You've done enough grocery shopping in your day to know what's healthy and what's not (fruits and veggies, good; frozen fried mozzarella sticks, bad). But the real challenge is figuring out how to consistently buy the good stuff without wiping out your paycheck.
It is possible: "Grocery stores are now stocking more healthy options, so you're more likely to find bargainsÂthanks to better-for-you store brands and more competition," says Keri Gans, RD, author of The Small Change Diet. You just have to avoid the spending traps, Gans explains, and know where to find the real deals. To that end, we rounded up six strategies that will slash your bill.
Strategy #1: Don't be too strict with your list
Are you one of the 72 percent of Americans who makes a list for grocery shopping trips? Consider this: Being a list stickler can cause you to miss out on really good deals, says Janis Jibrin, RD, author of The Supermarket Diet. "If you follow it too rigidly, you could be blowing by some really luxurious in-season fruits and veggies for a great price," Jibrin says.
A more cost-effective way to shop from a list: Spell out those things you definitely do need and want (your go-to Greek yogurt, for example), but keep it vague for categories where you're flexible and the price swings a lot, like fruit, poultry, and seafood.
Strategy #2 : Be picky along the perimeter
Nutritionists love to encourage their clients to "shop the perimeter of the grocery store," and for good reasonÂthat's where you tend to find the fresh produce, dairy, meat, and whole-grain bread.
Realizing this, grocery stores have expanded the perimeter and are filling it with an even bigger selection of tempting fresh foods, says Phil Lempert, editor of The Supermarket Guru, a consumer grocery-shopping website. "They want you to spend more time and money there," he notes.
In fact, they're also slipping in healthy indulgences that will drive up your grocery bill, says Linda Watson, author of Wildly Affordable Organic. Think dark-chocolate syrup next to the strawberries, or pita chips in a display beside the grass-fed beef. Buyer beware, though, because these impulse buys can ratchet up your bill.
Strategy #3: Buy naked produce
Ever notice those shrink-wrapped potatoes that are "microwave ready"? The cut-up fruit in a plastic container? They're just marked-up goods.
"Regular potatoes are microwave ready, too, and you don't have to pay for packaging, which can double the price for the same amount of spuds," Watson says. Not to mention, a cantaloupe at one grocery store, as of press time, was $2.50, while "cantaloupe chunks" in a plastic tub at the same store were $4.49Âalmost double the price even though the whole melon had more fruit!
The other reason to steer clear of pre-cut: "Chopped fruits and vegetables lose nutrients more quickly because they have a larger surface area, which means more of the fruit or vegetable is exposed to damaging light, heat, or air," explains Lyssie Lakatos, RD, co-author with her sister, Tammy, of The Secret to Skinny. "Vitamin C is especially sensitive to light and heat, and fruits are more sensitive to nutrient losses than vegetables."
Strategy #4: Snag fresh foods at clubs
You think of Costco, Sam's Club, and BJ's Wholesale Club as places to stock up on paper towels and sparkling water, but it's smart to load up on fresh foods at these big club stores, too. That's because the price per unit is way better when you're buying in bulk. Blueberries at BJ's were $2.80 per pint versus $3.99 at a leading grocery store, and filet mignon was $12.24 at BJ's versus $17.49 at a leading grocery store, the Lakatos sisters found.
Of course, portions are large, so stick with the items you run through fast (like berries) or can easily freeze. You can actually toss a lot of fresh buys in the freezerÂcheese, butter, milk, fish, poultry, steak, whole-wheat bread, and starchy vegetables such as potatoes and butternut squash.
Strategy #5 : Shop online
You know that feeling of sticker shock at the checkout when your cart adds up to way more than you thought? But you're too embarrassed to ask to pull out a few items (after all, there are people behind you in line!)? Well, with online shopping, you can see your tallyÂand editÂas you go. "The total is clearly visible, and so if it's too expensive, you can easily put items back to stay within your budget," Jibrin says.
And like actual supermarkets, online grocery stores like freshdirect.com, peapod.com, and even amazon.com (for packaged goods) have sales on good-for-you food. While you do typically pay a shipping or delivery charge, these retailers sometimes run deals on delivery service. At freshdirect.com, if you schedule a delivery when they're already going to be in your neighborhood, they'll knock two bucks off your bill. Peapod takes off $2 when you give a longer delivery "window."
But if e-stores don't deliver in your neighborhood, you can still use tech to get thrifty: Get an app for your phone (we like "Shopper" at the iTunes app store) that keeps your grocery-shopping list, lets you share it (so hubby can get the eggs), and sends you coupons and specials for the items you want.
Strategy #6: Know where to scrimp
Maybe you like to spend a little more to get organic chicken and good olive oil but wouldn't mind pinching pennies somewhere else. Turns out, certain basic foods are just as good in taste and quality as the premium version.
When can you get away without buying "luxury"? On Jibrin's list: seltzer water, flour (for the casual baker, high-end flour isn't needed), oats (basic brands are goodÂno need to buy the latest imported Irish oatmeal), and salt (no-frills is OK for the fine grain; for sea salt, go with an in-house store brand).
No need to go organic for all your produce, either. Save there, and you'll have more dough to spend on the organic picks that matter most to your health, such as chicken, dairy products, and fruits and vegetables you eat skins and all.