If there was one sound that rose above all others at the grocery checkout line last year, it was this: Ouch! When your grocery budget is under assault, it’s easy to succumb to panic (“Nine dollars a pound for organic chicken?!”) and become tempted to fill your cart with less healthy, but ostensibly cheaper, fare. Trouble is, downgrading the quality of your food is never a bargain. First, your health is just too valuable, and courting an avoidable health condition or lowered immunity by eating poorly is just way too expensive. Second, even in the toughest economic times, you don’t have to scrimp on the good stuff. You just have to know how to shop smarter.
In this, the second in our series on “How Healthy People Eat,” we’ve assembled another team of health-conscious experts to dish on their personal shopping habits:
- Lisa Farino, a freelance health and environmental writer in Seattle.
- Rose Prince, a London-based food columnist and author of The Savvy Shopper (HarperCollins, 2006) and The New English Kitchen (HarperCollins, 2006).
- Kristen Swensson, New York City–based author of the popular “Cheap, Healthy, Good” blog and a columnist for www.seriouseats.com.
- Seth Braun, an independent health counselor in Boulder, Colo., and author of Healthy, Fast and Cheap: The Ultimate College Cookbook (Storey Publishing, 2006).
Here, they share their top tips for creating wholesome, delicious meals on the cheap.
1. Make a strategic shopping list. Buying food on a whim, shopping haphazardly and going shopping when hungry all tend to drive your expenditures steeply upward. By planning your meals before shopping, you can save a bundle. Swensson and her boyfriend eat a nutrient-rich, whole-foods diet for no more than $55 a week. Swensson searches online circulars to find deals near her Brooklyn home, combines that information with what she knows about the food she already has on hand, then searches online for recipes that make the most of both. Then she creates a detailed shopping list from which she never strays.
2. Know the cost of your staples. Even though Farino lives in one of the most expensive food markets in the country, she’s able to eat well by keeping track of what things cost. “I know the price of Wildwood organic tofu at four different stores to the penny,” she says. By knowing what things cost, she can quickly identify a deal.
3. When you spot a sale, strike. Occasionally, olive oil, tamari and frozen peas will go on sale at Farino’s co-op, and she’ll stock up for several weeks. Plus, she doesn’t hesitate to buy in bulk when the opportunity arises. “I drink unsweetened almond milk, so when my favorite brand went on sale, I bought a whole case,” she says. The trick here is to buy only what you actually will use. (You may be able to get a truckload of olive oil for a song, but it won’t keep forever.)
4. Hunt for overripe deals. Toward the end of the summer season, Prince will buy crates of slightly bruised tomatoes at a bargain from her greengrocer. “I cook them down into a compote with olive oil,” she says. Over the next several months, she’ll use that canned tomato base in curries, rice dishes and pasta sauces. “You’re giving up a little time to prepare it, but you get that time back later because you have these half-made meals,” she says.
5. Don’t assume high-quality stores equal high prices. Stores with healthy reputations offer some surprisingly good deals. House lines like Whole Foods’ 365 brand or Trader Joe’s products, for example, are often very affordable. “The other day, I saw that a 10-ounce package of my favorite tofu was $1.99 at Whole Foods and $3.03 at the Safeway,” Farino says. Your local food co-op is another great source of bargains.
6. Don’t overlook ethnic markets. Swensson hunted all over Brooklyn for cardamom to make lassi, the Indian yogurt drink, but couldn’t find it for less than $10.50 a bottle. Finally, she discovered an ethnic shop that sold the same amount for 50 cents. Farino, too, shops ethnic markets, particularly for specialty grains and noodles, like mung beans. “I won’t buy any of the bottled sauces or packaged things because of all the added MSG,” she notes, “but the raw ingredients are so fresh.”
7. Know when buying organic is essential. Braun prioritizes his organic purchases based on the likely concentration of toxins: He emphasizes meats first, then full-fat animal products, low-fat or no-fat animal products, thin-skinned fruits and veggies, leafy veggies, and root vegetables. For a ranked list of the most and least pesticide-laden fruits and veggies, see EWG’s Dirty Dozen.
8. Buy from the bulk section. Farino buys beans, nuts, brown rice, cornmeal, lentils, maple syrup and more in the bulk section of her local markets. “Bulk spices are particularly great,” she says. “I can get just a few teaspoons of something for 50 cents instead of buying it in the cute glass jar for $6.” Buying just the amounts you need of delicate perishables reduces the likelihood of things going rancid and then going to waste. Beware of bulk junk food, though (yogurt pretzels, cookies and candies): They’re rip-offs at any price.
