Being prepared before heading to the store is the best way to make sure you stick to your grocery shopping budget. But there are also some strategies to keep in mind and ingredients to keep an eye out for at the store to make budget shopping easier and more enjoyable. Here are some of our favorite ways to save while shopping—and still load up on delicious and healthy food.
Pictured Recipe: Simple Green Salad with Citronette
Sure, bagged salad mixes are convenient (and anything that makes it easier to eat your veggies is a good thing), but they're expensive and can go from crisp and fresh to wilted to downright slimy in a heartbeat. Opt for buying heads of lettuce instead, and make your own mixes. Try mixing up romaine, radicchio, red leaf, escarole or any other head lettuce that's looking fresh. You can store your mix in a gallon zip-close bag in your crisper. The key to longevity? After you wash and cut your greens, make sure they're completely dry before returning them to the fridge.
Buying food at the grocery store is only half the battle. In order to get the most bang for your buck, you have to know how to store it once you get it through the door. If you're a fruit lover, you should know that some fruits (apples for example) emit ethylene gas that can ripen (or over-ripen) the neighboring fruits in the fruit basket. Being on top of how quickly your fruit is ripening and moving it to the fridge or away from its hyper-ripening neighbors can help cut down on food waste.
Spices are key to keeping your meals delicious and healthy. They offer up bold flavors so you can back on added salt and sugar. The downsides are that they can be expensive and they have a shelf life. After a year or two of just sitting around, they don't retain their flavor well. For spices that you tend to use less often, consider buying them from the bulk section—the price per ounce is often less expensive, and you can buy just what you need. That way you're less likely to have old spices sitting around that are ready for the trash can—a serious waste of money.
Organic produce tends to cost more than conventional produce. If exposure to potential pesticides is something that concerns you yet you still want to save money, knowing which foods have the highest levels of contamination (and which have the least) can help you make the choice between organic and conventional produce and ultimately help you save money. Each year, the Environmental Working Group puts out a list of the highest and lowest offenders. Strawberries, spinach and kale topped the list of worst offenders last year, while avocados, sweet corn and pineapple were the cleanest. Check out The Dirty Dozen: 12 Foods You Should Buy Organic and 15 Foods You Don't Need to Buy Organic to help tailor your shopping list.
Warehouse club stores, like Costco or Sam's Club, are an investment up front, usually charging around $45-$60 for a one-year membership. While throwing down money just to walk in the door doesn't sound like a great cash-saving strategy, it can pay off in the long run, especially if you focus your shopping efforts on staples like extra-virgin olive oil, nuts, dried fruit and pasta. These items can often be half the price of the same product at a conventional grocery store. Sure, you have to buy more to save, but staples get used up quickly. Plus, if you know how to store them properly (olive oil in a cool, dry place, nuts in the freezer) they will stay fresher longer.
Pictured recipe: Thai Tofu & Vegetable Curry with Zucchini Noodles
Meat is expensive. You can save money, expand your cooking repertoire and lighten your environmental footprint by opting to eat vegetarian or vegan once a week—or more often. Russet potatoes cost a mere $0.99 per pound and are easy to stuff or roast, while a 16-ounce block of firm tofu comes in at around $2. Enjoy eggs for breakfast (you can easily find them for around $2 a dozen) and, next thing you know, you'll be swimming in savings.
Related: Our Best Vegetarian Recipes
It used to be that store-brand products were at the bottom of the barrel in terms of quality (and price), but luckily times have changed and store brands are meeting the standards of big-name brands while still keeping their prices low. Entire grocery store chains have dedicated themselves to their own store brands (think Trader Joe's and Aldi) and have become hugely popular with consumers wanting savings on their grocery bills. If you don't have a specialty store in your area, most large-chain grocers have their own store brands for less too.
Pictured recipe: Basic Herb Pesto
Fresh herbs are pricy. But as with spices, we would never say to skip them—they're key to making your food taste great. Look for combination packages of fresh herbs; they may be labeled "poultry mix" and typically contain a couple of different herbs, such as rosemary, thyme and marjoram. That way you get a bit of a few different herbs and you'll likely have less waste. Growing your own fresh herbs is another great option and easy to do even if you live in a smaller space. Many herbs need just a small pot and a bright windowsill to grow. And, though the flavors will be slightly different, you can replace fresh herbs in a recipe with dried. The rule of thumb is to follow is a three-to-one fresh-to-dried ratio. So if a recipe calls for 1 tablespoon (i.e., 3 teaspoons) of fresh thyme, use 1 teaspoon of dried. Rosemary, oregano, sage and thyme are good bets when going from fresh to dry. Avoid making swaps with cilantro, parsley or chives as those dried herbs don't carry much flavor.
