Healthy Eating on a Budget – Yes You Can!

A popular misconception about cutting grocery costs is that it results in consumption of tons of processed junk food and hoarding vast stockpiles of things you don’t need.  A recent Wall Street Journal article highlighted budget-conscious grocery shoppers as if they were a strange tribe from Wildest Borneo with their pantries full of hundreds of bottles of Powerade and thousands of boxes of Jello.  While I’m sure some people do go a little nuts with stockpiling and buy primarily junk food, I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t have to be that way.  You can use couponing and budget shopping principles to lower your grocery bill while still feeding your family a healthy whole foods diet. Here are some of the ways I do it:

Look for marked down items. I shopped at our local stores for years before I noticed how they marked down food nearing it’s expiration date or that the store is overstocked on.  It wasn’t until other people pointed out the stickers to me that I started to register how often staples are marked down – especially organic foods that average shoppers pass by thinking they are too expensive.  All stores are different, and your local shops might have a different mark down system than mine, but they all have to move the merchandise.  Figure out where they put the marked down items (it might not be with the full price stuff or it might be right there on the shelf), start to notice what times of day or week items you buy most get marked down (if you’re really gutsy you can ask the produce manager or meat manager when they do mark downs), and when you see them, buy them.

In the picture above of my recent shopping trip, you can see the bright orange stickers showing that I got organic kefir marked down from $3.29 to $1.69 a bottle (so I got 6 – they don’t expire until next month!), organic milk marked down from $5.99 to $2.99 (I’ll use it to make yogurt with the marked down organic yogurt I got last week), marked down organic mixed salad greens, marked down mushrooms, marked down sausage, marked down turnip greens, and so forth.  (You’ll also see powdered sugar and marshmallows in the picture – those aren’t normal purchases, I’m making a cake for a baby shower this weekend!)   It’s always a surprise what I will find marked down, and some trips are better than others, but I always find something.  Sometimes it’s cottage cheese, sometimes bread, sometimes eggs or fruit or meat.  If you’re creative you can find a way to work whatever you find in to your weekly menu plan.

Check the loss leader sales. Even if you don’t stumble on marked down meat, produce, dairy and organic products, you certainly can find good deals on staples in the weekly sales flier.  After you have watched them for a while, you’ll start to notice that stores put things on sale in cycles.  If you see whole wheat pasta on sale one week, buy enough to get you through until the next sale, or else you’ll wind up paying full price for the same item the following week.  For perishable items or things you don’t have room to store, order your menu around what you find on sale and choose recipes that incorporate those items, rather than saving that recipe for the next week when those ingredients might be twice as expensive.

Practice smart stockpiling. Related to the point above, you can stockpile staples when you see them on sale to avoid having to purchase them for full price later, but you do need to find a balance.  There aren’t very many deals that only come once a year.  So, for example, if apples are 50 cents a pound one week, I buy enough to last us several weeks.  Apples keep in the refrigerator, and that way I am not out the very next week buying apples for $1 more a pound than I could have gotten them the week before.  What I most usually look for with loss leaders are fruit that keeps well, frozen vegetables, meat (freeze it or cook it all and freeze in meal-sized portions), brown rice, wheat flour, whole wheat pasta and butter.  If I can get those things for a good price, I get enough to get me through until the next sale cycle, usually about 6 weeks.  I rarely stock up more than that, except in the case of an exceptionally good deal.  I just don’t have the space for more and I know from experience that sales come around pretty frequently.  There is no need to be manic about filling every nook and cranny of your house with groceries.

Buy in season. In season produce is the cheapest and freshest.  I plan my meals around what is in season, which is a healthful and natural way to eat and also quite economical.  In the fall, we eat a lot of pumpkin, apples, root vegetables and greens.  In the winter we eat greens and cabbage and clementines and grapefruit.  In the summer we eat a lot from our garden and have more access to local farmer’s markets, but even the grocery stores offer better deals on fruits and vegetables that are freshest and in season.

