11 Tips for Healthy Eating on a Grocery Budget

October 20, 2023


Culina Health

It’s hard not to get sticker shock when browsing certain grocery shelves or sorting through the barrage of “health food” products and supplements advertised online. But as registered dietitian nutritionists (RDNs) who work with patients from all backgrounds, we want to let you in on an important fact: a little bit of knowledge and preparation (and maybe some support from a dietitian) enables you to plan nutritious and balanced meals without breaking your budget.

Read on for our favorite ways to save money on food while maintaining your commitment to your health.

1. Buy in bulk

Buying in bulk is a great way to save money on food without sacrificing taste. You can save significantly on the cost per unit by buying from bulk bins and bagging and weighing it yourself. For example, a pre-packaged 8oz bag of pumpkin seeds might be $3.99 at your local grocer, while 8oz of pumpkin seeds from the bulk aisle would only be $2.

Consider purchasing these non-perishable items in bulk, and watch your food bills shrink:

  • Grains (rice, pasta, barley, quinoa, oats)
  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Dried fruit
  • Dried legumes (beans, chickpeas, lentils)

2. Plan ahead and make a grocery list

Take some time to plan your meals for the week before you head to the grocery store. Create a list of the items you need based on your menu, and stick to it. This will prevent impulse buying and help you stay focused on purchasing only what you need. Working with a registered dietitian can help with this, because they will assist in creating balanced meal plans that align with your budget and dietary goals.

An added benefit of the plan-ahead approach? Fewer trips to the grocery store, which will save you time, gas money, and frustration over the course of the week.

3. Buy small quantities of fresh produce

It makes sense to fill your shopping cart with fruits and vegetables if you’re trying to eat healthy. Just keep in mind that fresh foods tend to spoil more quickly than processed foods. This is where meal planning comes in; you can avoid waste by buying smaller amounts of quick-to-spoil produce, and only buy fruits and vegetables that you know you need for upcoming meals and snacks.

Not sure which produce to stock up on? Here are some fruits and vegetables that can wait five days or longer before use:

Fruits that last in the refrigerator:

  • 5-7 days: strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and grapes
  • 2-3 weeks: oranges and bell peppers
  • 3-4 weeks: lemons and apples

Fruits that last in the pantry:

  • 5-7 days: avocados (if unripe), mangoes (if unripe), and bananas
  • 2-3 weeks: apples, pears (if unripe), oranges, lemons, limes, and clementines

Vegetables that last in the refrigerator:

  • 5-7 days: spinach (and other leafy greens), celery, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, green beans, and cucumbers
  • 2-3 weeks: zucchini, radishes, cabbage, carrots, and parsnips
  • 3-4 weeks: beets and rutabaga

Vegetables that last in the pantry:

  • 3-4 weeks: potatoes, sweet potatoes, winter squash, cabbage, beets, turnips, and pumpkins
  • 5+ weeks: onions and garlic (when stored in a cool, dark place)

4. Preserve your proteins and opt for frozen fish

While it may be smartest to go small when it comes to some fresh produce, meat eaters can save lots of money by going big. Large packages of proteins like chicken, turkey, and beef generally cost less per unit. So if you have the room in your freezer, stock up on larger quantities of meat and freeze half to use another time.

And speaking of protein, did you know that frozen fish is just as nutritious as fresh? Since fresh fish goes bad so quickly, grocers often sell frozen varieties for way less. Save yourself some money by heading straight to the freezers for healthy staples like shrimp and salmon.

5. Incorporate meatless meals into your weekly plan

Meat and fish are one of the more expensive components of a meal. You can save money by incorporating more plant-based proteins like beans, lentils, and tofu into your diet. These vegetarian proteins are not only less expensive, but also nutritious. Reducing your weekly meat intake will help lower your grocery costs and improve your health—and it’s good for the planet too. Talk to your registered dietitian nutritionist to get some ideas for balanced, meatless meals.

6. Eat with the seasons

Seasonal fruits and vegetables are typically most affordable because they’re at their peak ripeness and they don’t have to travel as far to get to you. Save money on groceries by looking up which foods are in season in your area before making your weekly shopping list. Your dietitian can also help you come up with ideas to incorporate more seasonal options into your diet. Your meals will cost less, taste delicious, and more environmentally friendly.