Related: How to Preserve Fresh Herbs
At about 50 cents or less for a ½-cup serving of canned beans, you just can't go wrong. They're packed with fiber and protein and, when prepared well, they're also delicious—just check out our Healthy Recipes That Start with a Can of Chickpeas for more than dozen wonderful ways to use one of our favorite legumes. We always keep cans of beans such as chickpeas, black beans, pinto beans and cannellini in the cupboard and whip them out to use in salads, pasta, stir-fries, soups, dips and sandwiches. Dried beans are even less expensive than canned and cook up easily. If you plan on cooking dried beans on the regular, you may want to invest in a pressure cooker such as an Instant Pot or a multicooker. You can skip the time spent soaking and have most beans done in under an hour. And don't forget to freeze any extras!
Related: Healthy Recipes with Beans
Whole grains are a staple of many healthy diets—like the Mediterranean diet—and luckily they're readily available. Whole grains like brown rice and barley are easy to find, and cheap too, while "fancier" grains like quinoa and farro tend to be a little more expensive. We wouldn't want you to miss out on these delicious whole grains, so we recommend buying them from the bulk section. This way you can buy exactly what you need without wasting a thing.
Related: How to Cook Whole Grains
Pictured recipe: Cauliflower Rice-Stuffed Peppers
Meatloaf, meatballs, burgers. They all start with ground beef, which is a good thing since ground beef is as budget-friendly as it is versatile—tacos, stuffed peppers and spaghetti sauce are just a few more places to put ground beef to work. To keep it on the healthy side, opt for 90% lean or leaner. You can buy ground beef by the pound, or prepackaged. Sometimes ground beef is cheaper per pound the more you buy. Compare prices between prepackaged ground beef in the 1- to 2-pound range with "family packs" that come in the 3-pound range. You may be able to save 10 to 20 cents per pound by buying more. You can freeze the rest and save yourself money and a trip to the store next time you need it.
Related: Healthy Ground Beef Recipes
Pictured recipe: Air-Fryer Rotisserie Chicken
Boneless, skinless chicken breasts are convenient and popular, but they're usually the most expensive way to buy chicken. To save money, buy a whole chicken and roast or grill it (or cook it in your air fryer if you have one). Use leftovers in soups, salads or sandwiches. Whole legs, drumsticks and thighs are also good bets if you don't have time to cut up a chicken, and they're usually less expensive than chicken breasts. While white meat has fewer calories (140 calories per 3-ounce serving versus 152 calories), dark meat has its benefits too—it's higher in iron, zinc and B vitamins.
Pictured recipe: Easy Salmon Cakes
Studies show that eating seafood twice a week can reduce your risk of heart disease. But it's also not cheap. Your best bet may be to buy frozen fish. It's often less expensive, and you can defrost it when you're ready to use it so you know it's fresh. Just like their fresh and frozen counterparts, canned fish like salmon and tuna provide omega-3 fats, which help keep your heart healthy by lowering triglycerides and blood pressure, and they're a less expensive way to reap the benefits of seafood. Need inspiration? Think beyond mayo and celery. Try giving tuna an Asian twist with Sesame Tuna Salad or use canned salmon to make recipes like the easy salmon cakes pictured above.
In the dead of winter, when fresh produce isn't at its peak, we turn to frozen. Frozen vegetables are nutritious (and tasty) because they're picked at the peak of ripeness and then frozen to seal in their nutrients. And, a bonus: most of them don't have added sodium like canned vegetables often do. Plus they're relatively inexpensive, especially when compared with their "fresh" counterparts out of season. Another selling point: unlike with fresh, you can load up on frozen fruits and vegetables without worrying about them going bad.
If the weather is warm and the produce is bountiful, know this: winter is coming. Think ahead and stock up on your favorite fruits and veggies while they're at their peak and freeze them for later. Not only is your freezer great for frozen vegetables, it also lets you take advantage of low prices when you find them. Also consider stocking up on the meat and seafood you like when you find it on sale.
Related: How to Freeze 16 Fruits and Vegetables
With these budget shopping tips, you'll be eating healthy and delicious meals and saving money too. It's a win-win-win.