When my 4 boys were home, our typical, weekly food bill ranged between $135-$150, and seldom went over that, except during holiday times when I bought a lot of extras.
Expenses of around $25 per person were fairly typical. And now that it's just my husband and me, our bill varies between $35 and $70 per week, or about $200-$250 per month.
So, for the two of us, we spend on average about $32 per person per week, with some fluctuation. And that's with a fair amount of padding and spending on discretionary things we didn't make a habit of buying when our boys were home.
I have come to realize that this budget is miniscule compared to families I know who spend much closer to $50 per person, and some who even spend $100 per person for their groceries.
So, you might think we must be starving on that budget. But nothing could be further from the truth. We eat very well and include tons of fresh food, fruits and vegetables in our diet.
So, how do I do it? I follow some practices and avoid others to stay within those budget parameters.
Here are some of my specific pointers for shopping and cooking for a healthy diet that ensure we get our daily servings of fruits and vegetables without breaking the bank.
People often have the mistaken notion that side servings of vegetables or salads are the only way to eat "healthy".
But that's simply not true. As readers of this blog know, I always serve salad to my family with ever main meal, but I also find a way to incorporate vegetables into almost every recipe I make.
Cut up onions, peppers, carrots, and celery, etc. all contribute to making a meal meet the vegetable and fruit servings you need.
And I'm certainly not the only cook with this approach. My recipes are a starting point for you to get an idea of how to do that, but there are literally thousands of recipe websites that do the same.
You can also add vegetables to your meals by doing things like pureeing zucchini squash and adding it to sauces as a thickener.
For baked treats, you can also exchange unsweetened apple sauce, pureed squash, pumpkin, or zucchini for some or all of the oil called for in the recipes. A little trial and error will get it right for you, and you'll find it's a painless, easy way to add more nutrition to dishes.
This is about as basic as it gets in just about any attempt to save money. Throwing food away is like throwing money out the window, so the exact opposite of what you’re trying to accomplish. So don’t buy more produce than you need or can eat before it spoils.
To accomplish that, plan meals and snacks around what you have on hand before adding to your supply. Keep produce stored where it will keep fresh longest, which is typically the refrigerator drawer, or another cool, dark place.
Use, freeze, or conserve your vegetables and fruits that are approaching their spoilage date. For example, I used pumpkin puree for a soup recipe I made recently, and bagged and froze the remainder, as shown below.
Know portion sizes, so you don't overbuy, and keep those portions in mind when you prepare vegetables, serve fruit, or make salad so you don't serve too much.
A serving is probably much smaller than you think. To learn more about portions, read my blog post here.
When it comes to vegetables, I’ll always comparison shop to see if the frozen version or - in a few limited cases, such as mushrooms and beets - the canned version is substantially more affordable than the fresh one.
It often is, so don’t hesitate to look beyond the actual produce aisle for your fruit and vegetable portions.
The same goes for vegetables like spinach, broccoli, or green beans, for example. They are very often much cheaper by the pound in the frozen food aisle than they are fresh.
While fresh is almost always best, very often there is no noticeable difference in the final product when you're adding them to a recipe. And if buying frozen will save you not only money, but time, then I definitely recommend it.
Sometimes even specialty vegetable mixes are a very good buy as well. So check the frozen food aisle for deals.
And don’t forget that canned tomato product that has been minimally processed - as in whole, crushed, diced, or puree tomatoes, or tomato paste - is also a source of fruit portions.
So include them in your calculations for healthy portions when you plan and shop. Just look for products that contain only tomatoes and a minimum of salt, so you're not getting a lot of undesirable additives.
For this reason, I generally avoid canned tomato sauce and stick to the simpler, less processed canned tomato products.
Have a Price Point in Mind When You Shop and Stick To It.
Here’s an example.
What that means is that I will occasionally treat us to a bunch of grapes when they are at that price. But I will actually make them my go-to fruit when they are in season in the fall, the time when I can often get them for 99¢-$1.29 per pound, or approximately 25¢-32¢ per snack-size serving.
