Healthy and Frugal Grocery Shopping
We are a family of two and we love food! Frankly, there’s nothing quite like the satisfaction of a good meal. Healthy and frugal grocery shopping can be a challenge on a budget, so here’s a run-through on how my household tames this beast.
Now, the price of groceries depend on the cost of living in your area and your proximity to grocery stores. (The Grocery Gap is a real barrier to some areas having access to healthy and fresh foods). I’d love to pretend that we are just geniuses at optimizing grocery shopping, but the truth is, we’re privileged to live in an area with a fantastic, reasonably priced grocery store.
**We’re in Texas, and that grocery store is H-E-B. This isn’t an H-E-B promo piece—though I’ll happily promote their store at no charge.
Grocery stores aside, eating healthy while remaining frugal can feel like an ordeal. My family has recently gone meatless, we eat mostly organic, and we do not eat out very often. Both my husband and I work over 40 hours a week and planning/prepping/cooking food takes time—time that is very dear to us. We’ve landed on some simple compromises which allow frugal and healthy eats to work for us!
In the mornings I usually snack on a banana, some almonds, and a cheese stick. Occasionally, I will make a batch of banana bread that we can pre-slice and pack. We also have been known to make egg cups at the beginning of the week, packed with onion, bell peppers, and spinach. The egg cups are good microwaved or cold, they will keep for several days in the fridge, and if we store these individually (in packs of 2), it makes for an easy grab-and-go breakfast.
Salad, salad, and more salad. We pack salad in these Rubbermaid containers each night for the following day, and alternate the toppings. Beans, cheese, avocado, celery, carrots, and hard-boiled eggs are our go-to’s. When we ate meat, we would throw chopped chicken or canned tuna in there. A hack we’ve read about, but never used: buy a pre-cooked rotisserie chicken from the grocery store and throw the shredded chicken in a variety of meals (including as a salad-topper). To round out our lunches, we usually have a piece of fruit (bananas, oranges, apples, or peaches), and a cereal bar.
This is where my husband truly shines. He makes an array of dishes and we usually have enough to feed us both for 2-4 nights. This way, we aren’t obligated to get home and cook every single night. Having leftovers also helps us not begrudge the 2-3 nights a week we do take the time to prepare and cook a meal, because we know it will keep several days. More complex recipes are cooked on the weekend when we have more time. We try to purchase products that can be used across multiple recipes to maximize every dollar spent. You can find a list of recipes for our favorite meatless dinner meals here.
A vicious rumor I’ve come across on the internet is some people don’t like leftovers! What the heck?! Leftovers are delicious! Being willing to eat pre-prepared food is the key to our frugal food success. We save precious time by only cooking a few times a week and we don’t have to play mental acrobatics trying to trouble-shoot what to eat every night. It reduces food waste, which is good for the environment and good for our wallets. If you hate leftovers, try to find at least a couple things you don’t mind pre-prepared that you can fall back on. Having food at home, ready to eat, greatly reduces the desire to eat out or order in—especially when tired and hungry.
This is where we have been most challenged. A lot of the quick snack options are carb-loaded and pre-packaged processed foods. We’ve fallen back on fruit, popcorn, cheese sticks, almonds, bean and cheese nachos, a smaller serving of leftovers, chips and salsa, and raw veggies. We also will blend up some frozen fruits and veggies, add yogurt, water, sometimes peanut butter, and a little maple syrup and it makes a damn good smoothie. If you have any ideas of snack foods that require minimal prep and are healthy, I’d love to hear them!
Pretty basic options here. We drink iced coffee made at home using a Toddy and we drink water. Everyday I have a large coffee cup and a large water bottle filled and packed along with my lunch. This helps avoid frittering away a dollar here or there to keep my thirst satiated throughout the day. At home, we mostly drink water. It’s delicious, and our bodies need it to function!
We keep a couple frozen pizzas in our freezer at all times. If we’re really in a pinch, we have something that’s quick and easy to prepare. We also are always stocked on frozen fruits and veggies, both for our smoothies, and also to supplement any dinner dishes. This keeps the amount of fresh produce we let spoil to a minimum.
When we shop, we try to stay on the perimeter of the store for the most part. Our cart usually consists of produce, dairy products, frozen fruits/veggies and the occasional pizza, beans on beans on beans, rice, lentils, spaghetti sauce, olive oil, peanut butter, etc.
We have divvied up our large grocery trips to occur every three weeks. I don’t know why we settled on that, except that grocery shopping every two weeks was too frequent, and every four weeks wasn’t frequent enough. This means every three weeks we go “Big Time Shopping” and load up on staples. We then supplement with weekly trips to fill in gaps with fresh produce. Going weekly is still kind of a drag, but it’s usually just for salad (spinach or spring mix) and some bananas or other fruit, so it’s an in-and-out trip.
