Thursday, July 18, 2013

Healthy and Affordable Grocery Shopping

Organic mangos 3 for $1.00 (in season)

I remember watching a documentary a while back about unhealthy foods in America.  In one of the scenes, a family is interviewed in a supermarket.  I do not remember the specifics, only that the mother expressed concern about how to make healthy choices for her family when an apple and a hamburger are the same price. People seem to be under the impression that eating healthy costs more than eating unhealthy.  Perhaps this misconception can be attributed to high-end retailers like Whole Foods Market, or maybe it is due to expensive weight loss programs selling value-added prepared meals.  Whatever the reason, it just does not have to be true.

When I was discussing this topic with a friend, he pointed out that (brown) rice and beans are some of the cheapest things to buy and some of the best for you.  I thought that this was a very good point, especially when the products are purchased in bulk. In regards to the apple that was discussed in the documentary, sure, if you are buying an apple from a grocery store in Alaska in the middle of January, it is probably going to cost you a pretty penny.  If you were to buy the same apple from a farmer in central Washington in September, you probably aren't going to pay very much at all.  It is all about knowing where to buy what, and when to buy it.

Here are a few of the tricks that I use to keep my family eating healthy at affordable prices:

  • I always buy beans, lentils, and whole grains from the bulk bins at the supermarket.  You can get almost a pound of dried beans in the bulk bins for the cost of a single can off the shelf.  The dried beans also do not contain all of the sodium and preservatives you will find in cans.

  • I use a lot of spices in my cooking to add flavor to low fat recipes.  Jarred spices are very expensive, that is why I always buy loose spices from the bulk spice section in the grocery store.  Bulk spice departments can be found in most natural food stores, organic sections in conventional grocery stores, as well as in local tea/spice shops.  If you do not have access to a bulk spice department, spices can be bought for reasonable prices at ethnic markets, Trader Joe's, Costco or from various online retailers.

  • I look at the ads for my local grocery stores every week, and I stock up on my favorite products when they are on sale.  I also use the sales ads to help determine what meals I am going to prepare for the week.  If you don’t receive weekly grocery ads, look online, even small family run grocery stores usually put specials on their websites.

  • I try to use produce that is in season.  Not only does it taste better, it is a lot more affordable.  To find out what is in season in your area, check the grocery store ads for produce specials, check out what is available at your local farmer's market, or do a quick search on the internet.

  • Ethnic markets are a great source of low-priced produce. Eggplants, for example, are six for $1 at my local Mediterranean market.

  • I only buy the amount of food I need for the week.  I am always amazed how much food people waste.  I buy extras of things that are on sale only if I am sure that I will use them, and they are shelf stable or can easily be frozen.

  • I don’t waste anything.  If I have a few stalks of celery leftover in the fridge, I will toss them into a stir fry or soup that I am making.  I am always poking around the fridge looking for things that need to be used up.  I figure if I don’t find a way to use up that milk, it is just money down the drain.

  • I don’t spend money on pre-made products that can easily be made at home.  The best example of this is salad dressing, which can be made quickly from things you already have on hand like vinegars, oils, mustards, honey, jams, herbs and spices.

  • I shop at discount stores that sell products that have slight mistakes in packaging, out of date packaging or that did not sell well at conventional grocery stores. These stores often have a great selection of natural/organic products (Kashi, Bear Naked, Bob’s Red Mill, Cascadian Farms) for a reduced price.  On the West Coast we have Grocery Outlet, and I’m sure that other parts of the U.S. have something similar.  Stores like TJ Maxx/Marshalls/HomeGoods often have great buys on balsamic vinegars and olive oil (even my foodie uncle buys his vinegar at TJ Maxx).

  • I pay attention to which stores have which items for a good value.  For example,  I know that Trader Joe’s has good prices on bananas, but it is a lousy place to buy most other fruits.  You don’t need to have every grocery store memorized, just know where to get the basic things you buy on a weekly basis.

My husband and I eat three healthy meals from home, six days a week, and we spend about $50 a week on groceries.  We save a lot of money by cooking at home, eating leftovers and practicing smart shopping habits.  I hope these tips can help your family as well!