Want to feel energized and bust through your weight goals but can’t muster up the dough to fuel your body with award winning grub? Good news—healthy food does NOT have to cost an arm and a leg. Really. In fact, it’s quite possible to eat well and have money left over for a new pair of slim jeans and an exercise DVD. Just follow my “how to” guide for stocking your kitchen with budget-friendly (and great tasting) ingredients… both your wallet and waistline will appreciate the love.
Six “Shop Savvy” Tips
1. Check sale ads and note product prices at particular markets in your area. Staples like pasta and rice may be cheaper at one place, while another grocery store may have better deals on produce.
2. Buy any fresh produce that is in season or on sale. The best deals are usually located at a special display towards the front of the fruit and vegetable section. Remember: All produce provides health perks, so don’t get caught up with “trendy” or “exotic” picks. Make affordable fruits like bananas, apples, and oranges your weekly staples, and save more costly options like pineapple, pomegranates, melons, and papayas for special treats. Plus, take advantage of frozen produce, which is just as nutritious as fresh.
3. Stock up. When non-perishable items like whole grain pasta, low-sodium soups, brown rice, and peanut butter are on sale, stock up on extras to keep in your cupboards or pantry.
4. Eat like a vegetarian. Plant-based proteins like beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds are much less costly than animal proteins like fish and beef.
5. Buy in larger containers. And create your own portion-controlled packs whenever possible.
6. Guzzle water. Instead of spending hard-earned cash on liquid calories, stick with water filtered from your own tap. Mix up low-cal drinks by adding fresh fruit (lemon, lime, and orange slices are my personal favorites), or herbs such as fresh mint and basil.
Below are three strategic grocery lists at various price points. Choose the version that suits your budget and hit the market. We've even created special, printable lists for every tier. You’ll notice that many items like oats and beans will last several weeks, while other items like meats and produce require frequent restocking. Also, feel free to add in favorite seasonings and herbs like garlic powder, red pepper flakes, cayenne, and dried or fresh basil.
No matter what your price range, you’ll be able to make healthy meals that taste delicious and won’t break the bank (or require hours in the kitchen). Each tier includes new items to be built upon the two tiers before it. Let the shopping games begin!
Strategically Thrifty ($60 Makeover)
- Oats: To maximize your savings, buy plain, dry oats in big canisters.
- Beans: Stockpile these pantry staples when they go on sale; dried beans will keep up for a year, and canned beans will last as long as five years.
- Peanut butter: Choose any brand of “natural” peanut butter. Use it as a spread on apple slices, or try making satay-style sauces with it.
- Canned tomatoes: Perfect for making your own marinara sauce or for tossing into soups and stews. Look for varieties with no salt added whenever possible.
- Whole-grain pasta: Add veggies and grilled chicken for a quick dinner, make pasta salad for a cool dish, or toss macaroni into a soup for some added fiber and texture.
- Whole-wheat bread: Perfect for brown bag lunch sandwiches throughout the week—if you’re living alone, store your loaf in the fridge or freezer to keep it from getting moldy.
- Low-sodium broth: Whether you go for vegetable or chicken, broth can help infuse flavor into simple grains like rice or quinoa.
- Lean Ground Turkey: An excellent substitute for red meat in tacos, burgers, meatballs, chili, and meat sauce. Aim to purchase ground turkey that is at least 90 percent lean.
- Eggs: A low-cost, high-quality protein source. When stored properly in the fridge, raw eggs last about three weeks in the shell.
- Milk: Low-fat cow’s milk, soymilk, and unsweetened almond milk each contain calcium and vitamin D—two nutrients that are critical for all maintaining strong bones.
- Non-fat yogurt: A wholesome, protein and calcium-rich snack or breakfast option. To save money, buy the large 32-ounce tubs instead of the more expensive individual cartons.
- Frozen vegetables: one of the greatest values in the grocery store—and they are just as nutritious as fresh. Generic versions are often cheaper than the popular name brands (unless they’re on sale).
