As wonderful and joy-filled as this time of year is, for many of us it is also that time of year where we begin to feel the pinch. It seems no matter how much we plan for it (or at least intend to) each year, with those cozy holiday vibes often comes that slight financial worry in the back of our minds. And with the biggest and brightest new items on the block these days, it comes as no surprise that many of us struggle to keep up while maintaining a wholesome and nourishing diet for ourselves and our families.
From spending a significant amount of time as students, we are grateful to have gained some real-world experience in this area. Experience that has proven to be beneficial in everyday life, but especially when looking to balance the books at years end. Over these academic years, where expenses were high and income was scarce, we unknowingly picked up some money saving habits that, if used mindfully, may help others who are looking for support in this area.
And so, with the intent of keeping your health and zest for life buzzing as the year draws to a close once more, we’ve put together my top budget savvy suggestions with the goal of helping you stretch your food dollar this season.
Plan Your Meals
One of the best ways to make sure you eat well, especially on a budget, is to plan your meals ahead of time. Aside from saving time (by helping you shop less) and saving money (by prompting you to buy only what you need), planning ahead can help you get a healthy balance of foods in your daily diet. It may also assist you in adding variety, so you’re not eating the same things day after day; as well as reducing food waste, by making you aware of what is already in your kitchen.
Make sure to plan for healthy snacks to enjoy throughout the day as well as meals. This is especially important if you tend to get caught out holiday shopping, or often end up racing to meet tight deadlines at the office, and don’t have time for a sit-down meal. Fresh seasonal fruit, raw vegetables, boiled eggs, popcorn (my favourite whole grain), and whole grain crackers all make easy, health promoting, and relatively inexpensive snacks.
And you could save even more time and money by planning for leftovers – or better yet, creating a new recipe using your leftovers. For instance, if you’re cooking chicken breast on Monday, cook a bit extra and plan to create a stir fry, casserole, salad or sandwich the following day(s). You can also freeze leftover meat and use it later in soups or stews.
The benefits of planning your meals may not be news to you, but if saving money is a priority this season, you really should consider employing this strategy.
Cook at Home More Often
At restaurants you are paying for the service you’re getting as well as the food you’re eating. So if you’re looking to save money on food, we recommend preparing home cooked meals as often as you can. Along the same lines, when you purchase pre-prepared foods (for example, grated cheese or sliced vegetables) you are paying for the preparation as well as the food. If you have the time, we suggest doing as much yourself as you can. TIP: If you have a food processor, you can grate cheese and perfectly slice veggies like it’s no ones’ business.
If eating out less frequently will be a challenge for you, we suggest thinking about meals that you enjoy having at resaurants, and challenging yourself to re-create them at home (as we’re sure you know, the internet is an amazing resource for recipes). You may be surprised at the result! And if it’s not what you were hoping for the first time, we encourage you to try again. Few of us produce perfection on our first try.
As prices tend to be higher at convenience stores and corner store-type markets (and these small stores offer less variety), shop at grocery stores whenever possible.
Consider looking at grocery store flyers and newspaper ads and planning some of your meals around things you enjoy that are on sale. Using the grocery store flyer, and taking stock of what is already in your kitchen, make a list of all the foods you need. TIP: Do this in your kitchen so you can check what you have on hand.
When they are on sale, stock up on healthy, low-cost foods that keep well. These include rice, potatoes, noodles, canned tuna, canned beans and soups. And keep in mind that coupons don’t always give you the best deal – store “no-name” brands are often cheaper and are generally just as health promoting as their branded competition.
Shop around the edge of the grocery store to find many of the basics, while avoiding the lure of brightly marketed snack foods. Items at eye level may be more costly, so look at the upper and lower shelves too. And don’t be fooled by big end-of-isle displays touting flashy signs – signs don’t always mean there’s a special price. If you frequent the same store often, we encourage you to learn the usual prices of the foods you commonly buy, so you can quickly tell if they are on sale at price worth purchasing.
Buy Only What You Need
We recommend having a good meal or a substantial snack before you head out grocery shopping. If you shop when you’re hungry, you are more likely to be tempted to buy foods you don’t need (or even really want).
And though this may seem obvious, make sure you buy only as much as you will use of foods that will go bad (think fresh fruit, vegetables, herbs, dairy, and perishable meats). Though buying that bulk bag of spinach or large jug of milk may seem like a bargain, if the food spoils before you consume it, it won’t save you money. TIP: Canned tuna and dried beans are nourishing and inexpensive protein options with a long shelf life – they’re always handy to have in your pantry as back-up.
When thinking in terms of dollar per nutrient value, choose high nutrient-lower cost foods more often (for example, a large bag of carrots or apples, or eggs). Limit high energy snack foods and drinks such as chips, chocolate, and pop, as they are expensive when you consider that they generally offer little nutrition.
Buy fresh fruits and vegetables in season. And look for ones that are locally grown – in addition to being better for the environment, local produce is typically fresher and may cost less than imported varieties (because the labour that goes into extensive shipping is cut out).
For information about what food is available seasonally (in Canada), check out the chart HERE.
It looks like winter squash season is almost over; make sure you enjoy some while it’s freshly harvested this year!
Look for ‘best before’ dates furthest away from your date of purchase to help you buy the freshest foods and maximize their shelf life. If you know that you’ll be using the food up right away (for example, you have an imminent taco night and need sour cream) look to see if the store is offering a discounted price on a soon-to-expire item.
To compare prices on similar items look for the ‘unit cost.’ It shows you how much something costs (usually per 100 grams) so you can tell which size or brand is the best deal. Many stores show the unit price on the shelf below the product.
If you have extra time (a snow day where the office is closed, perhaps?), cook in larger batches and portion out the extra to store in the freezer. If you find ground beef or other meat on sale, consider making an extra big pot of chili or spaghetti sauce. Have some for dinner one night and divide the rest into meal-sized portions to freeze for later. And if you’re tight on storage containers, consider saving large yogurt or margarine containers for freezing meals – just be sure to label and date them appropriately.
These frozen leftovers can be used for quick meals when you’re short on time or don’t feel like preparing a meal from scratch (as is quite often the case as we approach the big day). Having easy-to-prepare, nourishing meals available may deter you from picking up an expensive pre-prepared dish on the way home.
Watch Your Waste
Last but not least, to keep your food dollars out of the trash, eat your most perishable items (such as berries) first. Save heartier food items (such as onions and yams) for later in the week. Frozen fruits and vegetables are always smart options to have on hand as well – they won’t spoil if your plans change or your meal is delayed.
Eating well on a limited budget can be a challenge. It is our hope that these tips and suggestions will assist you in finding lower-cost, health promoting choices in your local grocery store, and help you to save money while eating well – this season and always.