When it's not financially possible for you to buy large amounts of food at a time, here's how you can minimize your visits to the supermarket.

Krissy Brady
May 01, 2020
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Credit: ArtMarie/Getty Images

It hasn't been that long (though it feels like an eternity) since health officials recommended we minimize grocery store trips and other essential errands as much as possible to help reduce the risk of spreading the novel coronavirus.

But for many people, making it happen isn't as simple as waltzing into a supermarket and stocking up on 1-2 weeks' worth of food at one time.

"Being out of work or trying to stretch your dollars makes purchasing large quantities of food quite difficult," says Brooklyn-based registered dietitian Maya Feller, RD. "Bulk purchasing generally reduces the unit price, but isn't always possible, especially when you're short on funds."

Under normal circumstances, this would simply mean popping by the grocery store to grab grub whenever you scrape the money together. But, you know, since absolutely nothing is normal these days, cutting back on errands when your budget's tight requires its very own playbook.

Here are the top strategies that experts recommend to get the job done.

1. Keep an ongoing inventory.

Once you get home from the grocery store, write down everything you bought and keep your inventory up-to-date in real-time. Maintaining a clear picture of what you have in stock will help you cut back on random trips to the store for ingredients you may not need as urgently as you think.

"As foods are consumed, cross them off and add them back onto your shopping list for your next trip to the supermarket," says Chicago-based registered dietitian Corinne Smith, RDN. "Challenge yourself not to go grocery shopping again until most of the items are gone."

A great way to make the most of the ingredients you have on hand is to sign up for a recipe builder website, such as MyFridgeFood or Supercook. These sites hook you up with recipes based on your current inventory, while also offering you a sneak peek of the myriad recipes you could make by adding a certain ingredient to your repertoire, helping you maximize your food purchases before you've even made them. We also have great recipes to use up beans, rice, spaghetti and other common pantry ingredients.

2. Stick with fruits and veggies that take longer to expire.

"When purchasing fresh produce, look for items that are in season, which will often be lower-priced," says Wisconsin-based registered dietitian Kara Hoerr, RDN. And there's no reason buying fresh has to mean additional trips to the supermarket, so long as you plan your meals around fruits and veggies that take longer to expire. (Think: carrots, cabbage, spaghetti squash, apples, potatoes, beets, onions and citrus.) Make sure to store them properly so your fresh produce can last for weeks.

3. Buy no-name versions of products you use a lot.

If you're used to buying name-brand products, you may have trouble finding your usuals mid-pandemic or need more ways to trim your spending—buying the generic version for the time being can help combat both.

"Many grocers carry their own brand of food and household items," says Smith. "You may not recognize them right away, but they'll most likely be placed near the big brands you're used to and can save you about 25% on your grocery bill."

4. Keep an eye out for good deals.

"When you see a good deal on pasta sauce, frozen veggies or anything else you know you'll use, purchase what you can of these items so you have them for later when they're no longer on sale," says Hoerr. Similarly, if you notice certain foods in the clearance section you know you'll use right away or can freeze, stock up and make the most of your budget.

5. Go halvsies with another family.

Team up with another family and combine your purchasing power. "This will allow you to make bulk purchases that you can split," says Feller. Same goes for saving on one-off purchases—if you only need one teaspoon of tomato paste or they need a pinch of red pepper flakes, swap these ingredients with each other instead of buying an entire can or bottle you know you'll barely use. Just make sure to leave groceries on their doorstep (FYI- there's no evidence to suggest that coronavirus can be transmitted through food or food packaging, as long as you practice proper social distancing and hygiene practices).

6. Cut back on convenience foods.

Buy individual ingredients and go homemade where you can. "A box of mac and cheese seems inexpensive, but if you purchase a box of pasta and a block of cheese to make your own, you'll be able to make several more servings and stretch your ingredients—and budget—that much further," says Hoerr.

7. Focus on fullness.

The more nutrient-dense your meals are, the longer they'll keep you full. This "quality over quantity" approach will likely cut down on the amount of food you'll go through per sitting. (Ditto for snacks.)

Fortunately, making your meals more satiating doesn't have to be complicated or expensive. "You can add things like nuts, seeds, beans, whole grains and oils, all of which are shelf-stable and can be purchased in bulk," says Smith.

If you're having a side salad with greens and dressing, for example, you can add in some walnuts, cooked quinoa and sunflower seeds to maximize fullness with minimal effort.

8. Get creative with your protein sources.

Protein sources tend to eat up the bulk of grocery budgets (pun totally intended). "Think of inexpensive protein sources you can purchase, and plan to use those more frequently between grocery store visits," says Hoerr. "Peanut butter, beans and eggs are all great protein sources that can be used in a variety of ways."

To stretch your meat purchases even further, use them as accents in your meals as opposed to the main attraction. Rather than turning ground beef into hamburgers, for instance, add it into a pasta or rice dish to help stretch the meal. Bulk up the meal even further by adding in chopped mushrooms, cauliflower or a can of beans. (Adding in some brown rice can help you get twice as many meals from your ground beef!)

"Also consider buying a whole chicken instead of chicken breasts or thighs, which, per pound, are costlier," says Hoerr. Then roast it in the oven and use it multiple ways throughout the week—shredded chicken tacos, barbecue chicken sandwiches, chicken noodle soup, even chicken salad sandwiches for lunch.

9. Buy more of fewer foods.

When you're mapping out your upcoming meals, focus on recipes that contain overlapping ingredients, which allows you to make more servings of meals for less money, stretching both your budget and the time between grocery store trips.

"If you're buying a whole chicken, plan a few different meals using the chicken," says Hoerr. "Or, if you're buying celery for soup, plan another meal that also uses celery (like chicken salad)." Leftovers can then be frozen to maximize your inventory even further.