So I am always happy to spend less on fruit, but I’ll never go above the price point I’ve set for myself.
It’s truly a myth that organic produce is any better, nutritionally speaking, and it’s simply not worth the often prohibitive extra cost.
By all means, buy it if it's a comparable price to regular produce, but otherwise, skip it. Besides, organic will not protect you or your family from the most common food-borne illnesses, such as E. coli or salmonella infections, a fact many consumers don't realize.
For more information about why organic is not all it's cracked up to be, read my blog about the topic.
Of course, there's also always the option of growing your own if you're really concerned. It's possible to do, even in small spaces.
But in general, our food supply is quite safe and the important thing for health is to make sure to eat plenty of fruit, vegetables, and other plant-based foods. So, regular produce is really just fine and often available for a fraction of the price of organic.
As a budgetary rule of thumb, just get your fruit and vegetable portions from the basic stuff, and you’ll be fine.
Bagged fruit, such as apples, tangerines, or oranges, is generally the most economical way to buy it.
Not only is it usually the cheapest per pound, it’s also typically portion size, unlike the loose fruit pieces that are most often larger than necessary. I can get more servings per pound with somewhat smaller-sized fruit.
So that’s what I look for.
An example is oranges. They come about 10 to a bag of about baseball sized fruit - a portion size.
By contrast, the individual, loose ones are much larger – usually about softball size - more expensive, and consist of a lot of thick skin that contributes to the weight, but not to the eating. So I skip them and buy the bag instead.
I will also buy tangerines or clementines on sale for $4-5 for a box or bag of 16-20. That’s less than 32¢ each. The individual ones can run to 2-3X that price.
Again, I stick with the better buy in the bag.
The same applies to things like potatoes or onions, as well. Priced individually, they are much more expensive than the per pound price for a 2 to 5-pound bag or bigger package.
You can see that in the price per pound in the pictures above.
And since they both keep a very long time - months, even - when stored in a cool dark place, such as a pantry, or the refrigerator, it's a safe bet to buy them in quantity by the bag and save.
As I mentioned before, grapes are a lovely snack in the fall when they are in season, but over the winter, I will most often stick to apples as our fruit of choice, since they are readily available all winter long at a reasonable price.
I can usually get them for $80¢-$1 a pound, or 25¢- 33¢ apiece. Sometimes even less if they go on sale.
Oranges and tangerines are also winter crops from Florida. They are generally at their cheapest then.
Fruits like peaches, plums, and melons are all summer crops, and usually most economical at that time of year. I will never buy things like peaches or watermelon in the dead of winter, unless it’s a highly unusual sale.
The same goes for something like corn on the cob. Unless it's summertime, the prices are usually premium ones for fruit that is out of season here and has been trucked hundreds and even thousands of miles.
There are some fruits, though, that are almost always cost prohibitive for a family on a budget.
I would include just about any of the berries in that category. That means that strawberries, blueberries, and particularly raspberries and blackberries, are luxury items that have no place in any economy-minded family grocery carriage, except for very special occasions.
Or, if you're fortunate enough to have pick-your-own farms in your area, you can sometimes get more affordable deals that way. We do that with strawberries and freeze them for later use.
The absolute best, of course, is if you can grow your own, or can pick wild grown ones. Nothing compares to the sweetness of wild berries. That's truly one of nature's treasures.
But by and large, consider most berries off limits for any kind of regular consumption. Save them for the occasional treat. You'll enjoy them all the more when you eat them that way.
Avoid paying a premium for someone else’s labor by skipping convenience packages of fruits and vegetables.
For example, when you buy salad greens as a whole head, you’ll pay 1/2 the price - or even less - of the bags or tubs of pre-washed greens.
The same goes for such items as cut broccoli, peeled garlic, washed and scrubbed potatoes, or peeled and cubed squash. You pay for that minor convenience with a much higher price.
It doesn't take much time or effort to do your own veggie prep, so save yourself some money and do your own.
Husk your own corn instead of buying the pre-cleaned version, and you’ll save big as well.
