Written by Lara Ceroni | Photo by CentralITAlliance/istockphoto.com

There’s no question that food costs have skyrocketed as of late, and we’re not just talking about grass-fed meats and organic produce. Americans today pay an average of 19.1 percent more on grocery items than they did 10 years ago and spend more on food than on almost any other line-item in the household budget. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nationally, Americans spend more than $7,700 per year on groceries. As for Canadians, they spent an extra $487 for food in 2020, a four percent increase from 2019, with predictions that it will only go up from here. On top of that, a recent survey found that nearly half of Canadians say they aren’t buying fresh produce, whole grain foods, or lean meats because of the scary price tags.

The good news is, by getting a little crafty in the grocery store and your kitchen, you can load your weekly menu with nutrient-dense foods while still saving a buck. Keep reading for five real-world tips from registered dietitians on budget friendly healthy eating.

Commit to Three Changes 

If you make any goal a mountain, it’s going to be harder to climb. In this case, restocking your entire kitchen with the contents of a health food store is going to be pretty pricey. “It can be overwhelming, feeling like you need to overhaul your routine and eating patterns, which will not help contribute to success,” says Kendal Cozier, a registered dietitian in Calgary, Alberta. The key is to start small and focus on incremental wins. Not only does that mindset make the whole endeavor feel more manageable, but you will also be more likely to stick with it, too. “We can all make positive shifts in what we eat to enhance the benefits of nutrition while staying mindful of our budgets, and it really doesn’t have to be complicated.” Cozier encourages making one to three realistic changes, like switching out white, processed products for whole grain or making half of your plate veggies (and, no, they don’t have to be organic).

Eat More Plants 

There’s a misconception that incorporating more vegan or vegetarian meals into your life is expensive, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. A focus on more plant-based meals means you’re eating cheaper protein sources like grains, nuts, seeds, and beans. So simply swapping a few meaty meals a week for plant-based means you’ll be slashing your grocery bill considerably. In addition, Cozier insists that the most important overall goal in any healthy eating plan is to transition to eating whole foods from processed ones. “We know that processed foods are commonly higher in fat, salt, and sugar, which can be harmful to our health. Plus, they’re almost always costlier for what you actually get. If someone is considering a shift to plant-based eating, start with some basic ingredients first, like tofu or quinoa. They are easily incorporated into a number of recipes and they are the most economical, too.”

Shop Smart 

Take the guesswork out of grocery shopping and avoid impulse purchases by making a weekly meal plan. Wherever possible, double up on portions so you have leftovers for lunch or that you can freeze for another week. Don’t forget to consult your calendar so you can plan recipes accordingly for the nights you need a quick dinner or the days you’ll need breakfast on the go. Scan your fridge to see what you already have on-hand so you don’t double up and risk food spoiling, which is basically just throwing money in the trash. “Stick to your shopping list,” adds Cozier, “and plan to buy what you know you’re going to use. It’s so easy to get sidetracked and tempted, which can lead to expensive purchases.”

As a general rule, try to shop the perimeter of the store first. The middle of the store is designed to store the most processed and unhealthy foods. When you do hit the center aisles, shop from the top or bottom of the shelves—the most expensive items are usually placed at eye level. Stock up on sale items with a long shelf life, like brown rice, canned beans, and frozen veggies. And whatever you do, don’t shop hungry.

Photo by DI Productions/istockphoto.com

Eat In-Season

If you’ve ever tried to buy fresh strawberries in January, or asparagus in November, you’ve likely experienced the price tag shock of produce when it’s not in-season. “Buying things in-season when supply is large is when it will be the cheapest,” says Dawn Jackson Blatner, RDN and author of The Flexitarian Diet and Superfood Swap. “Vegetables like cabbage, squash, and broccoli are less expensive in the winter; apples are cheaper in the fall, and berries cost less in the summertime. Plus, they’re almost always on sale during the season, too.”

When you can’t get your favorite foods fresh in-season, go with frozen. “It’s just as healthy to eat frozen fruits and vegetables—they offer almost the identical nutritional value, and buying frozen also helps eliminate food waste because you only use what you want.”

Do It Yourself 

We’re spending more time at home, so why not invest more time in the kitchen? Instead of ordering in for pizza, have some fun making your own. Same goes for things like ready-made condiments and sauces, says Blatner. “There are so many accessible recipes for salad dressings, sauces, and marinades online,” she says. “And the even better news is that you know exactly what you’re putting in them, so you can avoid any additives, extra sodium, or sugars you don’t need.”

As a rule of thumb, always chop your own veggies and salads, she adds. When you buy pre-cut veggies, you are paying a big-time premium for the convenience. Set aside the time after you shop to wash and cut fruits and veggies to store in the fridge so they’re ready to use.

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