Use coupons for toiletries and occasional treats, or if they make something free. Coupons are an excellent way to get things like soap and shampoo and razors and toilet paper for free or very cheap, which frees up more of your budget to be used on whole foods.  Money Saving Mom and Mommy Snacks are my go to sites for coupon match-ups at drugstores to help me with those deals.  I also use coupons for things like frozen vegetables (often free or nearly free when paired with a sale), spices, yogurt, and pasta.  When it comes to convenience and processed foods and treats, I try to be more careful.  If I can get a box of cereal for under 75 cents I’ll likely buy it, but if it’s any more than that I would rather use the money to buy a package of oatmeal – you can do more with it, it has more servings, and it’s much healthier.  I try to weigh coupon deals on non-staple or non-whole food items that way – it would be pretty lame for me to spend money on soda or chips or gummi fruit snacks regularly and then say I couldn’t afford whole wheat pasta or brown rice or lots of produce, you know what I mean?

Cook from scratch. Another way to make healthy foods affordable is to make them yourself.  I’m not a stellar cook, but over the past few years I’ve learned a lot through trial and error about making my own baked goods and meals out of whole ingredients.  Making things from scratch takes longer, but if you’re really trying to crunch your budget, you’d be surprised how much it can save you.  As an added bonus, cooking from scratch is usually healthier – even organic high fructose corn syrup is, you know, still high fructose corn syrup.

Looking for mark downs, buying loss leaders, practicing smart stockpiling, eating produce in season, using coupons thoughtfully, and cooking from scratch are some of the ways I keep my grocery budget low (although it has taken me a long time to get it as low as it is now, it wasn’t an overnight switch).  If you try to balance healthy eating with being budget conscious about food purchases, what are some of your methods?

On this topic, I would highly recommend Money Saving Mom’s ongoing series 31 Days to a Better Grocery Budget.  She has lots of great tips about trimming your grocery costs.

47 thoughts on “Healthy Eating on a Budget – Yes You Can!

  1. Love it Catherine! I do a lot of what you said above…but thanks for more tips! I will continue to read this. I love the clearance stuff!!!

  2. Great post! I’m always working on lowering our budget and keeping our meals healthy and fresh. I definitely have great success with markdowns! Another thing for me is making a list and sticking to it – with the exception of finding a really great deal. It saves me a lot of money to walk in the store with a thought-out plan and not just winging it. And I love cooking from scratch with seasonal ingredients. 🙂 Still working on couponing but I’ve started making a return to it and plan to really start focusing on it soon.

    Two questions: What are your favorite stores in the area (i.e. best markdowns and sales? And do you shop at Aldi?

  3. Alaina, I think Kroger has the best markdowns and Meijer has the best sales. I very rarely shop at Aldi, since I can usually beat their prices with sales or markdowns and I am trying to conserve time and gas on errand runs these days (one less stop where I have to buckle and unbuckle three kids – I’m sure you can relate!). If there really aren’t any deals anywhere else I might go there to get apples or a few other staple items.

  4. Aldi has been impressing me lately. They have seasonal items that they stock for about a month and then mark down tremendously. Each “season” has a theme. In Jan/Feb it was healthy foods. I ended up getting 100% organic juice boxes (8) for $1.18 and Rice Milk for $.79 when they were marked down. None of these expire until Nov. 2010. You better bet I stocked up on those!! Right now, it’s Asian season. I wonder what will be next.

    Kroger is my all time favorite for mark downs as well. Tonight I stocked up on orange juice- only $.99 for premium. It freezes well:) I need to figure out their weekly system, though.

    1. Monica, that’s interesting about seasonal foods and markdowns at Aldi. I’ve never seen anything marked down at our Aldi, but I don’t go very frequently.

      I think you were the one who told me about the Kroger weekly markdowns, but then recently ours has been changing, so I can’t predict it as well. I just look at everything.

      Oh, and our Meijer marks down organic stuff on Friday mornings. I’ve also found cottage cheese 90% off at Meijer twice on Thursday mornings.

    1. Zena, I hope the general ideas in the post prove helpful to you. My experience is that stores may differ, but all stores mark things down and have sale cycles. So your stores may differ from mine, but you should still be able to find mark downs and sales and stock up, as well as benefit from lower prices on seasonal items. Good luck!

