Use these tips to save money and cut down on waste at the grocery store and beyond.

Jessica Ball, M.S., R.D.
March 01, 2020
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Getty Images/Katrina Wittkamp

Welcome to Thrifty. A weekly column where assistant nutrition editor and registered dietitian, Jessica Ball, keeps it real on how to grocery shop on a budget, make healthy meals for one or two, and make earth-friendly choices without overhauling your entire life.

Let's face it, the grocery store doesn't necessarily lend itself to those shopping for one (or two). It can seem like you have to chose between eating healthy and potentially wasting perishable foods, or playing it safe with packaged alternatives that may be less nutritious. Especially if you're on a budget, shopping for one can be challenging. But there are a few ways to beat the system. During my time in college and since, I have figured out ways to hack my weekly grocery shop to get the most bang for my buck without feeling like what I'm buying is going to end up in the garbage. These tips will help you save money at the store, cut down on food waste and still eat healthy without breaking the bank.

Related: 10 Things I Wish I Knew Before Cooking More At Home

1. Have a Plan

My best piece of advice is simple: make a plan. When I plan for my week of meals, I start by checking what I already have. If there is anything I need to use up (like the endless supply of cabbage I am currently getting from my CSA), I'll make a recipe around that ingredient. From there, I plan dinners for the remainder of the week and make a list of ingredients I need to make it happen. Beyond dinner, I also make a rough plan for a meal-prepped grab-and-go breakfast and an easy lunch, which usually comes from leftovers from the night before. Lastly, I'll add in some quick snacks to my grocery list, like fruit, nuts, hummus and vegetables, so I don't get stuck hungry one afternoon and end up spending $10 on a smoothie.

2. Shop the Sales

Leave some wiggle room on your list to shop the sales. I always write "fruit" generally, instead of specific fruits, so that I can opt for citrus, fruits or berries that are marked down. The same is true for nuts and snacking vegetables, like carrots, celery or cucumber. Some grocers even offer specific store- or section-wide sales on specific days of the week, so be sure to check in with your local store for sneaky savings.

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3. BYO Bags & Containers

Though this may not necessarily save you money (although some stores offer reimbursement if you bring your own bags and some stores charge for bags), it is helpful to remember your own bags. It saves resources and waste, and with how ubiquitous reusable bags are there is really no reason not to have a few stockpiled in your car. I love these reusable bags that fold up small enough to fit in a purse (buy it: from $21.99 for 6, Amazon.com). If your store offers bulk bins, plan ahead and bring your own plastic or glass containers too (or reuse the containers they provide).

4. Cut It in Half

I'm going to let you in on a little industry secret: most grocery stores allow you to get large produce items, like cabbage or melons, cut in half or quartered if you do not want to purchase the whole item. Another hot tip—you don't need to buy a huge bag of grapes if your store sells them by the pound. You can separate out what you want. Just take a couple bananas, even if there are only big bunches (you're allowed to break some off). Purchasing smaller quantities off the bat is a great way to reduce food waste. Ask someone in the produce section to see the options your store offers.

5. Only Opt for Organic Sometimes

I'm a dietitian and I want you to know that, especially if you're on a budget, you do not need to purchase everything organic. The jury is still out on whether there are significant health benefits of going organic. Regarding the environment, there is some compelling research that it might promote farms' biodiversity, soil health and resource management over the long term, but more studies are needed to come to a conclusion. Because organic foods are usually pricier than conventional foods, I split the difference to shop responsibly while staying within my means. Check out these 12 foods (affectionately known as the "Dirty Dozen") that you should opt for organic when you can, and these "Clean 15" foods where conventional is just as good.

6. Learn to Love the Bulk Bins

I am a big fan of bulk bins. They may seem intimidating at first, but they are one of the best ways to get high-quality foods and spices for dollars cheaper than pre-portioned alternatives. Along with spices, I go to the bulk bins for many of my staple grocery items. At my local co-op (City Market), I can buy coffee, grains, flour, nuts, nut butters and even tofu and some cheeses from the bulk bins. It is pretty game-changing (for the planet and your wallet) to be able to take only as much as you know you will use. There are usually sales that vary each week, which helps me save additional money and try something new. Bring your own containers to be a waste-free pro.

Pictured Recipe: Tuna, White Bean & Dill Salad

7. Buy Canned Goods

From fish to tomatoes, canned goods are some of the staples I always keep on hand. Where it doesn't make a difference for the recipe, I almost always opt for canned. They don't go bad, and they are super cheap (especially if you buy them in bulk at Costco or when they go on sale). Plus, canned fish like sardines are a great sustainable seafood choice because they are low on the food chain, sustainably caught and high in omega-3s and other nutrients. Contrary to popular belief, canned goods are just as nutritious as fresh, so long as you're watching the added sodium. Try to choose canned goods that say "No Salt Added" on the label, and rinse foods like beans well before using to reduce the sodium.

8. Go For Frozen

Similar to canned foods, I choose frozen for foods like berries, some vegetables and meats because they won't go bad as quickly as the fresh alternative and are much cheaper. In fact, produce is typically picked at peak ripeness and flash-frozen, so it may even be more nutritious than their fresh counterparts that ripen in a truck or on a shelf. For more, check out this comparison of fresh and frozen vegetables, with tips on how to make frozen veggies delicious. Another way I save money and cut down on waste is by slicing and freezing my bread. It is hard as one person to get through a loaf before it goes stale on the counter, so freezing bread keeps it fresh for as long as I need it to be. To be a sustainability pro, consider freezing veggie scraps in a gallon bag to make homemade stock that is no-cost, waste-free and will elevate your soup game.

9. Make Things From Scratch

One of the best ways to cut down on food cost is to make things from scratch. Though it does take some extra time and planning, it is well worth it for the savings and added flavor. I always make homemade hummus and salad dressings, which allows me to experiment with seasonings and get the taste just the way I want it. As mentioned above, making things like veggie stock from scraps is free and allows you to repurpose what would be food waste. If you want to take it a step further, you can try making things that are more advanced like sourdough bread, tortillas and pizza dough from scratch. Once you get into the habit, you might not even miss the store-bought versions.

10. Store Foods Correctly

This doesn't directly relate to your trip to the store, but storing things correctly will help you slash your food bill. Not only will foods last longer so you don't have to buy them as often, but also you will cut down on the food you throw away, which is wasted money, time and resources. Keep herbs in a cup of water to keep them lively for longer. Slice and freeze your bread. Store onions, garlic and ginger in a brown paper bag in a dark, dry place. Know what fruits and vegetables to refridgerate and what to keep on the shelf. A little education in food storage goes a long way—you can thank me later.

Bottom Line

Saving money and cutting down on waste starts with what's in your cart at the grocery store. Though it is more work on the front end, making a plan will help you get the most value for your dollar. These tips will help you shop for one like a grocery store pro, all while saving money, eating healthy and making earth-friendly choices.

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