Pre-pandemic, there was you, a pretty well-organized grocery list and a general sense of how much you should be spending. (For a family of four, according to the USDA, that’s approximately $1,100 a month.) Flash forward to now, and you’re panic shopping for two to three weeks’ worth of groceries at a time and prioritizing a “get it while it’s on the shelves” mindset over sticking to a well-vetted budget. But as the numbers on your grocery bill start to climb, you need to find new ways to stay strategic and save. Here, the best ways to guard your wallet.
1. Make a List in Advance
Pandemic or not, the same rule applies: You need to have a list before you head to the store. “You should map out what you’re going to cook, make a shopping list and stick to it,” says Elizabeth Somer, a registered dietician and medical advisory board member at Persona Nutrition. The goal during these times is obviously to get in and get out fast, which can cause anyone to feel flustered and unable to concentrate. A list is your road map, literally. Do your best to categorize ingredients by meal and by aisle. For example, if you’re making tacos, you need hamburger (in the meat section) but also lettuce, tomatoes and avocado (produce section).
2. Freeze Fruit So You Don’t Waste It
Sad but true: Fruits and veggies tend to be among the top-wasted foods. They’re also one of the most costly. “If you want to save on produce, pay attention to what’s on sale, but also what’s currently in-season,” says Samantha Cassetty, registered dietician and a nutrition and wellness expert with a virtual private practice in New York City. Also, if you’re buying in bulk, remember that you can freeze produce you don’t think you’ll get to right away. “You can freeze peeled bananas, blueberries, strawberries, even whole avocados,” Cassetty adds.
3. Consider a (Mostly) Plant-Based Diet
Potential shortage aside, meats (and poultry and seafood) are going to be the priciest items in your cart. According to Forbes, the cost of a grassfed hamburger dinner for four is about $12 total if each family member has just one patty. A black bean burger dinner clocks in at about $4…for four patties. That’s one third of the price of the meat equivalent.
4. If You Do Buy Meat, Buy It in Bulk and Freeze It
This is the most cost-effective way to do it, says Cassetty. “When you shop the meat, poultry and seafood section, buy in bulk to save money, then package it into meal-size portions so you can freeze what you won’t get to in the next few days.” It’s also OK to buy meat on sale. “With meat, that usually means it’s nearing its sell-by date, but it’s still safe to purchase. Just eat it or freeze it before the expiration date.”
5. Prioritize Meals That Yield Leftovers
Somer’s pandemic favorites include soups, stews and casseroles. “You can load them up with good-for-you things like carrots, celery and onions—vegetables that don’t go bad quite as fast—but also pad them with cheaper ingredients like brown rice, pasta and other nutritious basics.” Then, instead of eating the same thing night after night, freeze what you don’t eat for a ready-made meal the following week.
6. Coupons, Coupons, Coupons!
This might surprise you, but Instacart is actually one of the world’s largest digital coupon platforms. If you’re not doing your grocery shopping online, check out Coupons.com (yes, there’s an app) which yields discounts along the lines of 50 cents off a name brand jar of salsa (Picante) or $2 off Glad trash bags.
7. Less Processed = Cheaper (Usually)
A quick reminder for when you’re roaming the aisles: The more processed the food, the more expensive it is, says Somer. For example, old-fashioned oatmeal typically runs you $3 (and that yields 13 servings. The more sugary options? Almost double for a grand total of 10 servings. The same rule applies to other processed foods like frozen vegetables in sauces or frozen meals. You could buy a one-serving microwavable lasagna that’s $5, or you could spend $10 to make your own for a family of four, with leftovers.
8. And finally…take a good look at how much you’re eating
Says Somer: “Beyond the store, it may be worth taking a look at the quantities of food you’re consuming at home. Are you eating because you are truly hungry or are you eating for emotional and stress reasons?” Since we may be in this for the long haul, try keeping a food diary at home to document which foods you eat the most, as well as times you’re eating when you’re not actually hungry. (“That is food wasted and ‘waisted,’ she maintains.)