  5. I love the idea behind this post and think you’re right to point out markdowns but the plain simple truth is that if you’re trying to eat really healthy, it’s going to cost you. I try to subside my diet off of fresh fruits and veggies (which don’t keep very long so stockpiling isn’t an option) and meats (which don’t mark down too significantly often). Healthy eating provides a higher cost because no one is handing out peel-off coupons on apples at the same rate they are cereal, etc.

    1. Tania, I think you’re right about the coupons, at least I’ve seen very few for produce and meat. Stores do sometimes run specials where if you buy a certain item you get a $ off coupon for meat or produce, but those are rare.

      However, even though no one hands out coupons for apples, stores DO put them on sale and you can stock up on some fruits and vegetables, or freeze them for use later. For example, one week I found 10 bunches of fresh kale marked down. I steamed them and froze them in freezer bags in individual meal sized portions for use later. Likewise, many fruits can be peeled and frozen in chunks to use in smoothies. Apples can be stored in the refrigerator for months, or made into sugar free applesauce and frozen (see my recipe here: http://aspiritedmind.com/2009/11/applesauce-for-busy-and-openminded/).

      If you do want to look for organic meats, you might want to touch base with the manager in charge of that section at your store. I got organic lean beef marked down to $1 a pound a while ago, and meat does freeze well!

    1. Frank, what I may not have explained well enough up front is that the picture on this post is not what we’re going to eat in a week, but what is added to our already stocked refrigerator, freezer, and pantry. Kefir, as you may know, is a super healthy fermented milk product – like yogurt but much much healthier – and contains an abundance of probiotics and protein. We buy it unsweetened and enjoy it plain or in smoothies. Organic milk made into yogurt is also healthy, unless you have a dairy intolerance.

      Sour cream and sausage, consumed in small amounts every now and then are also consistent with a healthy diet, especially if you use mostly chicken breasts and organic beef otherwise. We generally view meat as a condiment not a main dish, and most of our meals use less than half a pound of meat for an 8-10 serving dish.

      What I point out in the post is that if you work on a markdown/sale cycle and stock up to last between sales, you don’t HAVE to buy everything you need every week. You can buy mostly kefir one week and mostly apples another week and mostly spinach another. That’s just what works for us and I wanted to let people know that there is an alternative to processed and junk foods if you’re on a budget.

  6. Thank you so much for writing this article. It really helps me out. I really try to feed my family very healthy and especially now that I am 5 month pregnant with our second child. I am trying to find ways to lower our budget without lossing all the nutritional foods we like to buy. Thank you again!

  7. I too am unwillingly to compromise fresh, healthful foods in the quest to lower my food budget. I look for mark downs (Kroger is my favorite for this) on lean meats, fresh produce, and other healthful items. We eat what is in season and on sale. I use coupons for getting good deals on other items. My food budget is down 60% over when I started couponing and we actually eat less-processed than we did before, as I cook more from scratch. To top it off, I have lost 27 pounds (and counting) during that same time. Spending less and eating well are not mutually exclusive. Your article is very comprehensive on the techniques to accomplish this. I also love the blogs you mention – so helpful. Thanks for sharing.

      1. You are so sweet to reply to all of these comments and also very diplomatic. As you noted at the beginning of the post, one of the biggest excuses that people use for not using coupons is that you will ONLY eat processed and junk foods. Obviously, that is just an excuse and not based in reality. Every family has to find balance in finances and healthy lifestyles. There is no one formula that works for everyone, every budget, every geographic location, or every motivation. Your post was right on target and full of good advice for those who are willing to heed it. Thanks again for the encouragement.

  8. Thank you so much Catherine for teaching this concept ! Let me say first I can tell from your writing that you are as beautiful inside as you are outside what a wonderful person. I teach coupon classes and this very concept is what I try so hard to teach and it goes over those folks heads who wish to stockpile 5,000 boxes of Hamburger Helper. I let the go if that is what they want to do. I focus on teaching open minded folks who can learn this very concept that you are teaching right here.

  9. Here’s more information about “organic” HFCS:

    http://www.wikihow.com/Avoid-High-Fructose-Corn-Syrup (scroll down to the “Tips” section)

    I definitely agree that you can eat a lot of whole foods on a small budget if you’re a good planner and take advantage of sales. However, the photo used above doesn’t really show many “whole foods”. I understand Frank’s comment to mean that consuming dairy in any form is not healthy. The brand of sausage shown in your photo contains nitrates/nitrites, high levels of sodium and who knows what else. Obviously, it’s a little snapshot into your life; your article and comments illustrate some of the other foods you eat, but I can see why Frank questioned the use of “healthy”.

