With food prices soaring, even staples such as bread, milk, and eggs are causing shoppers to dig deeper. How can we shop for nutritious, low-fat foods without breaking the bank?
Realistically, it's just not feasible for most people to spend upwards of $10 on a bottle of cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil to take advantage of its purported heart-healthy benefits, or to shell out $15 for a pound of fresh halibut. Organic arugula? Just not a priority.
Before we stock up on ramen noodles and boxed mac and cheese or eat off the dollar menu at our local burger joint, we can shave dollars off our weekly grocery bill in other ways--yet still eat healthy, nutritious, low-fat food. It mostly boils down to:
- Meal planning
- Sticking to a shopping list
- Keeping an eye out for special offers
- Shopping by yourself if possible
- Not setting out with an empty stomach.
How to Begin
- Decide ahead of time what you plan to eat for the week. Make a list of the ingredients. Check which ones you have on hand, and which ones you'll need to buy. I'll often throw a package of something in my cart only to find I had three or four them hidden at the back of my pantry. If I'd checked my supplies, I could have avoided unnecessary expense.
- While evaluating your needs, use the opportunity to search for items in the pantry and refrigerator that are past their use-by date. Don't take risks with meat, but unopened dairy products are usually good for up to a week after their sell-by date. However, if something smells bad or tastes bad, toss it. Organize your pantry and refrigerator so that perishable foods with the shortest sell-by dates are closest to the front. It will help reduce the amount of food you throw out each week.
- Check to see whether any of the items you need are on sale or have special offers, through coupons, or discounts offered to store cardholders. Check inserts, flyers, online grocery coupons, even junk mail envelopes for potential savings. Don't cut coupons for items you wouldn't normally buy. Put the coupons you want to use in your purse.
- Omit less-healthy treats and snacks from your lists, such as packaged cookies, cakes, and chips. Many packaged baked goods still contain hydrogenated oils or are being replaced with saturated fats such as palm oil or coconut oil. If you want cookies and cakes, it's cheaper to make your own; plus, you'll have control over the amount of fat and sugar you use.
- When planning your meals for the week, consider going meatless for at least two evenings, substituting either fish or beans for meat. You'll save both fat calories and dollars.
What to Buy
- Meat: Eat red meat only occasionally. Unfortunately, lean and extra-lean varieties tend to be more expensive than fattier cuts. Filet mignon is probably not going to be on your menu, but extra-lean or lean ground beef might be. Consider buying larger packs of meat, so the unit cost is lower. Use what you need for your planned meal, then freeze the rest. Plus, if a recipe calls for a pound of lean ground beef, consider using only 3/4 of a pound instead. Your meat will stretch further, and you'll reduce the amount of fat in your meals. Lean cuts of meat like the round also tend to be tough cuts. These cook beautifully in the slow cooker, so you can still enjoy relatively inexpensive, fork-tender meat. Again, use meat sparingly so that it accents your meal rather than dominates it.
- Poultry: Boneless, skinless chicken breasts can be very expensive. These will be a good item to buy in larger quantities if you have space. The unit cost of buying chicken in a larger package will be less than choosing a package with just two chicken breasts or selecting them piece by piece from the meat counter. Buy plain chicken breasts rather than pre-seasoned or marinated chicken. Occasionally a whole chicken is cheaper than buying a pound pack of chicken breasts. Roast the chicken and remove the skin before eating it. Use leftovers in soups or sandwiches.
Chicken thighs are cheaper than chicken breasts, and so long as you opt for the skinless variety, you won't consume a significant amount of extra fat. Thigh meat is rich, so you don't need as much of it.
- Fish: Some fish can be expensive, so see if there are any good deals on fresh varieties. Tilapia and sole are relatively cheap. If the cost is prohibitive, choose frozen fish fillets or fish steaks. Opt for plain fillets rather than breaded or marinated fish. Plain fillets are lower in fat, sodium, and other additives. If fresh fish happens to be on sale, buy some for today and some for your freezer.
- Beans: Beans are a cheap and wonderful alternative source of protein. Canned beans may seem reasonably cheap, but you can get more bang for your buck if you buy dried beans and cook them yourself. Plus, canned beans are usually high in sodium. Bags of lentils are also relatively inexpensive.
- Dairy: If money is tight, then you won't want to pay extra for organic low-fat milk. Buy what you can afford for drinking, and consider buying milk powder for baking. Nonfat and low-fat milk should be no more expensive than whole milk or 2 percent milk. Buy blocks of reduced-fat cheese and grate it yourself rather than buying packs of pre-shredded cheese. Again, reduced-fat cheese shouldn't be more expensive than regular cheese.
Buy stronger flavor cheeses over milder ones, and use smaller amounts. You'll get the flavor for fewer calories, and your cheese supply will last longer. Pre-sliced cheese is more expensive than blocks. Slice your own!
Light ice cream, which shouldn't be more expensive than regular ice cream, should still be an occasional treat, not an everyday dessert, so buy as large a container as you can fit in your freezer, and enjoy it once a week. Stick to a half cup serving size, and the tub will stretch further!
- Fruits and Vegetables: Yes, fresh produce can be expensive, but if you're cutting back on processed snacks and non-essential packaged foods, you can afford some fresh fruit and veggies. Snacking on carrots, bell peppers, and broccoli rather than salty fat-filled crackers and chips is so much better for you. Buy whole carrots and cut them into pieces or shred them yourself. Pre-cut veggies, while convenient, are an expensive way to buy them.
Same goes for fruit. Cut cantaloupe or pineapple is much more expensive than buying the whole fruit. Plus, some of the vitamins may be lost if the cut items have been sitting around for a while.
Buy in season. Asparagus in November is going to be expensive, but much less so in April and May. Cherries in February are not even worth considering, but much more affordable in June. Don't buy packaged salad mixes or even bagged pre-washed lettuce. Buy lettuce by the head. Check out farmers markets for some good deals on fresh, local produce.
When it comes to apples and oranges, it does pay to buy the bagged version rather than the loose variety.
Eat frozen fruit and veggies. Frozen vegetables can be a very economical way of getting some of your 5-9 servings. Stock up on peas, green beans, chopped frozen spinach, sweet corn, and squash.
Consider growing your veggies. Growing some tomatoes, zucchini and a few herbs here and there can make a difference.
- Canned and Packaged Goods: Store brands are cheaper than named brands, from pasta to cereal. Choose low-sodium canned goods, water-packed meat or tuna, and water-packed or low-sugar canned fruit. Canned tomatoes are a great bargain, as they can be used in so many recipes. Buy whole-grain rice and pasta in large packages instead of small boxes. It helps, too, if you stick to serving sizes, then your pasta and rice will last much longer.
- Condiments: These tend to be more occasional purchases. Buy as large a bottle as you can use/afford.
- Beverages: Do you need bottled water? Skip the soda and sugary juice drinks. Spend your money on nutritious drinks like milk.