Post-grocery shopping regret is a feeling I know well. More often than not, the sliding doors open, I cross the threshold into Trader Joe’s, immediately black out, and—before I know it—I’m through checkout having spent $80 on a food budget of $50 per week. What candy stores are to kids is what grocery stores become for adults, and—oh boy—does my bank account know it. But no longer! After an intervention by two dietitians, I now know that eating healthy on a budget possible. (It’s more than practicing self-control in the frozen food aisle.)
If you’re a living, shopping human being, you’ve probably already heard the sage advice that you should never shop when you’re hungry. Indeed, studies have confirmed that trips to the supermarket with an appetite only result in an empty wallet. Apart from making sure a list—not your tastebuds—guide you through the aisles, Rebekah Blakey, RD, and Brittany Michels, RD, registered dietitians with The Vitamin Shoppe, share their top tips for staying on budget despite the siren song of Amy’s Pizza.
1. Pay with cash—not credit
“Many of us have gotten into the habit of swiping a card,” says Michels. So, “Imagine not being able to spend more than you have.” If your budget is $60, take three crisp Andrew Jackson’s out of your wallet and leave your credit card at home.
2. Use the calculator on your phone to your budget’s advantage
Before you grab a shopping basket, go ahead and enter your spending limit into your smartphone’s calculator. Then, as you add each item to your cart, subtract its cost from the original number. When you hit zero, that’s game over. “Seeing what’s left will caution you from adding those extras in and keeping with the essentials,” Michels says.
3. Split up expensive pantry staples over the course of several weeks
On the rare occasion when I run out of olive oil, almond butter, and rosemary on the same day (Oh, universe! Why do you smite me!?), I usually have a eulogy for my last paycheck in the check out aisle of Whole Foods. To save myself some grief, Michels recommends planning these restocks over the course of a month rather than purchasing them all in one fell swoop. Coconut oil on the first Sunday of the month, protein powder on the second, and so on.
4. Shop price per unit
Not every grocery store gives you this option (sorry, Trader Joe’s shoppers!), but the majority of national chains will list the price per unit on the tag sealed in plastic beneath a given food item. “Many times, larger packages or containers are cheaper per serving, but this isn’t always the case,” explains Michels. However, it’s a know thyself kind of game. Buying a huge crate of apples may save you a few cents per snack fruit, but consider whether you’ll eat them before they turn to mush. “Getting a tub of yogurt, for example, may be cheaper but if you only consume half of it before it expires than getting individual containers may be the cheaper option,” adds the dietitian.
5. When things are on sale, buy them in bulk and freeze them
When one of your mainstays is on sale, that’s the perfect excuse to stock up, says Blakey. If it’s something perishable, just make sure to pop it into the freezer with a timestamp. That way, you can thaw and eat blueberries when your local bodega has hiked the prices up to just north of “no way in hell.”
Now to craft the perfect shopping list! Here’s how to shop for a week’s worth of dinners in one go. And why TV dinners are suddenly cool (and healthy) again.