    You do offer some good tips and encouragement. I’ve bookmarked this so I can refer some of my nay-saying friends to it. Thanks!

    1. Andrea, you and Frank do have a good point about the photo – I had taken it because of the mark downs on the organic and dairy items and originally intended to use it to talk about the total amount spent, but changed my mind.

      I think you make a good point about the sausage pictured – certainly there are still a lot of unhealthy aspects to our diet, but we have worked to move away from the conventional Western diet of processed foods in a lot of other ways, and as I mentioned in my response to Frank, that sausage will probably be spread over about 4 meals, not consumed in bulk, nor very frequently. If we were eating sausage all the time, it would be more of an issue for me to buy a more natural version, but since we use it rarely and in tiny amounts, I was happy to take advantage of the sale.

      Thanks for understanding the spirit behind the article though, and I appreciate you taking time to comment!

  10. What about joining a local CSA (Community Supported Agriculture)? You get fresh, seasonal, organic produce weekly or biweekly (or however the program works) at a flat-rate (often a little more than on-sale regular produce, but MUCH less than store-bought organic produce). Since we eat mostly vegetables, I am going to couple our produce boxes with the excellent book “How to Cook Everything Vegetarian” to make sure I either eat or cook/freeze it all each time. I’m super excited for not only the savings, but also the fun variety of vegetables and fruits I’ll get to introduce my family to!

    1. Kellie, I would love to find an affordable CSA in my area, but the ones I’ve looked into so far were out of my price range. I do enjoy shopping at farmer’s markets in the summer, and also try to make sure we get a lot of produce from our own garden. I’m glad you found a CSA option that works for your family!

  11. I’ve been training myself to spot the yellow & orange stickers too. Sometimes I’m amazed that the mark-down is on something that still has lots of ‘life’ left in it. Expiration dates are more than 1 month away!? Pretty good. Haven’t been too successful with milk though – we like organic mainly & I’m always looking for breaks on that. Most markdowns have a short short expiration date – like 1 day? I know I could stretch it a few days and it’s fine, but soured milk is no bargain.

    1. Ellen, I completely agree about the shelf life. The milk I got in the shopping trip pictured was organic, and had three days left before expiration. Since I was planning to make yogurt out of it right away, I felt safe buying that much, but I wouldn’t have bought more than one gallon. If you do find milk with a short window for use, I’d recommend making yogurt out of it!

  12. Thanks for sharing your information and tips.
    My family is vegan- have you ever ran into any deals on vegan foods? I rarely find coupons or sales for these things and it is or can be a pricey way to eat. (but much healthier)
    Thanks!

    1. Rachel, I do run into deals on produce a lot, and fairly frequently find tofu marked down. I think if you’re on a very specific diet like being vegan you’d have a harder time finding deals, but I certainly there would be some aspects of frugal shopping you could incorporate, if only eating seasonally. Good luck!

  13. Catherine-
    I’m visiting from MSM and completely agree with your points and even your picture! There are a lot of varying ideas on what’s “healthly” these days that run the gamut from vegan to “traditional” with emphasis on lots of fats and just a few vegetables. The idea that there is no room for dairy in our diets is one, too, I guess (I don’t agree, by the way). But you seem balanced, and moderation is the best route to health for the largest number of people, I believe. What should work for all groups, though, is the wholeness of the foods and finding the least processed, which I think you emphasized. Thank you for putting yourself (and your picture!) out there!

