When you wake up, you make a delicious omelette, featuring organic, cage free egg whites, a delicious variety of organic local vegetables, and topped with goat cheese straight from the local farmer’s market. Your mid-morning pick me up is a matcha latte with almond milk. Lunchtime calls for an organic grain bowl, filled with your favorite mix of healthy, energizing goodness, and a drink that is as good for you as it is Insta-worthy. Your filling dinner is jam packed with clean eats, checking off the boxes for any missed nutrients from the day. And while you catch up on your favorite shows that night, you grab the Halo Top Ice Cream in your freezer.
Ha. That sounds nice, doesn’t it?
Who doesn’t want to eat healthier? Who doesn’t want to fill their bodies with nutrient rich food that leaves them feeling energized? But it’s a lot easier said than done. While it may seem the world is filled with an abundance of delicious, healthy food, that doesn’t mean it is accessible to all people. And even if it is accessible at your local grocery store, that doesn’t mean you can afford it.
While making healthy lifestyle choices is easier when you are Gwyneth Paltrow, there are ways to hack the system and score the energizing eats you so desire to have in your fridge. I’ve been grocery shopping for myself for the past three years and have learned a thing or two about buying a mix of healthy, organic, and clean foods on even the smallest of budgets. I’ve lived in the Bronx, the burbs, a barrier island, and Manhattan. While things change with location, I’ve found there to be some underlying principles of food shopping that exists no matter where you are.
First things first: define your budget.
Everyone’s budget and circumstances are different. When I set up my annual budget, food has always been at the top of my list of priorities. Some of that is because it can be thanks to my current life circumstance and part of it is because I have eliminated other things to ensure that is the case. Regardless, now living in Manhattan, my food budget is $100 per month. In New York City, that can equal five take out orders easily, so I’m very conscientious of every cent of that budget.
When determining your food budget, be very clear on your priorities. Do you order pizza every Friday night? Is a Starbucks run a part of your routine? Is sushi night with your girlfriends something you look forward to?
My biggest priority is buying healthy foods that will keep me fueled throughout my week. But truly good food cost more, plain and simple. I’ll go over a number of cost-cutting methods, but it’s important to note that if you want to eat healthier foods, you have to ditch some of your less valuable expenses.
Some financial experts (of which I am not) advise eliminating all unnecessary spending. However, a life of restriction isn’t a life I’m interested in. Instead, I prefer to focus on value driven purchases. It feels more empowering, you know? I’ve determined that I love grabbing brunch with my girlfriends on the weekend but really don’t need Tuesday night takeout or Thursday afternoon lattes.
After I have defined exactly what I value in the food and drink department, I break up my budget into two segments: groceries and restaurants. Based on my overall budget, I set aside $100 each month to spend on groceries. Considering I maybe eat out at most three meals each week, that $100 has to get me between 60 and 80 meals each month if I am to eat three meals daily. (Until I did the math for the purpose of this article, I didn’t realize just how small that budget is.)
This is how I make a small food budget work in a city as expensive as Manhattan.
1. I do a large majority of my shopping once per month.
I used to shop on a weekly basis because I thought that was the ticket to smart spending. While that may work for some, when I moved to Manhattan and realized just how much of a frustration grocery shopping can be, I tried out a new system that works really well for me. I go to the grocery store at the beginning of every month and buy between $70 and $80 worth of food that is either non-perishable or has a far off expiration date. For me that means foods like frozen fruit and vegetables, veggie burgers, grains, cheese, and snacks.
At this point, I have this down to a science. I still like to try out new foods or spices, but I keep a small budget for “experiment purchases.” Personally I’ve found Trader Joe’s to be the best option for this kind of shopping because they have a lot of inexpensive frozen food, from brussel sprouts to salmon burgers, that I can use throughout the month.
2. I strategically cook from cookbooks.
I love trying out new recipes and making something from a cookbook that I can use for multiple meals. One of the perks of cooking for one person is that most cookbook recipes feed more than one person, so I will get a few meals out of one cooking endeavor.
That being said, I plan what I’m going to attempt ahead of that monthly shopping trip so I can get the most out of the food I’m buying. For example, if I know I want to make the twice-baked potato from Oprah’s new cookbook, Food, Health, and Happiness, I’ll try to find another recipe that uses broccoli and another that calls for light sour cream so that the left over broccoli and sour cream doesn’t go to waste.
