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Get to the checkout line of any grocery store these days and you may be shocked to see the amount at the bottom of your receipt. The price of food has risen 12% over the last year according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and experts say that costs will likely continue to increase. One of the best ways to find cheap groceries is to create a budget-friendly, healthy grocery list and stick to it. By prioritizing seasonal items, frozen foods and certain cuts of meat and seafood, shopping strategically can help keep sticker shock to a minimum.
The key to locating cheap groceries is to create a system for shopping, and that begins before you even grab a cart. Start by identifying the closest supermarkets to you (hello, high gas prices!) and cross check the cost of your favorite items online before you shop. Think about what you spend the most on and prioritize finding the best price for those items. The next step is to follow that quintessential shopping advice: Don't go to the grocery store hungry. You're much more likely to make impulse (and unhealthy) purchases if you do, so shop after a meal or grab a healthy snack before heading to the store. And remember: The cheapest groceries are not always the most nutritious; consider spending slightly more for foods that are filling and nutrient-dense.
For tips and recommendations for a more economical shopping experience, see below for advice from the experts at the Good Housekeeping Institute Nutrition Lab.
Fruit and vegetables are among the groceries with the largest price jumps lately, but you can still find affordable produce by buying seasonally. Purchasing when produce is abundant helps lower the cost and will all but assure the best taste and highest levels of nutrition.
Spring - apricots, avocado, pineapples, strawberries
Summer - blackberries, blueberries, cherries, peaches, plums, watermelon
Fall - grapes, kiwi, pears
Winter - grapefruit, oranges
Spring - broccoli, artichokes, asparagus
Summer - eggplant, green beans, tomatoes, summer squash, zucchini
Fall - Brussels sprouts, parsnips, sweet potatoes and yams, Swiss chard, turnips
Winter - potatoes, pumpkins, leeks, rutabagas, winter squash
Another way to save money on produce is to opt for fruit and vegetables that have a longer shelf-life. For example, to help extend your grocery dollars, choose apples over berries or carrots or celery over leafy greens. Generally, some of the cheapest fruit and vegetables year-round tend to be bananas, apples, oranges, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots and sweet potatoes.
Meat and meat alternatives
Meat can be the most expensive category for most food budgets, and can account for a large portion of the overall grocery bill. To save money, opt for the ground variety of your favorite protein. Ground beef, chicken or turkey are super versatile, easily frozen and can be used in many different recipes. Larger cuts of meat will usually cost less per pound, but they may require marinating, braising and slow cooking to bring out the tenderness.
If you do prefer to include cheaper cuts of meat, consider including:
Buying a whole chicken instead of pre-portioned cuts can also save money and the leftovers, including the bones, are great for making chicken soup or bone broth. Consider cutting costs even further by implementing Meatless Monday or meatless dinners a few nights a week. Swap out meat for healthy plant-based meat alternatives such as tofu, tempeh, beans and legumes, as your protein source.
The cost of fresh seafood may also vary seasonally. According to the Seafood Nutrition Partnership, fresh Alaskan salmon is less expensive during the summer when the fish are more abundant. Other popular choices that may be worth buying seasonally include Albacore tuna (in season July-October) and halibut (in season March-November. Other ways to save money on seafood:
Buy in bulk and/or frozen.
Choose cheaper varieties that may be similar in taste and flavor. Examples include mackerel over tuna or fluke/flounder over halibut.
Consider canned seafood. It can be purchased in bulk and, if unopened, has a long shelf life (up to four years for cans; up to three years for pouches, according to the National Fisheries Institute).
Use the entire fish. For example, save the head, tail and bones to make fish stock, but check with your fishmonger first to ensure the variety that you are purchasing can be used for this purpose. Tail-on shrimp is usually less expensive and you can save the tails to add flavor to stock.
