Long ago, before cheese was available in a squirt can, grocery shopping was a healthful endeavor. People would shop for nourishment for their family, and grocery stores promoted, well, food.
Supermarkets still want to sell you food. And lots of it. It just so happens that their best shot at hooking the typical American buyer is with aisles and aisles of tempting products laden with fat, sugar, and sodium. “Healthy foods are not necessarily coming in brightly colored packaging saying, ‘Great! New! Buy me!’ ” says June Alpert, MS, RD, CDN, a registered dietitian in Long Island, N.Y. “Healthy, unprocessed foods have less of a profit margin.” So we’re attacked by promotions and sales for fried chips covered in cheese product, cookies with double the sugary filling, and “juice” made from everything but fruit.
Making it through the grocery store without succumbing to the siren call of junk food seems as difficult as juggling knives. But it’s not impossible—if you shop with a solid strategy and follow these expert-approved tips.
|Shop in Season|
You can save on steep grocery bills by eating seasonally. In-season fruits and vegetables are cheaper than out-of-season produce shipped in from all over the world. Unsure whether tangerines are a winter or summer food? Go to fruitsandveggiesmorematters.org and use the search term “in season” to find lists of produce available each season. Or check out the site’s list of year-round fruits and veggies.
Here is a sample list of produce for each season:
Wandering through the grocery store is a recipe for disaster. Without a plan in place, it’s easy to give in to temptations: the trans fat–loaded cookies that are on sale or the two-for-one cheese doodles. Before any grocery trip, know what you plan to cook and which ingredients you need.
Draft a menu. Menu planning may sound time consuming, but it’s really a matter of how you spend your minutes. Writing up a menu saves you hours a month in the grocery store, not to mention all the time that you would have spent staring blankly into the fridge for dinner ideas. Just come up with enough breakfast, lunch, and dinner options to last the week; you can figure out later what meals to eat on which days.
Make a list. Using your menu as a guide, list any ingredients you need. “When you’re shopping with a list, you’re less likely to make impulse purchases, which are often the less healthy items,” Alpert says. She categorizes her shopping list, grouping items by aisle, such as “dairy” and “grains.”
Eat first. Adults who enter a grocery store on an empty stomach are hungry kids in a candy store. Suddenly everything looks good. “You’re going to fall prey to those impulse buys [if you shop hungry],” says Staci Small, MA, RD, a dietitian in Indianapolis. “People end up spending a lot more money when they [are] hungry.”
|Food Shopping Apps|
|You can rely on pen and paper for making a grocery list, but these popular phone apps have additional helpful features.|
|Grocery IQ (free)|
Tap or click to add items to your list. Items are automatically sorted by grocery category, such as produce, grains, canned goods, and frozen foods. While you’re shopping, simply tap the item you’ve purchased to erase it from your list. The items will be stored for your next trip and can be added with one touch. The app lets you scan bar codes to add items to your list and create multiple lists for different stores. Bonus: Click the “coupon” section of the app to scroll through featured coupons.
Available for iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, Android
This app is a menu planner, recipe holder, and shopping list all in one. Add items to your list online or on your phone, and they’ll automatically be sorted by section of the grocery store. Both the phone and Web versions allow you to search for and save thousands of recipes from around the Web, store recipes you find on other sites, and add recipes to a meal plan. By adding a recipe to your shopping list, you can include all the ingredients you need with a single click. Bonus: Go online to page through coupons, which are sortable by categories such as “beverages” and “pet care.”
Available for iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, Android
Buy Me a Pie ($2.99)
Create a list and check off items as you buy them. They’ll appear scratched out, but with a click you can add them to your list again. A major difference between this app and the others is that items aren’t sorted by grocery category. Instead, you can create multiple lists (such as “dairy” and “grains”), which you can flip through while shopping. Bonus: Its clear design is good for people who want a simple grocery list.
Available for iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, Android
Be Familiar With Your Supermarket
Thinking about how foods are shelved in your grocery store can make your trip faster and more successful. That’s because you’ll know where to spend your time and which aisles are best avoided.
Shop the perimeter. Most of the foods you need for a healthful diet—fruits and veggies, low-fat dairy, and lean meats—are found on the perimeter of the grocery store, so look for most of your groceries there.
Buy healthful dried goods. Sticking to the perimeter needn’t mean avoiding the inner aisles completely. “There are a lot of good foods in the middle,” says Beth Kitchin, PhD, RD, assistant professor in the Department of Nutrition Sciences at the University of Alabama–Birmingham. She lists whole grains, frozen vegetables, nuts and seeds, beans, and canned fish such as salmon and sardines as good inner-aisle buys.
Bypass problem aisles. If certain aisles are too tempting, it may be best to avoid them. (We’re looking at you, candy aisle.) Of course, if you can shop them without snapping up a half dozen unhealthy items, even better. “I don’t like this idea of forbidden foods,” says Kitchin, who says splurging once in a while is OK as long as you eat healthfully most of the time.
Head to the freezer. True, there are a lot of overprocessed frozen foods—pizza, fish sticks, vegetables with high-sodium sauces, and ice cream, for instance—but it’s also the best place to get cheap, healthy produce. Frozen fruits and veggies are just as nutritious as fresh ones, and they keep longer. Stock up so you’ll always have produce on hand.
