, it may cost 10 times as much. Also, shop your local farmers' market for great deals on local produce; the prices won't include shipping costs.

2. Use sales and coupons. Planning meals around what's on sale can lower your grocery bills, especially if you also use coupons (make sure they're for item you would buy anyway). Sunday newspapers are full of coupons and sales circulars to get you started. It's also a good idea to stock up on staples when they're on sale. "Buy one, get one free" is basically a technique to get you to buy twice as much as you need at half the price. At some markets, though, the product rings up half-price -- so you don't have to buy more than one to get the savings. Use your freezer to store sale items that can be used at a later date.

3. Brown-bag it. Making lunch and taking it with you is a great money-saver and an excellent use of leftovers for meals at work, school, or wherever your destination. "Packing your lunch not only saves you money, but you can control all the ingredients so they are healthy and low in calories," says Diekman, who is nutrition director at Washington University. Pack a simple sandwich, salad, soup, wrap, and/or a hearty snack of cheese. Use freezer packs and containers to keep food at the proper temperature unless you have access to a refrigerator.