We’ve all been there. We want to start eating healthier so we decide we’re going to meal prep and buy all our groceries on Sunday rather than throw down tons of money on French toast and 10 mimosas with our friends. This is all too familiar to me. I used to grocery shop like my parents did, spending hundreds of dollars on food thinking I was doing right, only to throw half of the food away and waste money. It’s a tough battle, so I want to give you some tips and tricks on how to save money at the grocery store while still eating healthy.
I learned a lot about grocery shopping as a child. My parents and I always went to the store with a list of items to buy. As soon as we got home and started to put the groceries away, my mom would start cooking and my dad gave me the receipt so I could add up all the items we were using for dinner that night. After I was done with my fair share (which was usually two or three plates plus whatever my mom and dad didn’t eat) my dad asked, “Well, how much was the total bill for dinner?” I did all the math and found, for example, that our total meal was around $20 that night and the eight total servings we cooked equated to $2.50 a plate.
I didn’t realize until much later when I moved out and started supporting myself that this lesson was invaluable. Not only did I learn that I eat enough to feed an entire household, but I knew exactly how to meal prep in a way that would keep both my stomach and my wallet happy.
After many years of stupidly spending more than $600 a month on groceries, I didn’t even finish, I began to wonder how cheap I could eat for a month while applying the same macronutrient principles to my diet. By making a few simple changes to my shopping list, I was able to knock my bill from $600 a month to $120 — without changing the amount of food I ate. Here are five tips that helped me cut my grocery bill down and still eat healthily.
1. Buy large, cheap cuts of meat
I don’t mean that you need to buy a full cow (although that’s the best way to save some coin) but rather than buying steak, go with chuck roasts, rump roasts, or beef cheeks. And choose to buy whole chickens instead of boneless skinless chicken breast. Don’t get me wrong, I love nothing more than to crush a 24-ounce bone-in dry aged rib-eye, but for the purposes of saving money on your groceries, choose a high-quality grass-fed cheaper cut and find a way to make it flavorful. Do this and you could save up to $15 per pound of meat, which is a huge saving when you eat as much meat as I do.
Still not convinced? Think about it this way. A restaurant doesn’t make the best margins on the high-quality items such as a bone-in rib-eye, but rather on specials such as braised beef cheek with a parsnip puree and roasted baby potatoes. This dish seems exotic and unique, but in fact, the beef cheek is one of the cheapest cuts of beef you can buy.
2. If the produce isn’t in season, buy it frozen
Growing up with a couple of master gardeners also allowed my family to have a large garden, big enough that we could probably have harvested the produce and taken it to the farmers market. But instead, we grew enough to feed all our friends and family. We now live in a time when food is more available than it ever has been. For example, if you live in the Pacific Northwest you can buy lemons year round, and I’m not sure if you know this, but lemons don’t grow for shit in the Northwest. But nonetheless, you can still go down to your neighborhood grocery store and buy lemons anytime you want. However, if it’s not peak lemon season, you’re paying a premium for lemons grown in South America that don’t taste nearly as good, not because they’re from South America, but because of transportation cost and shelf time.
In-season produce is always cheaper than something out of season because it costs so much less to harvest and transport. So if you’re looking for a fruit or vegetable that isn’t in season, like mango or Brussels sprouts, look for it in the frozen section. It will be cheaper and just as tasty because it was likely ripe or in-season when it was frozen and packaged.
3. Save money (and support your communities) by buying local
I realize not everyone has the luxury of living in a state that is prosperous with fresh produce, but do your best. Always buy the fruits and vegetables that are in season and local; not only will your food taste better but it’s exponentially cheaper. If a farmer has thousands of tomatoes, he has a limited window at which he can sell them, so when he has a surplus it will be much cheaper than if he had much less quantity. By the way, have you ever had a tomato when it’s not in season or bitten into a mushy apple? Buy it straight from the local, in-season source and I guarantee it will change your world.
4. Cook in large quantities
I love to cook, but that doesn’t mean I want to do it every day. I may only be feeding one person but I don’t want to come home after a long day and always have to cook dinner for myself. I grocery shop two days a week and also use those days to cook large quantities of food that will last me throughout the rest of the week.
In order to be effective at this, evaluate how much you eat and how often. For example, I know I’ll eat 12-16 ounces of protein and at least a half pound of vegetables in one sitting. Sure, this might be more than my body needs, but that’s not the point here. So when I buy my protein, I know I’ll need 4-5 pounds to get me through three days. If I cook at home regularly and stock up on those large quantities of food, I end up spending $4-6 a meal. I eat four meals a day so that’s $12-16 dollars a day, which comes out to approximately $360-480 a month, whereas if I ate out for all my meals and spent $7-12 a meal, that’s $28-48 a day and $840-1,440 a month.
5. Keep easy food items in your pantry or fridge you can eat in a pinch
I’m not a big snacker and I eat 3-4 big meals a day rather than 6-7 small meals a day. My body feels better from this routine and I’m the type that lacks what they call self-control, so when I sit down to eat, I want to feed. In my pantry, you’ll usually find cans of line-caught tuna as well as a large number of eggs. I buy four dozen eggs a week because they’re easy to make when I’m in a hurry and I know I’m getting good nutrition from them.
Even if you have your grocery budget pretty well managed, the random spurts of going out to eat can add up. So prepare yourself. Make sure you’re not staring at an empty fridge when you come home starving after a particularly long work day. Have a few things lying around that you can cook or open up to eat in a pinch. The more prepared you are, the less money you have to suddenly spend.
All in all, what I really want to help you realize is that planning your meals will not only help you eat healthier but also save you some money. Use all that money you would have spent on pizza and Chipotle and save up to go somewhere fun.