  14. You know, I’m glad there are couponers out there who focus not only on the good deals, but healthy foods as well. Eating nothing but Betty Crocker Fruit snacks and flavored boxed rice is no bargain when we consider how it affects our health. HOWEVER…..moderation is key. If I can get a few boxes of the Uncle Ben’s flavored rice to store in the pantry for a day that I am not feeling well, have a busy day, or my husband has to cook dinner (gasp! – it happens from time to time!), they’re a life saver. And being that I’m from Wisconsin, I feel pretty safe eating my nitrate/nitrite filled bratwursts and other sausages – it’s not like we eat them every other day (maybe once a week in the summer, but there’s NO grilled brats in the winter…). I’m okay with that box of Multigrain cheerios – my 2.5 year old is picky, and hey, they’re reasonably healthy if we consider his potential other choices (candy bars in the form of Lucky Charms for breakfast? I think not.). Everything in moderation…getting orthorexic about our diet choices is no healthier. Oh and for the record, plain yogurt makes a GREAT sour cream substitute. 🙂

    My husband occasionally complains about the “healthy” foods – he grew up in a household where processed foods were the norm, and it’s definitely weird for him to see me cooking from scratch 97% of the time. Our society is just too lazy!

    And as far as markdowns -those definitely vary! My supermarket corporation doesn’t mark anything down usually. At least, not the dairy/meat/produce trifecta! I’ve seen lotions, cleaning products, baby items (not food), etc marked down, and non-perishables marked down occasionally, but usually…this isn’t the norm for my region unless they’re discontinuing something. But when they do, watch out! 🙂

    1. Interesting – I wonder what your supermarket does with the food nearing expiration or that is overstocked? I once saw a worker at Costco carting away a pallet of bananas that were barely ripe (yellow, but no spots) and I asked where they were going to put those since I’d rather buy yellow ones than green. He said they have to throw them away! What a waste!

      I also agree with you about finding a balance. Thanks for commenting!

      1. I don’t even want to think about where it goes – if I remember correctly, they DO throw it out. If so, I think that the big supermarket chains need to be better corporate citizens and donate the food to food pantries, shelters, etc. I can’t believe your store does that with bananas!

        I just had to comment – I’m just tired of people on the interwebz coming down on bloggers because they (the blogger) don’t eat perfectly healthy or like the commenter does. Personally, I’d rather NOT eat cooked greens – we just never ate them growing up (green salads were abundant instead), but I’m not going to get down on someone for liking them! Same goes for “fun” foods – I know it isn’t healthy, but yeah…the occasional bowl of Rotel and Velveeta graces our table for a fun snack. And I don’t care what people think; I’m too busy living life, and enjoying what God’s blessed me with. 🙂

  15. I have looked at marked down meat here, and it’s usually a lot more than I pay when that same cut goes on sale. It is always more than I am willing to pay (my limit is $2 a pound), so I’ve left those behind. I find it best to stock up on meat when the sales are super low.

    One thing that helps me is having a garden. You mentioned buying turnip greens. Turnips are easy to grow and they grow when it’s nice and cool, which means for us, they grow in the winter.

    Right now, lettuce is $1.49 a head at the store (the regular kind; not organic). Yet, for the price of a week’s worth of lettuce, I can grow three varieties of lettuce and harvest them for months.

    Last year, we harvested 100 artichokes from our garden. On sale for $1.49 each here, that would have been $149 worth of artichokes.

    Apples are normally on sale for $1.49 a pound here. Like you, I buy a lot of apples when they go sale. They only went on sale for .50 TWICE last year (which is actually really unheard of here). I bought 160 pounds one time and 400 the other, and canned applesauce from them.

    Pears only go on sale about once a year here, as do peaches. I bought 144 pounds of pears at .59 a pound and 324 pounds of peaches at .49 a pound, and I canned those as well. All year long we can enjoy eating fruit bought at the lowest price–and you can bet those jars will be empty in time to can this year!

    Besides planting a vegetable garden, planting fruit trees, bushes, and vines can really cut costs. Most people garden without including these things, and yet they are the things which have the potential to yield the greatest amount of savings. My trees are still small (3 years old), but I look forward to the day when they will give us enough to can. I have 33 fruit trees on a .24 acre lot. I have 4 blackberry bushes, which last year gave us 4 quarts of blackberries–and I live in the desert!

    Also, not having to go to the store for fresh produce every week saves time and gas. I’m not far from the store, but it’s nice to just go pick something fresh from the garden! This week we had steamed beet greens and a fresh beet salad. Tomorrow I’m making a turnip gratin, and I’m going to be trying out the greens in ravioli soon.

    1. Wow, that is an amazing number of fruit trees for such a small lot! You must have a killer water bill.

      We planted blueberry bushes last year, but don’t have a lot of sunny spots for more. I’m trying to figure out how to work in a garden without cutting down our trees.

