You may be grocery shopping this year a lot more than last. Here’s how to help cut the costs and save money on your groceries.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans on average split their food money almost evenly between eating at home and eating out†. Restaurant shutdowns changed that pattern for many, meaning that supermarket shopping strategies are more important than ever if you’re trying to save money.
As a nutritionist who loves to cook, Brierley E. Horton‡ believes that you can both save money and eat healthy at the same time. Here are some of her tips on how to do that, keeping in mind the basic recommendations such as eating more whole foods, plants, and grains; reducing meat portions; and cutting back on processed products.
- Build a baseline grocery budget. There’s a simple university-produced calculator that will give you a rough idea of what you should be spending on groceries, based on average food prices and adjusted for age and household size. And there are many digital tools and apps to help you organize recipes, print shopping lists, plan meals, and more.
Once you have a plan, Huntington’s Spend Setter℠ tool can help you stay on track by allowing you to set monthly spending limits by category. You’ll be able to follow what you’re spending and see when you’re getting close to your limit.
- Become a meal planner on weekends or your day off. Shopping with a list created from recipe quantities or an app will cut down on food waste, and you can build your plan from things already in your cupboards (rice, pasta, etc.). Select recipes that lean on less expensive cuts of meat and bulk foods, as mentioned below. While writing your list, check your local supermarket websites and digital apps for coupons for foods on your list to help save more.
- Shop for most foods once a week. Social distancing during the stay-at-home period may have led you to do this already, and it’s a habit worth continuing as safety precautions are eased. For one thing, it reduces the opportunities for impulse buys. For another—especially if you have a freezer—you can use your meal plan to double quantities for things like chili, soups, and stews, freezing portions for later eating.
- For last-minute shopping, use a small basket. You may want to shop for produce more than once a week so it’s fresh and at its most nutritious, and Horton finds that using a small basket is a psychological trick that lessens the chance of making a lot of impulse buys. Don’t walk the aisles randomly, just get what you need and get out.
- Lean on store brands. House brands have long been a bargain—no news there—but quality and flavor have been improving, and almost all food categories, including organic, now feature house-label products§.Use the shelf label method below to make sure you’re really saving.
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- Study those shelf labels. Many supermarket shelf labels feature cost-per-unit data that allows comparisons across brands and product sizes. Some data is by weight, some by volume. This is the easiest way to tell if, say, a large bottle of canola oil is really cheaper per ounce than a smaller one, or a house brand is cheaper than an on-sale name brand.
The same applies to poultry and meat, though you might have to look at the individual label on the package for the data. Here’s a video explaining shelf labels.
- Purchase some fruits and vegetables frozen. Frozen produce is often equally (if not more) nutritious than fresh¶ because it’s typically picked and preserved at peak ripeness.
Horton buys these regularly: frozen peas and edamame (warmed gently, they can taste as sweet as fresh); riced (finely chopped) cauliflower (saves a lot of time and hassle); frozen blueberries (easy to add frozen to muffins, quick breads, oatmeal and even pancake mixes); and frozen raspberries, especially when they’re out of season (the flavor is spot-on and the savings are invaluable).
- Learn to love the cheap cuts. Less expensive cuts of beef and pork usually require slow cooking, but they’re often loaded with fantastic flavor for soups, stews, and such. In the instant pot era, they’ve really come into their own.
The new pressure cookers reduce cooking time and are programmable. If you don’t have one, slow cooking can be done the old-fashioned way, too. There are tons of recipes online no matter your method.
- Shop your local international stores. For spices especially, international stores—Indian and Mexican, for example—offer terrific bargains. You can also buy cheap, nutritious foods like lentils, beans, and corn tortillas from these stores—and some even have fresh produce, such as limes and cilantro, at low prices.
- Buy in bulk. If pandemic-related restrictions on bulk buying have been lifted in your area, it's time to revisit the savings found there on grains, nuts, dried beans, rice and the like. These ingredients can be the basis for your large-volume weekend cooking. Compare the cost per weight unit with packaged products to make sure you’re saving.