Here’s How a Nutritionist Suggests Shopping if You’re on a Tight Food Budget

Lack of funds shouldn't hold you back from having a full fridge.

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We are living in not just unprecedented but scary times. Not only are we witnessing something that hasn’t happened in 100 years—a worldwide pandemic—but life as we knew it no longer exists. And while some privileged individuals have been doing fine, for the most part, others aren’t so lucky. With unemployment rates at 10.2% for the month of July and job security hanging in the balance for people across the U.S., Americans have had to readjust their finances just to make ends meet—especially when it comes to budgeting for food.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a website that discusses nonpartisan research and policy, more than six million people in America have signed up for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits between February 2020 and May 2020. This means that millions of people have experienced a hardship, likely due to the pandemic—whether it’s a job loss, a decrease in pay, or an increase in medical bills—that’s significant enough in their lives to re-evaluate their needs and ask for assistance from the government.

But just because finances might not be the same as they used to be, eating and staying healthy is necessary to stay, well, alive, so it’s still important to learn how to shop for the times—especially if you’re on a very tight budget. That’s why we connected with a few nutritionists to find out nine different ways you can stretch your dollar and still be able to eat healthily during this unstable time.

1. Come up with a budget.

Because we are in the midst of an economic crisis, with so many people unemployed or furloughed, a daily budget is necessary for a lot of people right now. A study by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) found that Americans spent 9.5% of their disposable income on food in 2019: 4.9% on food at home (like groceries) and 4.6% on food away from home (like at restaurants). Granted, that was two years ago, in a world free of masks, social distancing, and the novel coronavirus pandemic, so naturally, those figures have probably dipped—especially when it comes to restaurants.

If you’re not sure what your food budget should be, every month the USDA publishes a food budget that ranges from the “thrifty plan” to the “liberal plan.” It includes budgets for families of varying size as well as for single adults. For example, they suggest females between 19 and 50 who need to stick to the “thrifty plan” should budget no more than $39.70 a week or $172.20 a month for food (of course, it depends on where you live in America, as food might be more expensive in New York compared to in Utah). There are four degrees of cost plans, and it’s a great guide for those who don’t even know where to start when it comes to budgeting money for food.

2. Buy in bulk.

If there’s one thing that every nutritionist and dietician suggests, it’s to buy in bulk—especially things like rice and beans that have a very long shelf life.

“This does not mean to stock up on large quantities of highly processed foods with empty calories, such as chips, candy, packaged pastries, and crackers,” says Lynell Ross, a certified health and wellness coach, nutritionist, and founder and managing editor of Zivadream, an education advocacy website dedicated to helping people improve their lives. “If you are on a tight budget, then every dollar needs to count towards nutritious foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, dairy, meat/poultry, spices, and healthy oils. Buying beans, rice, and whole grains in large packages will last you a long time and save a lot of money over purchasing prepackaged and seasoned rice mixes.”

3. Buy canned fish.

Although you may really want to roll into the closest sushi joint and eat your weight in sashimi (we’ve all been there), when you’re on a budget—and sticking to it—canned fish isn’t only your best alternative but a great source of protein and omega-3 fatty acids, according to Rima Kleiner, MS, RD, from Dish on Fish. As Kleiner explains, canned or poached tuna, salmon, and sardines aren’t just easy on the wallet but “promote a healthy heart, brain, eyes, and immune system.”

Canned fish can easily be added to salads, pasta dishes (pasta also being a very inexpensive food to buy), rice dishes, and so much more.

ways to shop for food on tight budget

4. Get creative.

Because you don’t want to waste any food that you’ve bought, hang on to those leftovers and find a use for them. Take that canned salmon and make a salmon burger. And tuna can be made into delicious croquettes. Ultimately, you want to find alternative ways to make your food stretch rather than throwing out the food you think may not look right or is no longer a viable option. According to Feeding America, 72 billion pounds of food goes to waste, and 52 billion pounds of “food from manufacturers, grocery stores, and restaurants end up in landfills.”

