Food Shopping on a Budget

By: Dr. J. Timothy Katzen


With the current sheltering in place restrictions during this pandemic, there has been a record high in unemployment. With a reduced or limited income, budgeting has become an even more important priority. The following are some tips when buying groceries. These tips are based solely on cost, and to some extent, nutritional quality. Other factors such as flavor, type of cooking method, and environmental concerns are addressed, but were not the main considerations.

Meat, Poultry, Fish and other Protein Sources

  1. Beef is graded by the U.S. Dept of Agriculture (USDA) depending on the tenderness and flavor of the meat. Prime is the most tender as it has the most marbling (fat) interspersed in the meat. Choice is the next grade, with Select being the least tender as it has the least marbling. Prime will be the most expensive, followed by Choice, then Select. The nutritional quality is similar, and so you can choose Choice or Select without compromising the nutritional content. As they have less marbling, this may affect your method of food preparation. With less tender cuts of meat, you may choose to marinate the meat to tenderize it, cook it in liquid such as braising, or use in casseroles, soups or stews.
  2. Angus, Kobe and Wagyu beef are extremely expensive and higher in fat, and so choose these less often when on a limited budget.
  3. When choosing between boneless and bone-in, keep in mind that although bone-in may seem less expensive per pound, you are paying for less meat. There is no equation to determine which is a better choice financially. Bone-in tends to provide more flavor and the bones can be used to make bone broth.
  4. Legumes such as kidney beans, chickpeas (garbanzo beans), navy beans and lentils can be added to foods to increase the protein content or as its main protein source. Be sure to follow instructions regarding the soaking of legumes.
  5. As with meat, boneless and skinless poultry is more expensive per pound than bone-in. It’s really a matter of personal choice as to which you prefer. Factors in choosing between bone-in versus boneless would be flavor, cooking methods, and texture. Again, bones can be used to make a bone broth.
  6. Regular ground beef tends to be higher in fat but lower in cost than leaner ground beef. However, again, you are paying for the fat and so will have a lower yield of meat after cooking. Assume, for the most part, that there will be a 25% shrinkage in your meat, fish or poultry due to cooking. The healthier choice would be to choose the leaner meat, but again, this is a personal preference.
  7. Eggs are an inexpensive and versatile protein choice. They come in all sorts of varieties. They can be white, brown, cage-free, high in omega-3 fatty acids, different sizes, different sized cartons, etc. The color of the eggshell does not affect the nutritional quality of the egg. For everyday cooking and baking, the standard medium or large white shelled egg should be sufficient as they tend to be the least costly. Fresh eggs can be kept in the fridge for a month.
  8. When buying canned fish, choose light tuna and pink salmon as opposed to white/albacore tuna and red sockeye salmon. The nutritional content is the same, but albacore and sockeye salmon are more expensive.
  9. The cost of fresh and frozen fish will vary depending on the type of fish. Generally, fish imported from outside of the country, as well as deep sea fish, will tend to be more expensive. These include halibut, Chilean sea bass, and orange roughy. Also, certain types of salmon such as Sockeye will be more expensive than others. Some less pricey fish are tilapia and cod. Where possible, try to choose locally caught fish. They tend to be less costly, more sustainable and will help support the local economy.
  10. 10.When possible, purchase meat, fish or poultry that have been individually frozen so that you can thaw only what you need. This will help to decrease any food waste.
  11. 11.Pre-packaged sliced meat is usually less costly than ones from the deli.
  12. 12.Tofu is an inexpensive choice for protein. As it has negligible flavor, it can be added to a number of dishes to increase the protein content.

Fruits and Vegetables

  1. Food waste is a major consideration when purchasing fresh produce. With this in mind, buy only what you can consume, can, dehydrate or freeze before your next shopping trip.
  2. Certain fresh produce has a longer shelf life than others. These include apples, oranges, root vegetables (carrots, parsnips, turnips, potatoes, onions, sweet potatoes, yams and radishes to name a few), winter squash (such as pumpkin, acorn squash, butternut squash), celery, cabbage, and brussels sprouts.
  3. Some grocery stores sell bananas individually, allowing you to choose each one at various stages of ripeness. That way, you can eat the fruit as they ripen throughout the week. You can also do this with other fruits such as avocados, tomatoes, pears, peaches, mangos, plums and apricots, to name a few.
  4. Remember that certain produce such as apples and onions emit a gas that can accelerate the ripening of produce. Be sure to store them separately to prevent this from happening.
  5. Freeze produce if they ripen too quickly before you can eat them. Berries, green beans, corn, carrots, and peas are just a few items that can be frozen. Double bag ripe bananas before freezing to contain its odor. Most vegetables will need to be blanched before freezing in order to preserve their flavor, texture and color.
  6. Certain fruits and vegetables may also be used in baking if they become too ripe to eat fresh. These include berries, apples, pears, peaches, zucchini, bananas, carrots, pumpkin, rhubarb, and sweet potato.
  7. As there is no nutritional difference between a brand name or a generic or store brand, choose the generic or store brand for canned or frozen fruits and vegetables when possible as these will be the least costly.
  8. When purchasing canned vegetables such as mushrooms or tomatoes, choose the broken pieces and stems as opposed to the whole option as they will be less costly.

