Hello! How are you doing in your journeys to healthy eating? I’ve heard from many of you (especially in our Healthy Eating Facebook group) and I know we’re all at different stages – some are just starting and some have been eating healthy for years. What we all have in common is the desire to continue in a healthy lifestyle. This is sometimes hard, no matter what stage you’re in, when we’re faced daily with temptations, time crunches, and tiredness that always seem so close to derailing our goals! So, how about some shopping tips and encouragement?
So far in this healthy eating series I’ve talked about what is healthy eating for our family and shared recipes for healthy soups, stews, slow cooker meals, and healthy main dishes. For this article, I’m sharing some tips to help you grocery shop with an eye towards healthiness and without busting the budget. We’ll cover:
- Ways to keep your food bill down while eating healthy.
- How to shop smart.
- Specific recommendations for filling your pantry with good foods.
About five years ago I wrote a couple of posts titled, Can Healthy Food Be Frugal? In them I detailed my previous year of major couponing that led to us having things in our house that I hadn’t had in years (all in the quest for “the deal”), how I felt about a lot of food issues being raised at that time, and balance. Basically, I came to this conclusion:
The healthiest way to eat on a budget is to cook as many things from scratch as possible, while buying what you can organic, and staying away from junk as much as possible.
Which is pretty much in line with Michael Pollan’s (author of In Defense of Food) famous phrase:
“Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.”
Since then I have continued to refine how I shop, (which I think will always be a process) discovering how to eat the food we want, where it’s important to splurge, and how to keep our food budget in check.
Shopping tips to keep your food bill low AND eat healthy:
- Plan ahead. Menu planning is probably my #1 savings strategy AND how to consistently eat heatlhy! I plan the menu around what I have in the house and what’s on sale and then make a shopping list, sticking to it as much as possible.
- Compromise. I have had to compromise – we do not live in an area where it’s cheaper to buy meat directly from a farmer, for example, so we’ve bought part of a cow a couple times and purchase the best we can afford at the store the rest of the time.
- Buy in bulk. Buy things like oats, flour, chips, peanut butter, oats and more in bulk.
- Raise more yourself. Most all of our summer produce plus frozen beans, corn, & berries, canned tomatoes & tomato sauce, and more for the year comes from our organic garden. Even if you don’t have room or time to do that much, any bit you can do will help – start with a 3×6′ raised bed and grow lettuce, tomatoes, and herbs. If you have room for chickens or other farm animals, you’re even better off.
- Make more from scratch. Especially easy things to replace packaged “pantry basics” like dressings, granola bars, breads, even crackers sometimes.
- Plan where to shop. I’ve read some real food advocates talk about never setting foot in a regular supermarket again – and that’s great if you have the luxury of places to buy food all year long that is’t expensive. We don’t, and I don’t think many others do, either. So I choose to shop at stores/markets that have reasonably priced, quality food available like Trader Joes, Costco, Fred Meyers (our Kroger affiliated store which has a terrific rewards program that gives fuel points and a money-back gift card quarterly!), and Grocery Outlet.
- Consider the time factor. Shopping weekly (vs. one store monthly previously) was a way I helped our budget when I first started trying to save on food – it helps you take advantage of sales and buy fresh produce more. But I have a lot less time to shop now than when the kids were younger, so I’ve had to modify this, shopping just 2-3 times a month (each time hitting a different store) and using online subscription services like Amazon Subscribe and Save (which you can read about here) and ePantry (which I explained here).
For an example, here’s what my monthly shopping tends to look like now:
- 1st week: Costco, Amazon items arrive
- 2nd week: Fred Meyers
- 3rd & 4th weeks: Grocery Outlet (vitamins, produce, cheeses, & organic items), Trader Joe’s (we buy just a few regular items there, so squeeze this in when we’re in town for something else), DariMarket (our little local store where we buy milk and items we run out of) and sometimes Rite Aid for personal items I didn’t get from my online sources.
- Every other month: ePantry items arrive (laundry & kitchen supplies mainly), visit the bulk bins at WinCo (spices, dry beans, some baking ingredients)
I don’t visit farmer’s markets regularly because I’m able to grow our produce and the other items tend to be pretty expensive – and there’s the time factor involved.
How to shop smart at grocery stores and avoid temptations:
- Stick mainly to the edges of the store, leaving the center aisles alone, except for items on your list (so, no wandering up and down every aisle…).
- If you have money in your budget to splurge, do it in the produce aisle or meat aisle.
- Think about how your family eats, their likes and dislikes and choose items they’ll eat (vs. what you think they should – stick with the produce they like, introducing them slowly to others), so you’re not tempted to pick up takeout or microwave a frozen pizza.
- Avoid foods that contain more than five ingredients, artificial ingredients, or ingredients you can’t pronounce.
- Start thinking about what your grocery cart looks like. Aim for a cart like our dinner plates should be portioned: 50% vegetables, 25% grains & 25% proteins.
- Be wary of the “natural” label – it’s not regulated and doesn’t mean anything.
Here’s my biggest issue with grocery stores: the amount of food – cheap, who-knows-whats-in-it food – boggles my mind. Literally. A large bag of candy (unwrapped now, so you can shove more in…) or snack mix for $1. So many flavors of chips you just have to try. Your favorite holiday treat, that seems to come around monthly now.
As long as the number of items and new products are so vast (which is a major shift since the 1970’s) we will have an obesity problem and people with health issues, whether they come with extra weight or not. So be vigilant – stay out of the stores unless you’re armed with a plan, list, and your best mood. I have come to view it like a mini war – we have to be on guard, always with our main goal in mind: living healthy, simplified lives so we can enjoy our lives without the burden and stress of extra weight or preventable medical problems.
What do you think – ever feel bombarded when shopping? What tips can you share to save money while shopping healthy?
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