We've all been there. Fueled by a New Year's resolution or inspired by the upcoming bikini season, we load our grocery cart up with fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains, only to take it all home and throw the bulk of it away days later as it turns limp and stale in our kitchen. Is it any wonder that the most common misperception about healthy eating is that it costs too much? "Many people simply overestimate how much food they will need or cook in one week," says Cindy Silver, a corporate dietitian for Lowes Foods. "They over-purchase and then life happens, leaving them with too much in the fridge, especially perishables." One of Silver's top money-saving tips is to re-purpose perishable foods by wrapping, dating and then freezing the food just before it turns bad and needs to be tossed.
Have a plan. Undoubtedly, the top money-saving tip from grocery store RDs comes down to this one, again and again. If you want to save money on your groceries, you have to have a plan in place. Tina Miller, a registered dietitian and Meijer Healthy Living Advisor, puts it simply: "Plan meals and make a list. Stick to your list and avoid those impulse buys." The bonus to having a plan is that it's also one of the best tools to help you eat a healthier diet.
But ... don't overplan. Be realistic about what you will and won't eat in the days that follow your grocery trip, and avoid the urge to "load up" on perishable items like fresh produce, dairy and meat products. For example, stocking up on low-fat yogurt may seem like a great way to have a healthy snack on hand, but are you really going to be able to eat all 12 containers before the expiration date? Barbara Ruhs, a registered dietitian for Bashas' stores in Arizona, suggests reviewing the weekly circular ads before shopping to determine what is on sale, and then planning meals around those key sale items. Ruhs believes that menu-planning is an under-utilized tool, and that "even if a person planned only three meals each week, such as a dinner and two to three lunches, they could save a boatload of cash!"
Store correctly. Perishable food stored in a refrigerator that is slightly too warm will go bad days faster than food stored in a refrigerator that is chilled appropriately. By learning a bit more about proper food storage (and by adjusting your refrigerator and freezer temperatures), "you will have less food rot and, by throwing away less, you will save money" says Silver. Invest in an inexpensive thermometer for your refrigerator and freezer, and make sure they are kept at the proper storage temperature to keep your food fresh for longer.
Know what to buy in bulk. Some grocery stores might offer a discount of up to 10 percent on items that are sold in bulk. For example, Ruhs has heard of grocery stores giving 10 percent off a box of Kind bars, if the customer happens to ask. Other foods to load up on include items that can be stored for longer, such as frozen vegetables, canned beans and whole-grain pastas, which Ruhs calls "some of the best nutritional bargains you can find in the grocery store."
Consider store-brand items. "Generic" food has come a long way—store-brand items are often made by the same manufacturers that make name-brand equivalents, and they may also be superior. "For example, store-brand graham crackers may have half a gram less fat per serving," Ruhs says. "This is one way that supermarkets are trying to gain a competitive advantage with their store-brand items: improved nutritional quality. Now, that's double-the-value!"
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Melinda Johnson, MS, RD, is the Director of the Didactic Program in Dietetics and lecturer for the Nutrition Program at Arizona State University, and a Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Follow her on Twitter @MelindaRD.