5. Look above and below eye level.

What that means is that the most expensive items tend to be at eye level in most grocery stores, according to Amanda Izquierdo, MPH, RD, LDN. “Look up and down on the shelves for less expensive store brands,” says Izquierdo. It’s important to realize that when it comes to name-brand foods, you’re paying for the name and not the product. A can of green beans by Green Giant most likely isn’t going to taste any different or any have fewer nutrients just because of the name on the label.

6. Avoid fast food.

It’s understandable: Fast food is cheap, convenient, and you can pick it up, eat it, and not have to put in the labor of cooking it. Hence the name “fast food.” But considering the uncertainty we’ve all found ourselves in, we need to think longterm. That means having rice, beans, and other non-perishable items stocked in our kitchen and not consuming something that’s not only bad for us but will take a toll on our bodies over time. Of course, it’s important to be aware that there are plenty of situations where fast food is a viable option for extremely tight budgets or situations where cooking is simply not an option. But if you have the ability to cook food at home right now, it’s never a bad idea to opt for home-cooked meals over fast food to feel healthy.

Overall, it’s ideal to remove as much processed food as you can from your grocery list, says Dr. Vikram Tarugu, a gastroenterologist, medical professional, and CEO of Detox of South Florida. “You’d be shocked to know how much you’ll spend for coffee, crackers, biscuits, prepackaged meals, and fast food.”

Unfortunately, yes, those prepared frozen meals that you toss in the microwave count as fast food. How could they not? They’re chock-full of processed ingredients to preserve them, and that’s why they’re cheaper and easy to cook. (This is also because Americans seem to choose to make healthier options much more expensive.) As Dr. Tarugu explains, stepping away from fast food and processed food as much as you can will give you the chance to “invest more of the money on nutritious, better quality products while avoiding the refined and unhealthy items.”

7. Get in the habit of meal prepping.

Not a fan of cooking every single meal? Me neither. But if you prep in advance, you can avoid being bogged down every day making meals for just yourself—or, if you have tiny mouths to feed, for your family, too.

“When you set aside a few hours in a single day and dedicate it to meal preparation for the entire week, there’s no temptation to pick up takeout or convenience food later in the week,” says Aimée Ricca, an ISSA certified nutritionist. “You already have everything prepped and ready. That is the ultimate convenience!” Ricca also says you can have your partner or kids participate in the prep so that it becomes a fun activity. “It’s a good idea to include some items you are going to store in the freezer so that you always have freezer meals available for times when life makes it difficult to prep,” she explains.

Et voilà! Cooking for the week is DONE.

8. Don’t shun frozen vegetables.

For some reason, frozen vegetables get a bad rap, but that stops now. Contrary to what you might think, freezing vegetables can help retain the same amount of nutrients as fresh items have, as long as you don’t let them sit in the freezer too long. Certain veggies and fruit can lose their nutrients if they’re not used within a year.

“Frozen vegetables or meats are wonderful, healthy meal options,” says Melanie Betz, a registered dietician. “They tend to be cheaper than fresh and will help you reduce food waste because they last longer. Stick with plain frozen foods without sauces or breading to help keep the salt down.”

If you’re iffy on buying already-frozen vegetables, then you can buy your own—in-season vegetables are always more affordable than out of season ones, says Ross—then freeze them. This also goes back to the concept of buying in bulk. Zucchini on sale? Load up, keep what you know you can eat before it spoils in the fridge, then freeze the rest.

9. Never shop on an empty stomach.

Similar to not going into a grocery store stoned, don’t go food shopping hungry either. If you do, there’s a very good chance you’ll stray from your list, go way over budget, and head home realizing you’re going to have to put your electric bill on hold for one more month. Instead, go food shopping after having had a meal.

“Going to the store on a full stomach will help you keep to your grocery list and limit buying additional snack foods that look good while you are in the store,” says Izquierdo.

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