9. Factor nutrition and quality into the price. A single loaf of Ezekiel 4:9 brand sprouted-grain bread from the freezer is roughly $3.50 at Braun’s grocery store — pretty pricey at first glance. But, he says, “This bread contains lentils and legumes, and I’ve concluded that for $3.50, I can get more protein out of that bread than I can from a pound and a half of grass-fed hamburger,” he says. He feels the same way about miso: “A small tub is $4, but I get all these wonderful probiotics and enzymes that people pay a lot more for in capsule form.”
10. Invest in equipment. Farino’s programmable rice cooker cost more than $100, but it has brown rice perfectly cooked at 7 p.m., or steel cut oats ready at 6:30 in the morning. “It really cuts down on that temptation to be like, ‘Oh, we’re starving, let’s grab something out,’” she says. “If the brown rice is done, I know it won’t take too long to put a meal together.” Braun feels the same way about his food processor. “I can throw in some dried fruit and nuts, and voilà, I have energy bars.”
11. Get the most from your purchases. Farino never buys chicken breasts. Instead, she’ll pick up a whole organic chicken, her husband will break it down into parts, and she will freeze sections they don’t plan to eat right away. Rose Prince takes a similar tack in London, buying a 4.5-pound chunk of fresh, free-range, bone-in pork loin for roughly $50. On the first night, she’ll prepare 7-ounce servings of roast pork with gravy for her family of four. The next day, she’ll crumble the pork crackling over two salads for lunch (occasional decadence is part of healthy eating, too!), and then she’ll make a rice noodle soup with sesame seeds and more of the shredded pork meat for dinner. The day after, she’ll cook some spiced lentil stew with more shredded pork, and with the remaining bits of meat, she’ll fix two sandwiches with watercress. With the soup stock she makes from the bone, she cooks up a rich risotto and two more bowls of soup with a whole grain, such as quinoa. That’s 22 helpings of food from a single pork loin, which adds up to roughly $2 per serving.
12. Minimize meat.The secret to a really healthy, high-energy, cost-effective diet is to make fresh produce, beans, legumes and whole grains the focal point of your meal, letting meat play a supporting role, or no role at all. Braun keeps things interesting by playing with global flavors. “One night I’ll do beans and rice Thai-style, and go with fish sauce, ginger and cilantro; then I’ll go South American and cook beans and rice with jicama, corn, tomatoes and hot peppers,” he says. Look to substantive foods (like sweet potatoes, garbanzo beans, avocados, root vegetables and squash) combined with flavor powerhouses (like shiitake mushrooms, chilies, aged cheeses, coconut and roasted nuts) to lend substance and satisfaction to low-meat or meat-free meals.
13. Redefine convenience food. “Eat out just once, and you can easily blow your food budget for the entire day,” says Braun. When you have absolutely no energy for cooking, whole-grain frozen pizza crusts (homemade in advance) and bagged greens can be a big energy- and budget-saver. Throw fire-roasted canned tomatoes, mozzarella, and fresh basil on the crust, toss a quick salad, and you’ll have a speedy meal without the restaurant or take-out tab.
14. Create a windowsill garden. Although Prince admits that she has “absolutely no green thumb at all,” she still keeps small herb plants, like thyme, basil, rosemary and sage, on her kitchen windowsill. Not only are homegrown herbs a great bargain, they also jazz up meals at home and bring luxury to humble staples. Growing your own also means you never have to watch another too-big package of fresh herbs go to waste.
15. When you splurge, splurge on quality. Our experts may be budget-conscious, but they also know when to live it up. Prince occasionally indulges in a piece of sublime wild-caught fish. For Farino, it’s “wonderfully fragrant hazelnuts for $9 a pound.” Other favorite healthy splurges include fresh, in-season stone fruits and berries; pasture-fed and organic meats, dairy and eggs; top-quality dark chocolate; and truffle- or nut-infused oils for drizzling over otherwise unassuming soups and salads.
Still not sure you can afford to spend money on good, healthy groceries? It might be time to consider whether you can afford not to. Given that nearly 70 percent of doctor visits result in prescriptions (think co-pays), that a single inflammatory condition caused by lackluster nutrition can result in a whole raft of different health problems (think skin, digestive and joint problems, just for starters) and that nutritional deficiencies tend to flip disease-determining genetic switches in directions you do not want them to go (think diabetes, cancer and heart disease), you’ll probably find that even the most indulgent high-nutrition organics wind up looking like loss-leader steals by comparison.
So shop wisely, eat well — and start thinking about your grocery bill as one deliciously shrewd investment.