Spending Less, Eating Better – A Shopper’s Guide Part 2: What To Buy

Last week we covered Spending Less, Eating Better – A Shopper’s Guide Part 1:   ” Before You Go To The Store”.  This week in Part 2 we will cover “What to Buy”. The focus will be on creating healthy cost effective menu ideas and on what specific foods give you the most nutrition for the least money.

In Part 1, you clipped coupons, read supermarket ads, inventoried your food supply at home, shopped with a list, stocked up on pantry items when on sale and shopped for seasonal produce to help you save money and time. Now it’s time to write menus, which tends to be the biggest challenge for most people.

The following four strategies can provide structure, focus, and inspiration for hundreds of healthy, budget friendly meals:


Go Meatless on Mondays (or Meat Light)

The highest priced ingredient in most meals is the meat. Going meatless can dramatically cut costs.  It can also dramatically increase the nutritional value of a meal.  Once meat is removed there is more room created for nutrient-rich vegetables, legumes, nuts and whole grains; plant-based foods that contain more protein than most people think.  For example, a 1/2 cup of soybeans (edamame) contains 14 grams of protein, which is as much as 3 ounces of chicken breast.

Another strategy is to use meat as a condiment rather than the main focus of the meal.  For example, you can create a delicious green salad with chicken, garbanzo beans, walnuts, and homemade croutons to make this salad sing.


Cook with Convenience Foods

Using convenience foods that are low in salt, fat and sugar can help a busy cook save time and money.  Stock up on canned beans (if salt added, rinse off before use to cut the sodium amount), ready-to-use frozen vegetables, and canned broth when they are on sale to help you put together a healthful meal in minutes.


Convenience foods to avoid:  seasoned rice mix, some frozen dinners, coating mix for meat and poultry, meat ‘helpers’, and salad dressing. Most of these items are costly, high in sodium and low in nutrition.  You can make your own salad dressing by mixing equal parts oil and vinegar to save money and to avoid preservatives. High sugary drinks or soda have minimal (if any) nutritional benefit and should be avoided, substitute water instead.


Plan For Leftovers (The Planned Overs Strategy)

“Planned overs” are foods that can take on a new life after the first meal.  For example, turkey chili can turn into the filling for a burrito for lunch the next day. Soups, stews, and sauces are prime candidates for planned overs.  They not only hold up well in the refrigerator, they also typically freeze and reheat well.  Your leftovers or planned overs can reduce food costs and food waste.


Meat-Starch-Vegetable Approach

Planning a meal can be as simple as providing a meat-starch-vegetable for a “go to meal”.  But even with this strategy, you can use leftovers to save time and money.  You can always use fruit as a dessert to add flavor and good nutrition.

Two examples of this type of menu would be:

For a family of 5:  (about $10) Sloppy Joes, milk and fruit. Brown 3/4 lb of ground beef or 100% ground turkey, drain off fat, add one can of drained and rinsed black beans.  Add one can of sloppy joe sauce ( or a combination of tomato paste and tomato soup) and cook.  Serve on whole wheat buns with milk and fruit.

Meatloaf, green beans and mashed potatoes or rice:  make the meatloaf with lean ground beef, add fresh or canned green beans, and finish with potatoes or rice. Easy but satisfying.

Other simpler menu suggestions:

  • Vegetarian chili: Try a split pea or other hearty soup with whole wheat rolls and fruit
  • Breakfast Yogurt Parfaits with Toast or English Muffin and Peanut Butter: Use low fat vanilla yogurt with frozen (thawed) fruit or fresh if available or raisins and add a favorite low sugar cereal for a topping ; add a slice of toast or an english muffin with peanut butter and enjoy!
  • Stuffed Baked Potatoes: Bake medium to large potatoes in the oven.  Add a variety of toppings: ground beef, mozarella cheese, salsa, peppers, light sour cream.  Experiment!


What To Buy

  1. For balanced nutrition guidelines refer to the Food Guide Pyramid www.nutriton.gov/smart-nutrition. Focus on: variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low fat foods, and lean meats.
  2. Compare healthy food costs to other foods:
  • A piece of fruit… Banana .25, Kiwi .45, Serving of raisins .30, Candy bar .75, Bag of chips .85
  1. Some convenience items that save you time and money:
  • Frozen juice concentrate – fortified with Vitamin C
  • Pancake mix
  • Spaghetti Sauce
  • Canned Soup
  • Canned fruits ( packed in light syrup or water)
  • Canned or frozen fruits or vegetables
  • Spices can be cheaper in the international aisle or bought in bulk


  1. Other healthy good buys:
  • Meats: ground turkey or beef (economical, less fat than regular meats, and tastes good); whole chickens (cut up yourself to save money); lower grades of meats for stew, stir fry or soups; purchase meats by sell-by date for a reduced price if you plan to use the meat right away or freeze it.
  • Lean Sandwich Meats (turkey, roast beef, ham, or chicken) provide low fat, healthy protein options for sandwiches. Better yet, buy on sale!
  • Rice: brown or enriched offer more nutrients and fiber
  • Buy fresh fruits and vegetables when in season and when on sale. Look for locally grown – usually fresher and less expensive. Know the produce rotation – the oldest produce is in the front. Break up banana bunches if too large and keep in mind how quickly they ripen when purchasing.
  • Day old bread – if eaten soon
  • Cheese: buy in block to save money
  • Milk: nonfat (skim), dry and evaporated milk are good sources to use in cooking or for drinking for those over the age of 2
  • Fish specials: $5/lb to serve 4. Frozen or canned fish (tuna) on sale can provide high quality protein at a favorable price
  • Eggs: about .15 -.18 each – a great bargain; serve as omelets, scrambled, or as a filling for a whole wheat sandwich
  • Old Fashioned Oats: Higher in fiber and nutrients than instant oatmeal
  • Whole wheat or multigrain pasta, breads and crackers: provide high fiber food items at an economical price
  • Potatoes: Economical and always a healthy starch (especially the skin) to add fiber and vitamins to your diet. Use them for breakfast potatoes (hash browns), stuffed potatoes, casseroles, or stews.
  • Nonfat Greek or Vanilla Yogurt: Save money by buying a larger container.  Add your own fruit for much less sugar than store bought fruited yogurt.
  • Dried Lentils: Economical at about .10 /serving and versatile in soups, casseroles, etc.  Canned refried beans are a little more expensive per serving but still a good buy and convenient to use.


Try using some of these food tips when deciding what meals to make and what food items to buy.  Next week, we will discuss Spending Less, Eating Better – A Shopper’s Guide Part 3:  At The Store.  Shopping tips on how to select the healthy foods you want to buy at an economical price when at the store.

See you then!

Author: Michelle Hanson

Michelle Hanson, MA, RD, LD is Fresh & Natural Food’s Registered Dietitian. She received a Bachelor of Science degree in Nutrition and Clinical Dietetics with a minor in Community Health from the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities. She is a registered dietitian and current member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Michelle has been a nutrition consultant for numerous years as well as a nutrition research director at the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities.

Michelle is passionate about food and nutrition and believes in helping people find simple, realistic ways to make healthy eating a part of their everyday lifestyle.
If you are interested in meeting Michelle or have questions for her, you can email her at: michelle@fnfoods.com. She will look forward to meeting you!