Eating Healthy on a Budget Starts at the Grocery Store

Upgrade from Ramen noodles without going broke.
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As a kindergarten teacher in the San Francisco area, Gabi Moskowitz mastered the art of eating healthfully on a tight budget. But she couldn't say the same about her friends. When the economy plummeted and some of her buddies in the tech field lost their jobs, they went from having lots to little to spend on food, along with zero domestic skills. Moskowitz says she was "boggled" because "these brilliant people couldn't figure out how to make meatballs." Her friends' struggles prompted Moskowitz to launch her blog, BrokeAss Gourmet, and last May, a cookbook of the same name.

These "brokeass" friends are everywhere—from the twentysomething on her own for the first time to the single parent feeding a few kids on just one salary. Sure, eating nutritiously would be ideal, they tend to say, if only it were affordable. "There's a bit of a myth, which is that you need to spend a lot of money to eat well," says Melissa d'Arabian, host of the Food Network's Ten Dollar Dinners the Cooking Channel's Drop 5 Lbs with Good Housekeeping. "And in fact, it's almost the opposite."

Below, d'Arabian shares how you can get the most nutritional bang for your buck by deftly navigating the grocery store.

Prepare. Before you even step into the land of florescent lights and checkout lanes, plan your meals for the week, suggests the United States Department of Agriculture. Take inventory of what you'll need and what you already have, then make a list and stick to it. Eye the local newspaper for coupons and the in-store ads for deals. If possible, arm yourself with a store membership card.

Start in the produce aisle. This nutrient- and fiber-rich oasis in the grocery store is where you should start your shopping adventure. Research suggests shoppers tend to buy more with a bigger cart, and less with a smaller cart. Produce items are typically bulkier than other groceries, so if you load up here, your cart will appear smaller while you browse the rest of the store, d'Arabian says. Hopefully by the time you reach the snack aisle, your cart will seem too full of apples, kale, and broccoli to sneak in that bag of Cool Ranch Doritos.

While you're in the produce aisle, buy a mix of both hardy and more delicate fruits and vegetables, d'Arabian says. You're on the right track if you want to load up on Swiss chard because it's on sale, but remember that leafy greens perish quickly. "No matter how cheap it was in the store, the most expensive ingredient in your house is the one you throw out," d'Arabian says. Invest in more delicate produce foods and plan to use them sooner, and balance them with hardier produce items like carrots and broccoli, which will last a week or two.

[See That Which We Call a Snack]

Remember economics class. "The produce aisle, unlike most things in life, is where what's cheapest equals what's best," d'Arabian says. We're conditioned to think that more money buys better things, but that's not the case in the produce oasis. It's all about supply and demand. If carrots are in season, there will be lots of them, and they will be inexpensive for you. "Go to the produce aisle and buy what's cheapest. It's really that simple," d'Arabian says.

Fight convenience cost. Love your potato chips and the fact that you can open a bag and instantly commence snacking? That's fine, but remember how many folks between the potato farmer and grocery store cashier were needed to manufacture, package, distribute, transport, and market those chips. "I promise nobody is handling your food for free," d'Arabian says. "The more people that touch your food between the farmer and the plate, the more you have to spend. That's just the way a supply chain works." That's why you're paying three or four bucks for 12 ounces of chips, but 29 cents per pound of potato. Try loading your cart with produce and making your own potato chips—or jam, or hummus, or soup.

You may be tempted to pay extra for convenience foods throughout the store, especially in the form of frozen dinners and "instant" foods like rice and oatmeal. Schedule in the extra bit of time it takes to make your own food, and you'll save. If you're dazzled by the frozen food aisle and the idea that these items can be nuked for five minutes and are ready to eat, remember that you can freeze foods yourself. Fruits, vegetables, meats, lasagnas, cookies, full-fledge dinners—eat what you want, and then freeze (read: preserve) the rest. Soon you'll have your own frozen food section right in your kitchen.