It happens every month: The bank statement arrives and my husband and I cringe at how much we've spent on groceries. Like many health-conscious parents these days, we insist on top-quality, all-natural foods. Can we help that our 1-year-old daughter's favorite snack is organic raspberries—at a whopping $6 a pack? Apparently we're not alone. According to Nutrition Business Journal, consumers in the United States spent nearly $26.2 billion in 2006 on natural and organic foods. Faced with monthly grocery totals that rival a mortgage payment, I asked a few experts to offer some smart shopping tips so that my family—and yours—can continue to eat healthily without spending a fortune.
Eat seasonally, locally
When it comes to produce, tailoring your diet to eat whatever's in season and what's harvested as close to your home as possible not only ensures fresher fruits and veggies with a higher vitamin and mineral content, it also helps save money at the checkout counter. "Price can reflect what's in season," says Susan Moores, MS, RD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association and a nutrition consultant in St. Paul, Minnesota. Check out displays for produce labeled "local," or ask the staff at your natural foods store to point you toward regional options, which are likely to be in season and less expensive than their well-traveled counterparts.
You may think paying more for fresh fruits and vegetables is worth the extra money when it comes to nutritional value, but that's not always the case. In fact, according to Joy Bauer, MS, RD, CDN, a New York–based nutritionist and author of Joy Bauer's Food Cures (Rodale, 2007), frozen fruits and vegetables retain about 95 percent of their nutrients because they're frozen at the peak of freshness; depending on your geographic location, "fresh" produce may be more than a week old and may have lost significant nutritional value by the time you serve it to your family. "If you're shopping on the East Coast for fresh broccoli, chances are it's at least ten days old," explains Luddene Perry, author of A Field Guide to Buying Organic (Bantam, 2005), who manages a community-supported-agriculture farm in Rochester, Minnesota.
Steve Schwarz, owner of the Natural Market in Timonium, Maryland, suggests purchas-ing grains, nuts, granola, and beans in bulk because "these items will likely be 25 percent to 40 percent cheaper than packaged varieties." If you've got friends and family members interested in similar items, consider forming a buying club: Purchase food and other household items in bulk and then split them. Ask your natural grocer if the store offers discounts on cases of items, such as packaged goods, cleaning supplies, or personal-care products. The key to truly saving money when buying in bulk is to be realistic about what your family can consume before it turns bad and you're forced to toss it away. "Only buy the amount you need," advises Moores. "Otherwise you're wasting food—and money."
Organic, free-range meats and healthy fish can be pricey, so incorporating a few vegetarian meals into your weekly menu can save big bucks. For example, free-range chicken breasts can cost upward of $8 per pound, whereas tofu or tempeh go for around $2 per pound. If your family isn't interested in cutting out meat altogether, try reducing intake by half and adding beans or legumes, inexpensive alternatives that pack a powerful nutritional punch, says Moores. Other, less expensive protein sources include nuts and eggs. Bauer suggests serving brown and wild rice, whole-wheat pasta, and barley to bulk up vegetarian meals.
Lives are arguably busier than ever, but if you really want to pinch your pennies, it's essential to find time to prepare food at home. Eating out and relying on convenience foods are surefire ways to blow your budget, says Perry. Bauer recommends doubling or tripling batches of soup, then freezing the rest. To get excited about cooking, Perry suggests cooking classes, available through many community education programs, and using the Internet for recipes and tips.
Packaged, single-serve items also add up. Purchase produce items in their entirety, and allot time to prepare them. "Instead of lettuce in the bag, buy the entire head and cut it up yourself," says Moores. As for convenient snack items, buy in larger quantities and repack them yourself. Especially if you have kids, it pays to be prepared. "If you're out running errands and the kids are screaming because they're hungry, it's easy to spend lots of money satisfying them with something quick to eat." Instead, Bauer suggests creating your own healthy snack mixes (such as oat-bran pretzels, nuts, and dried fruit) in small resealable bags or containers and taking them on the go.
Know the deals
If you regularly access the Internet, saving money could be as simple as checking out your store's website before planning weekly menus. Many post specials or printable e-coupons. Check to see if your retailer mails a newsletter that includes coupons or announcements about in-store specials.
Kelli Rosen is a freelance writer and shopper in Monkton, Maryland.