If you hate going to the store, consider paying a fee to get groceries delivered (via Instacart, Walmart, or your local grocery store). The service charge to get a few weeks worth of groceries will probably end up being what
I could someone might spend for a meal or two at a fast food place. Perhaps paying this charge makes all the difference in getting the kitchen stocked with foods you will eat.
Going to restaurants isn’t our thing, but we sometimes eat out with our parents/friends. When we are feeling frisky we pick up some Mexican on the way home. We have a set amount budgeted for food which includes all grocery shopping and the occasional restaurant. If we decide to eat out, we take it out of the grocery budget. This allows for the freedom to treat ourselves from time to time. It also discourages us from eating out too frequently, as we know it will come from our grocery budget and we are pretty diligent about staying within budget. Any eating out we do on our own, like my dates with girlfriends, can be paid for using our individual allowances.
Recipes and Substitutions
So you’re cooking at home, but not sure what to make? Google “easy” + “pretty much any type of food” and you can find a simple recipe for just about anything. Left with a bunch of odds and ends in your pantry/refrigerator before your next grocery trip? Try Supercook.com and enter the ingredients you do have. It will pull up a recipe using the ingredients you listed. Does the recipe call for shallots, but all you’ve got is an onion? Do you need a bed of rice but only have quinoa? Feel free to substitute ingredients in recipes by using what you have. You (probably) won’t screw it up to where it’s inedible.
The time it takes to prepare healthy, frugal food can be a barrier. First, there’s grocery shopping, then there’s prepping/packing, and finally there is consuming it.
- Grocery Shopping: Start with a menu and use this to help plan your grocery list. Flexible menu-planning might look like, “We’ll probably make spaghetti, tacos, and a casserole at some point this week.” A more structured menu might have an assigned meal for Monday, Tuesday, etc. Find what works for you. If you have the time to grocery shop, great! We prefer to do it ourselves, so we can pick out our produce, etc. We also make it a point to stick to our list (and our budget). However, if time or impulse buying is problematic, a grocery delivery service may be right for you!
- Prepping/Packing Food: We pack our lunches the night before, and we usually make dinners 2-3 times a week. This works for us, but it’s definitely not one size fits all! Perhaps you want to prep all things on Sunday and be done for the week. Maybe you’d rather take it day by day. If you have other family members who can help, see if you can get them on board (in a positive way)—they eat too! Remember whichever approach you choose, this might be a new habit you’re building. Be gentle with yourself, and above all: be persistent.
- Consuming: Eat the food you made! You spent all kinds of time (and money) to arrive at this step; make sure you follow through. It’s absolutely tempting to skip what you’ve planned for what your tastebuds are telling you to eat right this moment. Remember, your tastebuds don’t pay the bills. Eat what you have, so it doesn’t go to waste, and make sure to plan for some “treat foods” too. If you feel like Taco Bell, but you packed a salad for lunch, eat the salad. You can plan for Taco Bell tomorrow, or next week! Eating all kinds of good food is possible, if you’ve planned and budgeted for it. (*In no way is this medical/nutrition advice!*) Once you’ve eaten the delicious food you’ve made, you will be full, and Taco Bell will lose its momentary power over you!
So How Much Do We Spend?
For a three week time period, we budget $375 for two people. This includes the weekly produce trips, the Big Time Shopping trip, make-up, toiletries, paper products (toilet paper, etc) and any restaurant spending we do. That averages to about $500/month. Since we have gone meatless, we have consistently been under budget, and at some point we may revise that budgeted amount. If you aren’t sure how much you spend on groceries each month, try to track your spending and see how much you need/want to budget each month.
We know if we don’t buy the food we like, we are tempted to eat out or order in. It’s all about setting ourselves up for success, so we buy plenty of foods we love to eat. With this, we are more inclined to choose those foods over any fast food or restaurant meals. I’m sure there are cheaper ways to grocery shop, however, there are also more expensive ways. We prep our foods in increments throughout the week so we aren’t bogged down cooking every night, nor spending an entire day trying to cook everything.
An important thing is to allow for a little trial and error to find what works for you and your family. Loving yourself enough to buy healthy foods can be tough. If healthy eating is difficult, remind yourself every time you make a healthy choice, “Through this food, I’m nourishing my body, and I am loving myself.” Find the happy medium between healthy food you enjoy, and what doesn’t break the bank, and you’re golden.