7. Look for deals on frozen fruits and vegetables

Like seafood, fruits and vegetables can be frozen without compromising their nutritional value. Look out for discounts on frozen fruits and vegetables to have on hand for quick side dishes, oatmeal add-ons, or smoothies. Just make sure the only ingredient is the fruit or vegetable; avoid those packages that have added sauces or unnecessary sodium.

Frozen vegetables can be roasted, steamed, or sautéed like their fresh counterparts, and frozen fruit is excellent in the blender for smoothies or baked into healthy snacks. Ask your RDN if you need more ideas for using up your healthy frozen produce.

8. Done shopping for produce and meat? Look up, look down, and go generic

Once you’re done with the produce aisle and butcher counter, check the shelves for healthy store brand options for everything from peanut butter to canned tomatoes. In many cases, lower-priced generic products are just as nutritious as their name brand counterparts. Just be sure to check the ingredient list and nutritional information to ensure they meet your dietary requirements.

Another tip for finding deals in the grocery store’s inner aisles: look up and down—literally. Pricier goods are often placed on middle shelves where shoppers are most likely to grab them. Be sure to check the top and bottom shelves for lower-priced items and specials.

9. Shop at your local farmers’ market—especially if you have SNAP Benefits or WIC/Senior FMNP

Even if the $18 jar of artisanal honey at your local farmers’ market doesn’t fit into your budget, there are ways to support your local farmers while spending less than you would at the grocery store. Go to your local farmer’s market with a plan in mind, scour the whole market before committing, and buy what’s in season in order to avoid overspending.

If you receive SNAP benefits or WIC or Senior FMNP, check out the Double Up Food Bucks program. This will allow you to double your buying power at local farmers markets to get a great deal on fresh and healthy goods.

10. Limit pre-packaged and processed foods

Pre-packaged and processed foods can be convenient, but they come with a higher price tag. Save money and improve your health by opting for whole, unprocessed ingredients and preparing your meals and snacks from scratch. If you’re intimidated by the thought of meal planning and cooking for yourself, read on for our final tip…

11. Collaborate with a nutrition expert to change the way you grocery shop

An RDN is a valuable resource in your journey to save money on groceries while maintaining healthy eating habits. They possess the knowledge and expertise to guide you in making nutritious choices that align with your budget, medical needs, and taste preferences. And don’t worry if you don’t have a registered dietitian near you; Culina Health offers virtual nutritionist sessions with RDNs that are covered by most major insurance plans.

Here are some ways a registered dietitian can help you lower your food costs:

  • Personalized meal plans: whether in-person or online, dietitians can create customized meal plans that consider your dietary preferences, personal goals, and financial constraints.
  • Grocery shopping guidance: they can recommend cost-effective, nutrient-dense foods that are in season, and help you decipher food labels to make informed choices.
  • Nutrition education: dietitians provide guidance on portion control, balanced recipes, and food preparation techniques that maximize your budget.
  • Building positive habits: working with a dietitian is an investment in your health. The regular support and accountability they provide will help you develop a more positive relationship to food and health. These new habits will save you money—at the grocery store and beyond.

Remember, eating healthy doesn’t have to be expensive. You can lower your costs while still enjoying nutritious meals by planning ahead, making smart choices, and enlisting the support of an RDN. Virtual dietitian nutritionists are readily available to assist you in making food choices that are both good for your health and kind to your wallet.

Incorporating these tips into your grocery shopping routine and using the expertise of a nutrition expert will put you well on your way to developing healthy eating habits that are both affordable and sustainable.

About Culina Health

Culina Health registered dietitian nutritionists are clinically-trained experts who work with patients and healthcare teams to craft personalized, flexible, and sustainable nutrition and lifestyle plans. Our RDNs come from a variety of backgrounds and specialties, providing culturally competent care that meets you where you are. Even better, one-on-one virtual nutrition sessions with Culina Health dietitians are covered by most major health providers.

Any general advice posted on our blog, website, or application is intended for reference and educational purposes only and is not intended to replace or substitute for any professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or other professional advice. If you have specific concerns or a situation arises in which you require medical advice, you should consult with an appropriately qualified and licensed medical services provider.

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