Grocery shopping doesn't have to be expensive.
In an effort to save money and eat healthier, I challenged myself not to eat out for two weeks. (Full disclosure: I lasted eight days cooking all of my meals before I splurged on a burrito bowl at Chipotle.) For those of you looking to increase your at-home cooking but not your spending -- who are stronger-willed than I am -- I've got 10 tips for how to plan out your healthy budget meal prepping, before going to the store, at the store and once you're home.
For this challenge, I focused on affordable, nutritious, filling foods. As a college student on a shoestring budget with limited cooking supplies, I hope these tips will be helpful for anyone looking to save money on balanced, simple home-cooked meals. (You can also check out our stories on whether it's cheaper to buy groceries online or in the store, and if meal kits are worth the money compared to regular groceries.)
Everyone is different, so think about what you need to fuel your lifestyle. Are you active? Do you have dietary restrictions? Do you have an allergy that makes getting the right nutrients more difficult?
For the best bang for your buck, the base of your meal should aim to have all three macronutrients: a carbohydrate, a protein and a fat. To make a fully balanced meal, include fruits and vegetables wherever possible. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only one in 10 adults in the US eats enough vegetables and fruits (2-3 cups of veggies and 1.5-2 cups of fruit per day).
To help you plan, check out our story on which fruits and veggies are most affordable right now.
So how do you set a budget for groceries? The US Department of Agriculture recommends that men aged 19 to 50 on a low-cost to moderate budget should spend about $66 to $82 per week, based on dietary intake recommendations. For women in the same age group, that weekly budget is $57-$70. This will also vary depending on the price of groceries where you live, but will help as a general guideline if you're not sure where to start.
For basics such as bread, milk and butter, I recommend a store like Aldi or Trader Joe's, which have business models that keep prices lower than many other supermarkets. For example, at Aldi, I recently bought almond milk for $1.45, almost $2 cheaper than the generic Whole Foods brand. So, check out these options if you have one near you for most basic items before heading to another store.
Read more: Best Healthy Meal Delivery Services
This seems self-explanatory, but many people end up impulse-buying goods they don't need. The grocery store is designed so we do! Before you go, look up easy recipes online, open up a cookbook or plan to double up on recipes you can already make. There are plenty of websites, YouTube channels and TikTok videos dedicated to healthy meal-planning.
If you're meal prepping, write down the ingredients for each meal, and how much of each are needed. By making a grocery list, you can focus on exactly what you need and stick to it.
If you don't know where to start, I generally aim to buy:
1 lean meat item
2 non-meat protein items
3 starches, preferably whole grain
2-3 different servings of fruits (frozen or fresh)
After pre-chopping and preparing all those veggies, fruits, meats and snacks for the week, you'll need to store them in something. Try these Bayco glass storage container set.
2-3 different servings of vegetables (frozen or fresh)
1-2 fat sources
If you need some meal inspiration, here are a few of my go-to recipes and ingredients for different meals:
Read more: Best Meal Prep Containers to Buy for 2022
Get down on the bottom row and take the time to read the nutrition label to see if what you're buying is actually providing the nutrients you're looking for, whether that's fiber, vitamins, or protein. Check out our guide on what to look for and avoid on nutrition labels.
I know you want to get in and get out of the store as fast as possible, but a couple extra minutes could save you money. Many companies have reduced their food portion sizes while keeping prices the same. Cross-check between brands and different sizes for the best deal by dividing the total price by the total weight. While you have your calculator out, try totaling as you shop. You will start to remember item prices, and you won't be startled at the register.
Everyone knows store brands are usually cheaper than premium brands, but the margin is higher than you'd think. Buying store brands wherever you shop can save you as much as 40%, say expert grocery shoppers.
Pay attention to the sales at the store. Many grocery stores release a weekly ad that you can scan beforehand. Pick out the items you want to use and try to plan your meals for the week around discounted items. If you know you buy an item often and it's on sale, stock up on it. (Lots of in-season fruits are less expensive, too.)
Many large stores have apps or websites, so lookout for online-specific discounts and deals. Coupon websites such as Coupons.com have a section entirely for grocery stores. Selecting the items you'd like to buy beforehand also helps you diversify your meals as you incorporate new on-sale items.
The key to buying groceries is not to get fancy -- you don't need that pricey truffle oil that you're only going to use in one recipe ever. Keep it simple with the ingredients you know you'll use and use a lot. Save the experimenting for when you have more money. Ingredient-prepping is less daunting than meal-prepping, so if you have similar bases while varying the spices and sauces, you'll be able to stretch a handful of ingredients into different meals.
Frozen and canned fruits and vegetables aren't the enemy. A 2017 study showed that not only are frozen vegetables and fruit nutritionally comparable to fresh ones, but frozen produce may actually retain vitamins more efficiently than fresh produce stored in the fridge for five days or more. Canned items are processed more than frozen produce, but they are both harvested and preserved at peak ripeness. Regardless, eating frozen and canned foods are a great way to add essential vitamins and minerals into your diet easily and affordably.
The steps you take after grocery shopping are crucial to efficiently using the food you just bought. Take steps to preserve your food in the fridge longer, including your fruits and veggies, and organize your kitchen to save money and stay motivated to eat the good food you just bought.
Happy meal prepping! For more tips on healthy meal preparation, check out expert picks on the best fish to grill, and the best air fryers.