Mind the Clock
Smart grocery shopping requires you do more than throw food into your cart on the run. So take time to really scope out your choices. Just be sure you’re taking food safety into account.
Look at the labels. The experts agree that comparing food labels is part of what makes a trip to the supermarket a success—provided you’re comparing more than total carbohydrate grams. “It’s not just about the blood glucose,” says Kitchin. “It’s about blood pressure and other things.” Pay attention to the nutrients most Americans need less of: calories, saturated and trans fats, and sodium, as well as the healthful items often missing from meals, such as fiber and monounsaturated fat. Your doctor or a dietitian can help you prioritize nutrients. For example, limiting carbohydrate grams may be a first concern because of blood glucose management, but a person with high blood pressure may want to limit sodium, too.
Keep foods safe. A big shopping trip can take a while, especially if you’re still learning to read food labels. “It can take us almost an hour to get through the grocery store,” says Small. “That’s a long time for a gallon of milk to be sitting out. That’s a long time for pork roast to be sitting out.” There’s a simple solution: Shop for your cold and frozen items last and consider bringing a cooler with cold packs to transport items home. When it comes to meat, Small puts her packages in a plastic bag and stores them on the bottom of the cart so any juices or bacteria won’t get on her other items.
Eat Well on a Budget
If you think your grocery budget is out of hand, consider the mammoth bill a family of 12 might incur. Mary Ostyn understands: She has 10 children with big appetites. But instead of spending a fortune at the supermarket, she sticks to a strict budget. Here, Ostyn, author of Family Feasts for $75 a Week: A Penny-Wise Mom Shares Her Recipe for Cutting Hundreds From Your Monthly Food Bill, shares her tips for eating well for cheap.
1. Ditch prepared foods.
“One of the biggest things to do is focus on buying single-ingredient items,” says Ostyn. Instead of buying battered fish with tartar sauce, cook from scratch. The result will be healthier: You can bake the fish instead of frying and create a sauce with less added sugar. Plus, next time you want to enjoy the recipe, you’ll still have some of the ingredients in your pantry, which means the homemade meal will cost less in the long run.
2. Stake out the stores.
Ostyn finds the best deals by learning the prices of her favorite items at a few stores around town. Maybe the store by your house has the best-priced produce, but a store near your work sells cheaper cuts of meat. Buy select items from each to save the most money. “If you keep an eye out for a month or two, you’ll start to notice trends,” she says. You don’t have to stop at three stores in a day, but if you’re near one, pop in and check out some prices. Or read the weekly circulars you find in the mail or on the store’s website. Don’t forget about ethnic grocers. Often the produce sold there is much more economical, as are traditional ingredients.
3. Consider all types of produce.
Fresh produce is great, but it’s also often expensive, especially when it’s shipped out of season. Ostyn sticks with the fruit and veggies that are typically the cheapest year-round: apples, bananas, oranges, carrots, cabbage, onions, and potatoes. Specialty fruit (think pomegranates, kiwi, and mangoes) may be delicious and healthy, but you’ll pay for their exotic connotation. Another way Ostyn saves on produce is by buying frozen fruit and veggies.
4. Limit your shopping trips.
Stopping at the grocery store multiple times a week to pick up food for dinner is a great way to spend money. Each time you go to the store, the chances increase that you’ll buy something you don’t need, such as treats to fill spur-of-the-moment cravings. If you want to curb the spending, limit your grocery trips to a couple of times a month, and shop armed with a list. Ostyn has a brood to feed and manages to cook nightly even though she grocery shops only twice a month. It’s not a hard-and-fast rule, though. Ostyn will sometimes stop at the store for meat or other fresh ingredients if they’re on sale.
5. Clip coupons—or don’t.
Organized shoppers who snip out coupons can save a lot of money. The caveat: You need to, you know, use them. That’s where a lot of people trip up. But when it comes to slashing your grocery bill, cutting coupons from sales fliers isn’t a required skill. “I have tried to clip coupons in the past, but they drive me crazy,” says Ostyn. “You don’t have to use coupons to save money at the grocery store.” If you do use coupons, Ostyn warns against buying foods you don’t need.
6. Embrace generic.
Picky eaters may love name brands, but you can save a great deal by switching to store-brand products. “In many cases they are as good as brand names,” Ostyn says. “So why pay that extra money?”
7. Stay alert.
Looking for deals is part of the budget-shopping experience. If you’re constantly checking prices, you may be surprised at the deals you find. Ostyn, for instance, learned that tortillas sold in the Mexican-foods aisle of the store were cheaper than tortillas sold in a different aisle.
8. Check the unit price.
The prices you see in big numbers on store shelves can be misleading. Take, for instance, two jars of peanut butter. The 12-ounce jar is $6.99 and the 28-ounce jar is $10.50. Sure, the smaller jar costs less, but is it the best value? The best way to compare products is to look at the unit price, which will tell you cost per ounce or other unit of measurement. The cheapest unit price is the best buy. (In this case, the big jar wins easily, with the peanut butter costing 37.5 cents per ounce versus 58.25 cents for the 12-ounce jar.)