March is National Nutrition Month, when the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reminds everyone to return to the basics of healthy eating. It is also the time of year when the Academy celebrates expertise of registered dietitian nutritionists as the food and nutrition experts.
When you're in charge of family meals, a trip to the grocery store may seem like a daunting task as you navigate the dizzying array of options while trying to stay within the food budget. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a middle class family spends about 13 percent of household income on food, and those who make less might spend more than 30 percent of their take-home pay on food. The Thrifty Food Plan from USDA provides frugal estimates for people who want to go easy on their wallets and still enjoy good meals. By following the Thrifty Food Plan, a family of four can buy a week's worth of groceries for about $20 per day. With the right strategies, it's possible!
Big Ticket Items
Some foods put a noticeable dent in the budget. Caroline Passarrello, MS, RDN, LDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, cites animal protein sources as some of the main culprits. "Substituting plant-based protein choices for costly cuts of meat can help trim the fat from your diet and wallet," she says. "Shop the sales on pulses and legumes for even more savings and stock up if you have the shelf space." Dried beans, peas and lentils are inexpensive and can be made in big batches and frozen for later use, so you always have them on hand. Watch out for convenience foods, such as pre-cut vegetables and single-serving packaged foods — they're time savers, but not so budget-friendly. Fresh produce that's not in season can add serious digits to your total at checkout as well.
Small Changes Lead to Big Savings
Cooking just about anything from scratch will yield health and financial benefits. Start by keeping an eye on specials at the meat counter and incorporate those items into the menu. To save even more, try spreading it out in several meals in a casserole, stir-fry or soup. When purchasing fresh produce, buy it in season and in its most basic form. "There is a cost associated with convenience, so be strategic about produce purchases," says Passarrello. "Most likely, the least expensive choice will be what is in season and in its natural form, and the most expensive will likely be pre-cut and packaged produce. Canned and frozen choices fall across the price spectrum and make great pantry staples, so you never fail to fill half your plate with fruits and veggies." Produce that comes bagged, such as apples or potatoes, may be cheaper than buying individual pieces. Don't be afraid to use low-sodium canned and frozen vegetables in your meals when many fresh items are out of season.
Method to the Madness
Being intentional about saving money on food means being organized and going in with a plan. Plan your meals for the week, make a list and stick to it to minimize impulse buying. Unit price is a sometimes overlooked savings strategy. Buying a larger size of the food you want because it has a lower unit price helps save money in the long run. For instance, a large container of yogurt that you have to dish out is usually cheaper per ounce than purchasing individual cups of yogurt.
Meal Planning Tips
Food waste adds up quickly, so plan to eliminate it as much as possible. Passarrello suggests taking stock before heading out to the store. "Familiarity with 'First In First Out' isn't just for financial fanatics – before heading to the store, take a quick inventory," she says. "Plan to use the foods that are closest to their expiration dates first and buy just what you need at the store to make that a reality. When you unpack your groceries, put the new items behind the existing items." Try freezing half your loaf of bread. Buy half your produce now and make a quick mid-week stop at the store just to fill up on produce.
Create menus around the foods you have already and choose recipes for the week that incorporate overlapping ingredients. For example, the Thrifty Food Plan mixes fresh, canned and frozen produce, and has online resources that provide recipe ideas along with a cost analysis. If shopping from home is offered in your area, some grocery services allow you to compare prices between products to get the best value possible on the items you want.
Getting the most bang for your buck takes determination and planning, but it's worth it as you enjoy the satisfaction of using your money wisely, and maybe even having some left over from the savings!