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.
4. Think frozen, canned, or dried. Next time you're gathering ingredients for a recipe, try using frozen, canned, or dried foods. They may be less expensive than fresh, yet are equally nutritious. Produce is typically frozen, canned, or dried at the peak of ripeness, when nutrients are plentiful. Fish and poultry are often flash-frozen to minimize freezer damage and retain freshness. With frozen foods, you can use only the amount you need, reseal the package, and return it to the freezer. If it's properly stored, there's no waste. Canned foods are often sitting in a bath of juice, syrup, or salty water, and usually require rinsing. Dried fruits are concentrated in flavor and a great substitute for fresh fruit. Also consider using powdered or evaporated versions of milk in soups, casseroles, mashed potatoes, or desserts. Buy the form that gives you the best price for your needs.
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5. Save on protein foods. When possible, substitute inexpensive, vegetarian sources such as beans, eggs, tofu, and legumes for more expensive meat, fish, or poultry. Eat vegetarian once a week or more to increase your consumption of healthy plant foods while saving money. Eggs are an excellent, inexpensive source of protein that can be eaten for breakfast, lunch or dinner. You could also try using a smaller portion of meat, fish, or poultry and extending the dish with whole grains, beans, eggs, and/or vegetables.
When you do buy meat, choose smaller portions of lean cuts. For example, lean cuts of beef are those that include the terms "loin" or "round." (You can tenderize lean cuts of meat mechanically or by marinating it.) You can also buy a whole chicken and cut it up instead of paying the butcher to do it for you, or buy the cheaper "family pack" and portion it into airtight freezer bags.
6. Waste not, want not. Before you toss perishable food into your grocery cart, think about exactly how you'll use it. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that Americans generate roughly 30 million tons of food waste each year. Using leftover vegetables, poultry, or meat in soups, stews, salads, and casseroles minimizes cost and demonstrates your creativity in the kitchen. For example, have a roasted chicken for dinner one night, and use the leftovers for dinner the next night. Try topping a bed of fresh greens with vegetables, fruits, and slices of leftover chicken. Add a loaf of whole-grain bread, and presto! You've got a nutritious meal in minutes. You can also eat leftovers for breakfast or take them with you for lunch.
7. Go generic. Consider buying store brands instead of pricier national brands. "All food manufacturers follow standards to provide safe food and beverage products of high quality," says Earl. Many grocery companies buy national-brand products made to their specifications and simply put their own label on the products. Read the ingredient list on the label to be sure you're getting the most for your money. Ingredients are listed in order by weight. So when you're buying canned tomatoes, look for a product that lists tomatoes, not water, as the first ingredient. Also look for simpler versions of your favorite foods. For example, buy oatmeal or simple flaked or puffed cereals that contain fewer additives and are less expensive (and often healthier) than fancier cereals.
8. Buy prepackaged only if you need it. Unless you have a coupon or the item is on sale, buying prepackaged, sliced, or washed products comes with a higher price tag. Still, people living alone may find that smaller sizes of perishable products or bags of prepared produce eliminate waste and fit their needs best, despite the extra cost. You can also save money (and boost nutrition) by passing up the aisles with processed foods, cookies, snack foods and soda.
9. Buy and cook in bulk. Joining a bulk shopping club, like Sam's or Costco, can be cost-effective if you frequent the club regularly. Bulk purchases can be a great way to save money -- as long as they get used. You might also look in your community for shopping cooperatives that sell food in bulk at a substantial savings. Cooking in bulk can save both money and time, says Tallmadge. "Prepare food in bulk and freeze into family-sized portions, which saves time in the kitchen," she suggests. For example, making a big batch of tomato sauce will less expensive (and probably tastier) than buying some.
10. Plant a garden. For benefits that go beyond cost savings, plant your own produce. There's nothing better than a summer-fresh tomato from the garden. Tomatoes even grow well in containers if you don't have space for a garden, and some neighborhoods offer community gardening spaces. Start small, and see how easy it is to grow fresh herbs or a few simple vegetables. And if you invest a little time in freezing or canning your harvest, you can enjoy summer's bounty all year long.
Published May 30, 2008.
Journal of the American Dietetic Association, May 2002.
Robert Earl, MPH, RD, senior director of nutrition policy and regulatory affairs, Grocery Manufacturers Association.
Katherine Tallmadge, RD, spokesperson, American Dietetic Association, author,Diet Simple.
Connie Diekman, MEd, RD, president, American Dietetic Association, nutrition director, Washington University, St. Louis.
©2008 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.
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