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What to buy & what to skip to save money at the supermarket

By Matthew Thompson, April 20, 2012 - 10:11am

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What to buy & what to skip to save money at the supermarket

In the last few months, my wife and I have managed to cut our grocery bill by a solid $50-$60 per week. Needless to say, that’s made a big difference in our budget—we find ourselves saving more each month and better able to do fun stuff like eat out occasionally and even go on weekend trips. It’s amazing what a difference a few extra dollars can make in your overall quality of life.

It’s important to note that we’ve done all this without feeling like we’ve been making any major sacrifices at the supermarket. After all: what good is a bit of extra enjoyment in one part of your life when it means cutting all of the pleasure out of another?

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So what did we do? Well, it all comes down to the specific decisions you make in grocery store aisles (and some you make before you even get there). By selecting the right things to put in your cart and the right ones to put back on the shelf, you can painlessly slash big bucks from your grocery bills.

Here’s my simple guide to what to buy and what to skip to save money at the grocery store:

BUY: Whole Foods
SKIP: Processed Foods

It makes sense: whole foods in their raw, unprocessed form are generally cheaper than foods that companies have put work into processing. As such, it makes sense to reach for unprocessed foods when you’re looking to save money.

There’s an easy way to make sure you’re buying mostly whole foods too. Ever notice that the produce, meat and dairy are usually located on the outside edges of the supermarket, while the processed foods are tucked in the middle? Avoid unhealthy foods by sticking to the outside edges of the store for the bulk of your shopping. If it’s not in the periphery, you probably don’t need it—with the exception of a few minimally processed healthy whole foods like whole-grain pasta or brown rice. Memorize in which aisle “exceptions” like these are located so you can go right to them instead of walking past temptations in search of them.

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BUY: The Foods on Your List
SKIP: In-Store Impulses

Making a list is crucial to a successful trip to the grocery store. Using one lets you think about what you actually need or don’t need—and helps keep you from being swayed by the bright colors and exciting promotions that marketers bombard you with. Without a list, it’s easy to add things to your cart that you don’t really need (which can be costly) or leave off things that you do.

When you’re making a list, divide your ingredients into sections (produce, dairy, etc.) as they would be presented in the grocery store. Not only will you be a more efficient shopper, but you can avoid temptation by not passing the chips and soda aisle a hundred times on your way back to fetch an ingredient you forgot to pick up.

There’s an even easier way to avoid in-store impulses, too: don’t shop hungry. Everything looks delicious when your stomach is rumbling and that makes it much harder to avoid calorie-rich convenience foods. Plan your trip after breakfast or lunch, when you’re feeling full, so you’re not battling with temptation the whole time. You’ll end up making wiser choices and not loading up your cart with “extras” that will cost you more money and calories.

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BUY: In-Season Produce
SKIP: Off-Season Splurges

Avoid choosing out-of-season produce like tomatoes in January, because that’s when you’ll likely pay big bucks for them (not to mention that the flavor will pale in comparison with what you’ll get when they’re ripe and in season at summer’s peak). Instead, in the dead of winter opt for cauliflower or chard. In the spring, reach for asparagus, artichokes and greens. Or if it makes sense with the dish you’re going to make, use the frozen variety. If you’ve got a recipe you’re dying to try with an out-of-season veggie in a starring role, save it—it’ll taste that much better when you enjoy the meal the way it’s supposed to be with beautiful in-season produce.

BUY: Vegetarian Sources of Protein
SKIP: Meat (at least a few nights a week)

Try to include a couple of vegetarian meals in your menu for the week. Skipping meat, even once or twice a week, can help save money, since meat is usually the most expensive part of a meal. It’s also healthier, since you’ll be reducing saturated fat. And you will have a lighter impact on the environment—almost one-fifth of the world’s manmade greenhouse-gas emissions are generated by the meat industry, according to the United Nations. You can save $17.33 per month if you replace 1 pound of sirloin [$5.99] with a 14-ounce block of tofu [$1.96] once a week for 30 days.

BUY: Heads of Lettuce
SKIP: Packaged Salad Mix

We love prewashed bagged and packaged salad greens because they’re convenient—and anything that makes it easier to eat your veggies is a good thing. So if time is an issue, and you know you’re going to use them soon, before they have the chance to wilt, go ahead and buy a bag or package. But since greens are more expensive that way, if you have the time try buying heads of lettuce (which often last longer in your crisper) and make your own salad mixes. Try mixing up romaine, radicchio, red leaf and/or escarole. One great way to keep your greens fresh in the fridge for as long as possible: store them in your salad spinner! Any residual moisture (the enemy of crisp greens) drips to the bottom and doesn’t touch them.

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BUY: Bulk-Bin Spices
SKIP: Jars of Spices

Spices are one of the keys to keeping food both healthy and delicious, because when you use bold flavors you don’t need as much fat. Look for a store that carries spices in bulk—the price per ounce is often less expensive. Plus you can buy a smaller amount, which helps you save in two ways: The up-front price is less. But perhaps more important, spices have a shelf life. After a year or two in your cupboard they just don’t have as much flavor. So when you buy smaller amounts, you’re less likely to have old spices sitting around that are ready for the trash can—a serious waste of money.

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BUY: On-Sale Staples
SKIP: Impulse Sale Items

Stock up on staples, such as olive oil, nuts, pasta and canned beans, when they’re on sale. They’re not likely to go bad before you use them and those sale prices can help you save money over time. Show a bit more caution, however, when it comes to sales on items you never intended to buy in the first place. Sure, that frozen pizza costs half the price it normally does, but if you weren’t planning to buy it, it’s still taking money out of your pocket.

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BUY: Whole Chickens
SKIP: Boneless, Skinless Chicken Breast

Boneless, skinless chicken breasts are super-convenient and practically fat-free, but they’re usually more expensive per pound than buying a whole chicken. Buy breasts when they’re on sale and freeze them or, to save money, buy a whole chicken and roast or grill it. Use leftovers in soups, salads or sandwiches. Whole legs, drumsticks and thighs are also less expensive than boneless, skinless breasts if you don’t have time to cut up a chicken.

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How do you save money at the grocery store? Tell us what you think below.

TAGS: Matthew Thompson, Healthy Cooking Blog, Budget meals

Matthew Thompson
Matthew Thompson is the associate food editor for EatingWell Magazine.

Matthew asks: How do you save money at the grocery store?

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