- Frozen spinach: Thaw frozen chopped spinach and add it to everything—from turkey burgers to marinara sauce to lasagna to tacos.
- Frozen fruit: Just as nutritious as fresh fruit ones, and during the off-season months, it’s less expensive than imported fresh varieties.
- Frozen tilapia: This mild and versatile fish is really easy to cook and tends to be one of the cheaper varieties available.
- Sweet potato: Turn sweet potatoes into everyday favorites by using them to prepare oven fries, mashed potatoes, and stews. Or, for a super-easy side, pierce a whole sweet potato with a fork, wrap in a damp paper towel, and microwave for 4-5 minutes.
- Cabbage: Filled with cancer-fighting compounds, shred a head of cabbage to make a flavorful coleslaw or throw into soups and stews for a hearty touch.
- Bag of onions: Onions are amazingly cost efficient flavor enhancers. They can be stored in the pantry for up to 2 months so feel free to buy in bulk.
- Bag of whole carrots: Carrots are a very versatile veggie. If you buy them whole, just cut them into sticks when you get home from the grocery store to have easy access for later. They last in the fridge for 2-3 weeks.
- Bananas: Probably one of the best bargains in the fruit department, bananas make a convenient grab-and-go snack, can easily be sliced into cereal or oatmeal, or layered on a peanut butter sandwich. Overripe bananas can be peeled and tossed in the freezer for future use in smoothies or baked goods recipes.
- Apples: Apple prices will depend on the variety. In general, Red Delicious and Golden Delicious are your best bargains, but feel free to mix it up with other types when they go on sale. They store well in the fridge (6-8 weeks), so don’t be afraid to get the bulk bags.
- Balsamic vinegar: Great low-calorie flavor enhancer for just about any entree or vegetable. You can also mix it with a touch of olive oil and seasonings for a low-calorie, low-salt salad dressing.
- Olive oil: Invest in a reusable oil mister and a bottle of olive oil could last you almost an entire year. The mister allows you to spray on a thin layer of oil to coat your pans, just enough to keep food from sticking.
- Coffee: Coffee has been shown to help prevent memory loss and decrease the risk of certain cancers. But don't let your cup of joe be a calorie trap—be stingy with added milk and sugar.
Upping The Edible Ante ($110 Makeover)
Everything from Strategically Thrifty, plus:
- Brown rice: Add your own seasonings to jazz up this simple whole grain, or try boiling in low-sodium broth instead of water to infuse a bit more flavor.
- High-fiber cereal: Sprinkle on yogurt and fruit for a yummy parfait, and mix with nuts and dried fruit for an easy grab-and-go snack.
- Low-fat cheese: For a great protein rich snack, part-skim mozzarella string cheese is perfect paired with a piece of fruit.
- Chicken breast: One of the leanest meats you can find, chicken breast is easy to cook and incorporate into just about any dish. Check out 10 ways to jazz up your chicken.
- Hummus: Healthy alternative to dips—and it can be used in place of mayonnaise on sandwiches.
- Silken tofu: Packed with protein and super easy to incorporate into smoothies and soups to make them creamy and indulgent.
- Sunflower seeds: Like nuts, they’re high in healthy fats and protein. Toss them into a trail mix for a filling snack, or sprinkle on yogurt or oatmeal for some crunch.
- Ground flax seed: Flax seeds are a good source of omega-3 fats. Be sure to buy the ground variety, and store in the fridge or freezer to keep them lasting longer.
- Frozen broccoli: Similar to frozen spinach, frozen broccoli can be added to just about anything. Mix it right into burgers, omelets, stir-fries, meat loaf, and cream soups. Plus, it makes a great baked potato topping too.
- Frozen blueberries or raspberries: Eat straight out of the bag for a delicious “no added sugar” dessert or incorporate into smoothies or as topping on oatmeal.
- Frozen shrimp: Frozen shrimp can stay in the freezer for up to 9 months. They are a super lean source of quality protein, and only take about 5-10 minutes to cook up.