Dairy, dairy alternatives and eggs
Whether you prefer dairy or non-dairy, you can find competitive prices due to the sheer number of products on the market. While non-dairy milks may be more expensive than dairy, some non-dairy brands offer shelf stable options that can be bought in bulk when they're on sale. Just note that many dairy and non- dairy milks and yogurts contain added sugars and sometimes saturated fats. Always check the label before purchasing. More ways to save:
Choose the store brand over a name brand.
Check the websites of both dairy and non-dairy brands for downloadable coupons.
Consider eggs over meat. While the price of eggs has increased, they can still provide a cheaper, lean animal protein option over more expensive meat and chicken. Check your local farmers market — the prices may be significantly lower there (and they'll taste fresher).
When it comes to cheap groceries, pantry staples are the big winners. This category includes dry and canned goods such as flour, oatmeal, chicken stock, nuts, nut butters and seeds. Among the cheapest staples are dried and canned beans — they're also easy to prepare and provide a great source of plant-based protein and fiber, two very important nutrients that are often only available in more costly foods. Grains like brown rice and oatmeal also score high in cost-effectiveness and nutrition. More ways to save:
Pick store brands over name brands. Most of the time there is no difference in ingredients (but compare the labels to double check).
Buy in bulk items with a long shelf life such as beans, legumes, rice, oatmeal, dried pastas and coffee.
Consider setting up recurring subscription orders online for items that you use frequently.
Look for 100% whole grain breads with little to no added sugars. Breads freeze well with little-to-no loss in quality. Consider buying in bulk if the price is right.
Frozen foods can be stored in your freezer for months. Again, consider buying in bulk when products are on sale. Items worth stocking up on include:
Berries and mango (both great in smoothies)
Edamame (a healthy plant-based protein)
Cauliflower, broccoli, mixed and riced veggies
Fish and meat
More ways to save money on groceries
Here are a few other simple tips from our experts on ways to food shop on a budget:
Print coupons. Search for printable coupons at coupons.com and check out services such as Ibotta which offers cash-back rewards and includes a mobile app that allows you to locate your favorite grocery store and browse items ahead of time. You can also receive cash-back earnings through Ibotta at some larger retailers including Walmart Grocery and Instacart.
Clip paper coupons. It's still a thing! The newspaper's weekend section may offer a larger selection. Many grocery stores now also offer digital coupons. Just stick to coupon clipping only for items already on your list if possible.
Try a subscription. Many online retailers, such as Amazon, offer discounts when you set up recurring subscription orders. This strategy can work well for pantry items.
Look at loyalty programs and membership cards. Most grocery stores have programs that offer additional savings for members, which can substantially add up.
Shop mid-week. "That's when grocery stores tend to restock their shelves and mark down items that didn't sell from the week before," says Stefani Sassos, MS, RDN, CSO, CDN, Deputy Director of the Good Housekeeping Institute Nutrition Lab.
Buy in bulk. To avoid waste, buy groceries in bulk only if you can freeze them, they have a long shelf life or if you're cooking for a crowd.
Shop local. Utilize local farmers' markets or sign up for a CSA (community supported agriculture) to save on items that may be more expensive in stores.
Try private label stores. You may find great deals at these stores, such as GH Seal Star ALDI. They tend to offer deeper discounts on some higher priced items such as seafood, fish and dairy.
Shop online. Avoiding the grocery store altogether may help prevent impulse shopping. In addition to larger retailers that may offer this service, there are many independent discounted services that can help you save as well including: Misfits Market, Boxed, Thrive Market, Imperfect Foods.
The bottom line
Even in tough times, it's possible to find affordable and healthy groceries with a few smart strategies. The best ways include buying in bulk when items are on sale, shopping seasonally and loading up on pantry staples. Compare prices online when you can (look for coupons while you're there) and stick to grocery stores nearby. With a little planning, your meals will be healthy and nutritious without breaking the bank. And if you need a week off, consider ordering from one of the more affordable cheap meal delivery services.
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