10 Tips for Saving Money on Fresh Produce
If a friend—or your mom—came into your kitchen and opened your fridge, what would you like her to find? Pints of blueberries and strawberries? A bowl of watermelon, honeydew, and pineapple that you just cut up? Maybe a crisper filled with Persian cucumbers, broccolini, Swiss chard, and eggplant, and possibly a bowl of fresh peaches, plums, and mangoes on the counter?
A refrigerator filled with gorgeous ripe produce may seem like the stuff of dreams, but it doesn’t have to be out of reach on a regular basis. In fact, embracing a few strategies can make eating plenty of fruits and vegetables an affordable reality.
It can also help to remember that spending money on produce is spending money on your health. “Investing in fresh summer produce may not seem affordable initially, but the benefits are worth it,” says Jerlyn Jones, M.S., RDN, LD, a registered dietitian nutritionist in Atlanta and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Fresh fruits and vegetables are packed with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that your body needs to fight disease and to run optimally. And while fruits and starchy vegetables such as corn and potatoes contain carbs, they also contain plenty of fiber, which slows digestion and helps you avoid post-meal blood sugar spikes.
Ready to fill your fridge with produce? Follow these strategies to bring down the costs—at the farmers’ market, the supermarket, and big-box stores.
10 Tips for Saving Money on Fresh Produce
Shop with a Purpose
If you have meals and recipes already planned for the week and hit the market with your ingredients list, you’ll buy only what you need and not waste precious dollars on unnecessary purchases. “Saving on your overall grocery bill gives you extra cash to buy good produce,” says Jeanette Pavini, a saving expert with Coupons.com. Another strategy is to check for sales first, then plan your weekly menu around them. (Look for coupons to add to the savings.) Perhaps instead of your usual apples, you snack on sale strawberries, or you hold off on making out-of-season artichokes to instead prepare grilled zucchini.
Comparison-shopping is always useful, and with phone apps you can more easily compare prices, says Pavini. “It’s worth the time to see what’s on sale where and plan a shopping list and menu.” Pavini recommends the Coupons.com app; other options are Flipp, Basket, and Grocery King. SNAP shoppers can also download the FreshEBT app to track spending, locate stores and farmers’ markets, and create a shopping list. Consider checking your store’s weekly sales online or through an app before heading out, then creating a grocery list based on what you find.
Look for the Simplest Form
Jones suggests you buy vegetables and fruits in their simplest form. “Pre-cut, prewashed, ready-to-eat, and processed foods are convenient, but often cost much more than when purchased in their basic forms,” she says. Think whole carrots over baby carrots, unshucked corn over shucked, a head of broccoli or cauliflower instead of bagged florets, or a small whole watermelon over a container of cut-up melon. If convenience does entice you to eat more fresh produce, then take a few minutes at home to wash, cut up, and store fruits and vegetables in glass containers in the fridge so they’re in sight and ready to enjoy.
Buy Only What You Need
Many supermarkets and big-box stores sell packaged produce, like big bags of potatoes and onions, or clamshells of salad greens. That’s great if the quantities match your needs, but if you don’t think you’ll use up what’s in a package, look for loose displays of items like mushrooms, peppers, apples, and potatoes and take only what you plan to use. At the farmers’ market, many farmers sell produce by weight, making it easy to buy even just one carrot or piece of fruit. You won’t overspend, and as a bonus you won’t waste food.
Buy Ugly Produce
Supermarkets favor produce that is a consistent size and shape and in slightly underripe condition, thanks to standard-pack shipping regulations. But not all produce needs to look uniform to taste good—and there are often deals to be found on so-called ugly produce. Catt Fields White, the CEO of San Diego Markets, says farmers’ markets are the original source for fruits and vegetables that don’t fit the supermarket mold. There are also companies, including Imperfect Foods (ImperfectFoods.com) and Misfits Market (MisfitsMarket.com), that will deliver “imperfect” produce to your door. At the supermarket, look for loss leaders, advises Pavini. “Some chains have racks in the back with deals on produce that may be a little bruised.” Not sure of your savings? Try an experiment and compare “perfect” produce prices at your local supermarket with “imperfect” options.
Shop at the End of the Market
At the end of many farmers’ markets, you can often get deals from farmers who would rather not pack up what they have left. Fields White says, “Those slightly limp bunches of kale or broccoli at the end of the market day will perk up nicely in a stir-fry and make delicious broccoli soup. But since they won’t be pretty enough to display at the next day’s market, you can often get them at a bit of a discount.” This can be a good time to pick up larger quantities for pickles or preserves, especially if they’re overripe.
Buy in Season
Tomatoes, berries, corn, and asparagus always cost less during the height of their growing season, especially if they’re locally grown. They often taste better too! If you love summer produce like berries or tomatoes that store well and go on sale at their peak, take advantage of the price and stock up during a sale. “When fruit is on special, buy it and freeze it,” said Pavini. “Especially if you know it’s going to go bad. I do that all the time with berries.”
Grow Your Own
Consider that $3 package of thyme you bought just to add a half-teaspoon to a fish dish. Is the rest languishing in your fridge? With even a modest balcony garden of potted herbs, you could just snip what you need and not waste the leftovers. If you have even more space, consider planting cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, or salad greens, which are all easy to grow and often far tastier than what you’ll find at the supermarket.
Partner with Friends
Want to join a CSA or warehouse store but find that they offer more food than you can use? Jones suggests you share a membership or subscription with a friend. You can either take turns doing the pickup to save time or turn it into a way to spend some time together and catch up while shopping. Splitting a larger haul from a warehouse club or CSA is especially great if you’re only cooking for one or two people.
Related: How to Get the Most Out of Your CSA
Be Friendly and Curious
Get to know your farmers, says Fields White. “Almost everybody gives a bit of a deal to their friends, so form those relationships with your local grower.” At the supermarket, get to know the produce guys and gals. They can direct you to the best quality of what you’re looking for and may even let you taste a sample now and then. Plus, as you form new relationships you may discover a surprising benefit—that shopping for produce can become a social activity in itself and can teach you all sorts of new information.
This story originally appeared in Diabetic Living Summer 2020.