      1. Andrea,

        Half of my trees are espaliered on the walls. All but 2 of my trees (the pomegranate and fig ae the exceptions) are semi-dwarf and dwarf trees, which allows me more variety in the space I have. I water my garden (including my trees) with drip irrigation. Water IS expensive here, but most of my bill is over the grass. I have 6 children and we homeschool, so they get a lot of use out of that grass!

        You can plant backberries in shady and semi-shady spots.

  16. I just found some really great deals on meat at a Super Target. I’m wondering if you have found that they mark down items on the same day each week? Great blog topic!

  17. I, like Andrea, live in Wisconsin. The largest grocer in the greater Milwaukee area is a Roundy’s affiliate. One early Sunday morning I was running in for a dozen loss leader eggs and happened to see someone going through produce to remove damaged/over ripe items. I had a nice chat with the man and discovered that they throw away everything that is not sold at full/sale price. When I lamented that our church would love using those items in their food pantry and meal programs he agreed. He hates that he has to toss food that is perfectly usable, even if not perfect in appearance. His worst days are when he is stopped by people (he specifically cited grandmothers) who want to buy browning bananas to use in baking and he cannot sell them. If you want brown bananas you must buy them while yellow at full price and brown them yourself. Talk about a ridiculous waste of food and a waste of family’s grocery budgets!

    Also, milk does freeze rather well if you ever find a wonderful markdown. I’ve done it many times and have never had issues other than needing to use it within the same number of days once it thaws. Then you can make yogurt in a week or two when you need to.

    Heather

    1. Heather –

      That’s the ONE thing that really just bothers me about Roundy’s, I mean, really gets under my skin. Okay, that and their 5 coupons per order doubling policy, but it’s really just so wasteful that they throw food out. I know plenty of people who’d really be thankful for either marked down food or food pantries that would benefit. Perhaps we should write a letter to them….a petition brought doubles back, maybe it could change their corporate waste policy. 🙂

  18. Not all stores have sales. In our area, we have WalMart, Sams Club, Price Rite, Wegmans (local chain), Aldi and Tops. Tops has sales, but I can always beat their prices. Wegmans has adopted a “consistent low price” policy, which has eliminated their sales. Most of the time, I can beat their prices anyway. We use coupons at WalMart when we can. I find myself getting frustrated when I read wonderful posts like yours since I cannot apply the principles where we live. Groceries are also much more expensive here then in the Midwest (I read Money Saving Mom and am amazed at the prices she posts!) So we do the best we can, keep track of prices so we know which stores have the best deals, shop at Aldi as much as possible, and stay away from processed foods. We do have a garden, and put up as much as we can for the winter, depending on how the growing season goes. Oh, and markdowns? Never ever see them. I don’t know what to make of that.

  19. I’ve come visiting from Money Saving Mom.

    Products’ dates vary. Some are sell-by dates, others are use-by dates. If the store is cutting price because the sell-by date is near, then you have more time than you might think to use that food. For food in my home I trust my eyes and my nose more than printed dates; can’t do that in the store, though – they look askance if you open the milk carton to smell it.

    BTW, did you know that with the expection of meat/dairy, use-by and sell-by dates are voluntary and therefore there are no standards of what the date should be? Keep that in mind when throwing out a can because of the date printed on it. There’s nothing to stop a company from using dates to get us to buy more often than we need to.

    I’ve read the Prudent Homemaker’s full website and yes, she is an impressive preserver of food with a very strong work ethic.

  20. Thank you for this post! I try to eat organic, local, and I am a vegetarian. You might think that couponing woudn’ help me, but it does! I may have higher food costs, but it is far, far offset by the fact that I spend almost no money on razors, paper towels, dish soap, dog treats (he’s not a vegetarian!), toilet paper, etc. And as you pointed out, there are deals to be had for organic, healthy food if you are paying attention! Don’t think that eating well and couponing are incompatible!

    Another tip is to see what sort of work programs your local CSA has. Mine allows you to work picking crops, etc. in exchange for that week’s share, so I get a CSA share for free! And it’s the same share that others are paying an arm and a leg for! And I get to play in the dirt!

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