- Mushrooms: Simply sauté with garlic and olive oil for a simple side dish or fold into an omelet. You can even mix it into burger patties for some added nutrition.
- Garlic: This is a go-to flavor enhancer for just about any dish. Mince and throw into a stir-fry, blend into a pesto, or roast and spread on toast. Plus, garlic stays at room temperature for 3-5 months, or you can peel and store cloves in the freezer for up to a year.
- Melons: When melons are in season, bring home your favorite variety and chop into cubes. Store them in the freezer for an easy dessert or fancy ice cube, or mix with some low-fat cottage cheese for a refreshing snack.
- Pineapple: When you can smell the sweetness of a pineapple, you know it’s ripe and ready for eating. Chop up chunks for an easy snack, simple dessert, or blend into smoothies.
- Salsa: Spoon it on eggs, mix it into hummus, or use it to add some pizzazz to traditional chicken or turkey salad.
- Seltzer: Buy naturally flavored seltzer in fun flavors and enjoy instead of soda. Also, use it to dilute your favorite fruit juice, or add it to white wine or vodka for a low-cal cocktail.
- Dark chocolate: Enjoy one ounce a day as a guilt-free indulgence… or grate shavings on yogurt or fresh fruit for an elegant touch.
Healthy Wiggle Room ($155 Makeover)
Everything from Strategically Thrifty, Upping the Edible Ante, plus:
- Lentils: This fiber and protein-packed legume cooks up quickly. Just simmer with diced tomatoes and seasonings for a hearty side dish, or add dry lentils to soups and stews to boost protein without relying on expensive meats.
- Low-sodium marinara: If making your own sounds like a drag, buying the bottled variety (especially when it’s on sale) can be a major time-savor.
- 100 percent pure pumpkin puree: Stock up on this pantry staple whenever it’s on sale. It’s really tasty mixed into nonfat vanilla yogurt with a dash of cinnamon (tastes like pie!).
- Greek yogurt: Provides twice the amount of protein compared to traditional yogurt—and is a terrific substitute for mayo and sour cream in recipes and dips.
- Nuts: Pre-portion into plastic bags for nutritious on-the-go snacks. Buy in bulk and store in the freezer to extend shelf life.
- Frozen edamame: Steam or microwave a cup’s worth for a high-quality carbohydrate and protein-rich snack.
- Wild Salmon: Loaded with protein, omega 3 fats, and vitamin D, fresh salmon lasts no more than 2 days in the refrigerator so go for the frozen kind and defrost in the refrigerator when you’re ready to use.
- Organic sweet potato: Potatoes make the list of produce items that tend to be most contaminated by pesticides, so buy the organic variety whenever possible.
- Baby Carrots: These bite-sized carrots are super-convenient and can be eaten as a snack or tossed into stir-frys, cole slaws, soups, and salads.
- Organic apples: Apples make the list of produce items that tend to be most contaminated by pesticides, so buy organic versions whenever possible.
- Organic kale: Kale is a serious “super green.” Saute with garlic and olive oil, or tear it up add mix with other raw and cooked veggies for a yummy salad.
- Organic bell peppers: To get a hearty dose of vitamin C, slice up a bell pepper and much on it raw… or dip into hummus or salsa for a tasty, slimming snack.
- Canola oil: Another heart-healthy oil to add to the kitchen cabinet. Canola oil works better with higher heat cooking and has a more neutral flavor than olive oil. Be sure to pour into an oil mister to get the most bang for your buck!
- Wine: Vino had to make the list! Sip slowly and savor the flavor… freeze leftover wine in ice cube trays and defrost for future recipes.
Your super-stocked pantry means even more options to cook. Try making vanilla cinnamon French toast, curried chicken salad with sweet green peas, or any of these recipes. Download your cheat sheet here.
Note: All items and pricing are based on combined research from Fresh Direct, Netgrocer, Peapod by Stop & Shop, and Trader Joes in New York. Prices and availability will vary.