Buy whole fruit and cut it up yourself to make your own fruit cup or platter, rather than paying extra for the one that’s been done for you in the produce department at 4x the price.
As a general rule of thumb, plan to do your own vegetable or fruit prep for substantial savings.
Make Substitutions for Expensive Fruits and Vegetables
I’ll look for substitutes if I cannot get the price I want for something I’d like to use that week in my menus.
For example, there have been those rare occasions – usually during in-between growing seasons and/ or due to some weather event -- when fresh fruit has just been priced higher than I wanted to pay.
When that has happened, I have occasionally found buying canned fruit cup (in light syrup or unsweetened syrup) or unsweetened apple sauce to be an affordable emergency alternative.
Just remember to stick to portion sizes when serving these, to keep it budget conscious.
Raisins are also a good fruit source, bearing in mind that dried fruit is concentrated, so smaller portions apply. A quarter cup of raisins is a serving equivalent.
Or I will include more of the cheaper varieties of vegetables in our diet when the price of fruit itself becomes too costly.
After all, the recommendation is for 5-9 portions of fruit and vegetables, so it does not really matter which category the servings come from.
So, instead of oranges, we’ll eat carrot sticks. Or, instead of fruit,we’ll eat larger portions of salad with cut up vegetables, such as peppers, carrots, and beets, using my own homemade salad dressing.
In this way, we’ll still meet our daily intake requirements.
Here’s another example of this substitution strategy. As readers of my blog know, I recommend a salad with every main meal as a way to get your servings of fruits and vegetables.
That means we eat a lot of salad, and I buy salad greens every week. But sometimes in the winter, the prices get much higher than I like.
When that happens, I will switch to buying heads of cabbage instead.
Not the pre-chopped, packaged variety, mind you, but an intact, whole head, because it's much cheaper that way. Buying it in that little convenience bag, already prepared, can triple and even quintuple the price you pay for this terrific vegetable.
In fact, cabbage by the head is usually one of the cheapest vegetables around, and I can get it sometimes for as little as 29¢ a pound. But 49¢-69¢ per pound is more typical.
Head cabbage also has the advantage that it keeps forever in the refrigerator, unlike leaf lettuce, or pre-chopped cabbage. And really, it’s a breeze to slice and dice it to make a salad or cole slaw. It takes no time at all.
But we also use cabbage the way the Greeks often do, by using it to make a salad very similar to one with lettuce, adding cut up vegetables of our choice, and dressing it with a simple oil and vinegar vinaigrette. It's delicious.
Marketing campaigns have led most Americans to think that perfect looking fruits and vegetables are the only kinds of fruit that are good or safe to eat. In fact, that’s often far from the truth.
As anybody who’s ever had their own garden can tell you, appearance often bears very little relevance to taste. Many vegetables on sale in the markets are specially grown for beauty and ease of transport, and taste is often sacrificed along the way.
Grocery stores and markets understand consumer preference for the perfect-looking, so they’ll sometimes have a shelf at the back of the produce section where they offer less than perfect or somewhat older vegetables for lower prices. Don’t hesitate to avail yourself of these options.
I don’t mean truly rotten fruit or vegetables, of course, but salad greens whose outside leaves are a bit wilted, or fruit that’s misshapen, are definitely still perfectly edible. Give them a try.
Shop at the End of the Day at Farmer’s Markets
Yes, there may well be less choice at that time, but farmers are looking to unload any remaining produce to avoid having to cart it home again. So they will often drop the price substantially.
Avoid Places like Costco
I know people swear by Costco, but honestly, I don't know anyone who can match my food budget shopping there.
Besides the premium you pay for membership at these kinds of big box stores, you are also almost guaranteed to be paying for fruit and vegetables that are larger individually in size than you need, and often in far bigger packages and quantities than you can use before they go bad.
That means waste, and that’s the last thing we want when we’re trying to save money.
So there you have a few approaches off the top of my head that I use to cut costs that are tried and true.
Give these methods a go and you might well find that eating healthy can be much more affordable than you ever realized.