Breads, Grains, Pasta and Cereals

  1. Choose store or generic brands where possible when purchasing bread, pasta or cereal.
  2. Check the “best by” date when purchasing bread. Grocery stores stock the freshest bread at the back of the shelves. It’s referred to as rotating the stock. Usually the plastic tie for the bread is color coded by the “best by” date. For example, when purchasing brand X of bread, all the red ties will have the same “best by” date, and all the yellow ties will have a different “best by” date. Check the “best by” date for one loaf with a red tie and the “best by” date for one loaf with a yellow tie. Choose whichever loaf has the latest “best by” date to ensure you have the freshest loaf possible. This option may also apply to packages of English muffins and bagels.
  3. Sliced bread, bagels and English muffins may be frozen for later use to maintain freshness.
  4. If you’re not particularly picky about your rice, choose whichever one is the least expensive. Again, nutritional quality will be the same. Keep in mind that instant cooked rice will be more expensive than plain, uncooked rice. Fancier rice such as jasmine or basmati will also be pricier.
  5. Grains such as bran, wheat germ, barley and millet tend to be fairly inexpensive and are a good way to increase your fiber intake. Bran and wheat germ can be added to soups, casseroles, baked goods, or to other cereals. Barley and millet can be eaten on their own, or added to casseroles, stews, or soup.

Milk and Milk Products

  1. Choose store or generic brands as they are less costly.
  2. Cheeses from the deli are usually more costly than the pre-packaged cheeses.
  3. Brick cheeses are less costly than pre-sliced cheese.
  4. Large tubs of cottage cheese or yogurt at less money per fluid oz than the smaller tubs or those that are individually packed. However, if you tend to only eat these occasionally, purchasing them in smaller portions would extend shelf life and reduce food waste, because spoilage is accelerated once the container is opened.

Fats and Oils

  1. Generic or store brands will be less pricey than name brands.
  2. From a price standpoint, a mixed vegetable oil will be less costly than the oils from one source. However, they may not be the healthiest choice. In general, the healthiest oils are those high in monounsaturated fat such as olive, canola, avocado, sunflower and safflower. These also tend to be more costly, and so choose whichever of these are the cheapest per unit.
  3. Spreadable butter will be more costly than bricks of butter. However, if you like the convenience, avoid “light” butters or margarines as they contain more water and so you are paying for water.
  4. Light cream cheese also contains more water and so choose the regular option where possible. Also, the flavored cream cheeses are usually more costly.
  5. If using shortening for baking, bricks will be less costly than the tubs or the flavored varieties.

General Recommendations

  1. Generic and store brands will be less costly than name brands.
  2. Compare the price/unit when choosing between two similar items. These are usually listed on the price tag on the shelf.
  3. When buying perishables, only buy what you can consume or safely store until the next grocery trip in order to reduce food waste.
  4. Consider investing in an extra small fridge or freezer to store perishables.
  5. Consider investing in a dehydrator for fruits, vegetables and meats that are about to spoil. This will prolong their shelf life without compromising their nutritional content.
  6. Portion out meat, fish, and poultry into individual serving portions and freeze some for later use. Consider investing in a vacuum sealer to keep these items fresher by limiting exposure to oxygen.
  7. Organic options will tend to be more expensive. This is a personal choice. Keep in mind that organic options may spoil more quickly as they will have been subjected to fewer preservatives.
  8. Buying in bulk may be less expensive. However, for perishable items, only buy sufficient amounts until your next grocery trip to avoid spoilage.
  9. There has been some concern regarding GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Canola is one product that may be a GMO. It’s a personal preference as to whether or not you want to avoid these products.

These are just a few tips when grocery shopping on a limited budget. Of course, there are other factors that will affect your choice of food. Food choices are very personal and will need to be considered when you are shopping for groceries.

* All information subject to change. Images may contain models. Individual results are not guaranteed and may vary.