3. I am careful about how I buy protein.
For most people protein is the most costly part of their grocery bill. I am not a big meat eater to begin with and I rarely eat red meat, so that does help my food budget. That being said, I eat a ton of seafood and that can get expensive quickly, especially when trying to buy the healthiest options (which not even Whole Foods always has in stock).
I purchase a lot of organic, fresh frozen seafood and shellfish. I have found the most cost efficient options at Costco and Aldi, but sometimes Trader Joe’s and Stop and Shop have a nice selection as well. I buy a lot of shrimp because I can put it in salads, grain bowls, or just by itself and a little goes a long way. Regardless of the kind of seafood, I have found that a bag of tilapia, salmon, and shrimp can last me a month and cost less than $30 all together.
In terms of other protein sources, most grocery stores have a healthy frozen chicken option that serves as a great source of protein and is very cost effective. Cans of organic beans typically run for less than $3 each and I can get anywhere from three to nine meals out of a single can of beans, depending on what I’m making.
Finally, during the week I often make burgers, be it a turkey, veggie, salmon, or mahi mahi burger, put it over a bed of lettuce, and eat that with a sweet potato or vegetable. It isn’t as expensive as a piece of meat or as complex as a recipe, and helps keep my food costs low while still being very filling.
4. I buy inexpensive grains and carbs.
Certain grains can get very expensive. Even quinoa can go for over $10 at some grocery stores. I always keep a box or two of Trader Joe’s Organic Whole Wheat Spaghetti in my cabinet, but outside of the typical pasta options, I also buy a selection of grains that will last me anywhere from two weeks to two months. Personally I’ve seen Israeli couscous, quinoa, and farro to go a long way for a small price.
5. I buy organic produce in small quantities.
I try to purchase as much organic produce as I can, but I make it a priority to buy organic produce that is skinless, meaning that I’ll buy organic berries before I buy organic pineapple. (This is a great resource for determining what produce you should prioritize buying organically.) I also have found that since I’m only purchasing for one person, if I buy too much it’ll go bad before I can eat all of it. Farmer’s markets can be a great solution for this because typically you have a little more control over your quantities. For example, I can buy half the amount of baby tomatoes at a farmer’s market than I can at a grocery store.
Because organic produce has such a short shelf life, going to the farmer’s market gives you the longest timeline for the food because you’re cutting out the middleman that is the grocery store. Plus you’re supporting local business! Whether I go to a farmer’s market or a grocery store for produce, I end up going at least twice each month and it accounts for about 10% of my food budget, which is definitely worth it for me.
6. I get most of my fruit frozen.
I adore fruit, but about a year ago I started buying nearly all of my fruit frozen because I got a blender. Now, I make fruit smoothies at least three mornings each week. This helps me ensure I’m getting the amount of fruit that I’m supposed to intake on a daily basis while keeping my produce costs as low as possible. Fruit can get expensive very quickly and it goes bad even faster. Frozen fruit is a great alternative to that. There are some great options (both organic and not) at Trader Joe’s, Aldi, Whole Foods, and Stop and Shop.
7. I have one non-negotiable snack purchase.
Sometimes I’ll come up with some room in my budget for more snack food, but typically, it’s the lowest priority. Years ago my mom bought me a $20 air popper for popcorn and that popper and I have been besties ever since. A bag of popcorn kernels costs me roughly $3, which is less than the average bag of tortilla chips, and I buy one bag every other month at most. A little goes a long way.
Air popped popcorn is also a very versatile snack because you can put all sorts of toppings on it, from candy to spices to sauces, and it’s delicious. Plus, it’s a fun snack to make when you have friends over for a movie night.
8. I rely on spices.
Typically, spices are much healthier and cheaper than sauces. While I love condiments as much as the next girl, I cook heavily with spices so that I get added flavor to the foods I’m cooking while not spending extra money to get more flavoring in my food.
9. I love taking soup for lunch.
Cans or boxes of organic soup are a fantastic way to get the nutrients you want at a very inexpensive price. A box of organic tomato basil soup can get me between two and four meals, it’s perfect for packing in a lunch, and it costs me less than $4.
There’s a lot you can do on even the smallest of budgets. In New York City, you could easily spend $100 on a single dinner with your girlfriends, but like all things, a little intention goes a long way.
What are your favorite cost saving secrets when it comes to food shopping? Share them with all of us in the comments!