We’re all pretty unnerved by increasing prices at grocery stores these days. Inflation is affecting the cost of everything from eggs and dairy to cooking oils and poultry, with the USDA reporting that 11 food categories saw price increases of more than 10 percent in 2022.
“The sticker shock at big box and local stores alike is palpable,” says Christen Cupples Cooper, Ed.D., R.D.N., founding director of Pace University’s Nutrition and Dietetics Program. “When inflation goes up, the costs of raw materials, distribution, and inventory are passed onto the consumer in the form of high product prices.”
Considering that choosing fresh meat and produce, as well as high-quality dairy products, whole grains, nuts, and more—especially the organic varieties—has always been costly, current prices can make eating healthy feel particularly unattainable. That said, with a little savvy and planning, you can put nourishing food on the table without breaking the bank. Here, dietitians share their best tips for navigating the food aisles with your budget intact.
1. Make—and stick to—a shopping list
Knowing what you need before you show up at the grocery store can go a long way in helping curb impulse purchases, says The Vitamin Shoppe nutritionist Rebekah Blakely, R.D.N. She recommends making a concrete list of necessities and trying your very best to stick to it. One great way to do this: Utilize the curbside pick-up option at your local grocery store, if available. “This way, you buy what you need online, they bag it and deliver it to your car, and you avoid all the impulse buys from walking through the aisles,” Blakely says.
2. Take advantage of buying in bulk
You can save big on food when you buy in bulk, especially at box stores like Costco or Sam’s Club. The trade-off, however, is that you often purchase more food than you need for a given time period. To make the most of buying in bulk, Blakely recommends batch cooking. “Meal prep enough for three to five days, and then freeze what’s left to use later,” she suggests. “This works especially well for proteins (think those six-pound bags of chicken breasts from Costco), legumes, and grains.” Other items that make sense to buy in bulk: nuts and seeds, which typically have a long shelf life.
3. Join Rewards Programs and Shop Weekly sales
Most grocery stores offer weekly sales on everything from fresh produce to meat—including even organic varieties. If you’re not typically one to check store flyers or mailed or emailed coupons and shop the latest deals, it’s time to start, suggests Emma Laing, Ph.D., R.D.N., director of dietetics at the University of Georgia and national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
It’s also a good time to sign up for any benefits or rewards programs at your grocery store to receive alerts on sales and special access to coupons. “Many specials might come with suggested recipes you can try if you’re seeking inspiration!” Laing adds.
4. Buy in-season fruits and vegetables
In-season produce, or fruits and vegetables you purchase during their natural growing season, generally cost less and provide higher nutritional content than out-of-season produce. For example, one study published in the International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition found that broccoli grown during its peak season (mid-fall to early spring) contained higher amounts of vitamin C than when grown out of season.
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To make sure you’re buying in-season, The Vitamin Shoppe nutritionist Brittany Michels, R.D.N., recommends keeping a seasonal food guide handy when planning and shopping. It may take some adjusting in terms of meal planning (think more potatoes and root vegetables in the colder months and more berries and summer squashes in the warmer seasons), but it’s a great way to save and benefit your health.
If you are going to buy out-of-season produce, compare prices of fresh versus frozen produce, Blakely suggests. “Since produce is frozen shortly after harvesting, its nutritional content is usually much higher than out-of-season fruits and vegetables,” she says. “Just make sure to choose those without the added sauces.”
5. Cut down your meat intake
Meat has become considerably more costly in recent months, with poultry prices up 14.6 percent and other meats up 14.2 percent. One way to cut costs: Make meat a side instead of the main or go meatless altogether (at least some of the time). “Serving a smaller portion of animal products can save money per person,” says Blakely. “Try basing your meals around vegetables, legumes, and grains, and compliment those foods with one to three ounces of animal protein, or even go completely meatless a few days a week.” When you skip out on the meat, you can meet your protein needs by incorporating cost-effective protein-rich foods like beans, lentils, or tofu. (Get started with these plant-based recipes, which pack more protein than chicken breast.)
6. Shop local
Supporting farmer’s markets can not only benefit local farms and other food-related businesses but also helps keep your shopping costs reasonable, according to Laing. With less transportation required and fewer parties involved in the selling process, farmer’s markets make it possible for growers to offer their food at competitive prices. “Another advantage for customers attending a market is having the chance to converse directly with the farmer or seller to ask questions about how the food is grown,” Laing adds. If farming practices are important to you, this is a great way to really get to know your food.
7. Skip the prepared foods section
While it’s undoubtedly convenient to purchase a package of pre-cut pineapple or already marinated meats, you’re always going to pay more when you opt for the ease these options offer. For this reason, functional dietitian Jenna Volpe, R.D.N., L.D., C.L.T., recommends opting for whole foods versus their pre-prepared or ready-to-eat alternatives.
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“Buying whole zucchini is estimated to cost around $1.25 per pound at my local grocery store, while the pre-spiralized zucchini noodles are almost $6.00 for an 11-ounce container,” she says. “Spiralizing your own zucchini may feel like more of a hassle compared to purchasing it pre-prepared, but little things like this make a huge difference from a budget standpoint and definitely add up over time.”
8. Consider the big picture
Though reallocating budget in order to purchase nutritious, whole foods might be immensely challenging right now, looking at the long-term benefits of doing so may help continue to see the value in doing so. After all, while healthy eating may appear more expensive at the moment, it can add up to huge cost savings over the years, suggests Cupples Cooper. “Eating is a ‘buy cheap now, pay more later’ proposition for most people,” she says. “If you invest in healthy eating today, you may well avoid the costs of chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer—which can amount to hundreds of thousands of healthcare dollars—later on.” (Not sold? Check out these noteworthy benefits of eating a high-fiber diet.) Of course, you can only try your best here, but maintaining this mindset might help you prioritize where you can.