By Natasha Persaud

"Hard economic times don't mean that you have to eat less well," says Holly Scherer, a registered dietitian for the MHealthy wellness program at the University of Michigan. "By planning ahead, shopping the sales and trying out those generic or store brands you really can save a significant amount of money while also providing healthy, well-balanced meals for your family." Here’s her aisle-by-aisle guide to spotting the bargains:

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Fruits and Vegetables

Produce, in all its wonderful variety, provides vital nutrients that promote health and help fight disease including heart disease, cancer and diabetes. They’re also naturally high in fiber and low in fat and calories, so they make a perfect snack. Choose from all four color groups for the most nutrients: orange-yellow, red, green and blue-purple.

Best Buys:

In-season fruits and vegetables. In the off-season, choose canned and frozen varieties, which are packaged at the peak of freshness and often contain just as many nutrients. Choose packages with no sauce or added sugar or salt.

Bargains:

Bagged fruits and vegetables, such as apples, oranges, bananas carrots and certain greens

Cheap Eats:

Start your own vegetable and herb gardens, and enjoy the fresh pickings.

Meat, Poultry and Fish

Protein can be a tricky thing to buy on a budget. Filet mignon and fresh lobster are probably out of the picture, but you can still find tasty choices for low prices. Fish are a good source of protein and healthy fats. The leanest poultry is white breast meat without the skin. Although you may find meat roasts on sale, opt for healthier cuts of meat that contain the word “round” or “loin.”

Best Buys:

Look for items that are on-sale. Buy extra at the sale price, portion them in conveniently sized packages and stash them in your freezer until ready to use. When properly wrapped, fish can be kept frozen for 2 to 6 months; poultry, for up to a year; fresh meats, for 4 months or longer; and ground poultry, for 3 to 4 months. Get to know your butcher, who can often point out the best deals.

Bargains:

any variety of frozen fish, such as tilapia, flounder, salmon and shrimp; whole chicken or turkey, if you’ll use all of it; family packs. Avoid purchasing pre-seasoned or breaded items, such as breaded fish fillets, since they tend to contain added fats and sodium—and they’re more expensive.

Cheap Eats:

Buy canned fish, such as salmon, tuna, mackerel and sardines, and use them in casseroles, salads, soups and sandwiches. (Salmon and sardines contain heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.) Make your own boneless, skinless chicken breast by removing the skin and bones from a whole chicken breast.

Whole Grains

From oatmeal and whole wheat pasta to wild rice, millet and quinoa, you can enjoy a harvest of healthy grains. Whole grains provide fiber, iron and many B vitamins. But check for the term “whole” in the ingredient list; refined grains are typically less nutritious.

Best Buys:

Large bags of rice; large containers of whole oats and shredded wheat (versus single-serving pouches or boxed cereals).

Bargains:

plain brown rice (instead of boxed rice mixes); a box of whole grain pasta (instead of pasta mixes); whole grain bread, English muffins; and whole wheat tortillas on sale.

Cheap Eats:

Instead of buying pre-made breadcrumbs, make your own. If you like to bake, whip up a few loaves using whole grain flours.

Beans and Legumes

A valuable source of protein, delicious beans and legumes also provide fiber, B vitamins, vitamin E, iron, zinc and magnesium, which help support proper functioning of your body.

Best Buys:

any variety of dried beans, peas or lentils

Bargains:

large cans of beans

Cheap Eats:

Try going meatless one night a week; use beans or legumes as your source of protein. Add garbanzo beans to your salad; make three-bean chili with kidney beans, pinto beans and black beans; and cook up a pot of split pea soup.

Dairy

Low fat dairy products, such as skim milk, low fat yogurt, low fat cottage cheese and small portions of cheese can be part of a healthy diet. Among the health benefits, the calcium and vitamin D in dairy foods provide promote bone health.

Best Buys:

One-gallon containers of low-fat or skim milk (if you’ll use it before the expiration date); one-quart containers of plain or vanilla yogurt

Bargains:

Cheese purchased by the block that you grate yourself; small portions of extra sharp cheeses, which provides strong flavor without adding a lot of fat

Cheap Eats:

Use dried (non-fat) milk instead of fresh milk for smoothies, hot cereals, baking, gravies, casseroles and meat loaf.

Beverages

Choose water, milk, tea, coffee, seltzer and 100 percent fruit and vegetable juices more often. These beverages provide more nutrients for the calories than the drinks we typically consume, such as juices with added sugars, soft drinks, vitamin water and energy drinks. It’s a good idea to limit alcoholic drinks.

Best Buys:

Items on sale

Bargains:

Frozen juice concentrate

Cheap Drinks:

Buy a filter for your tap water instead of purchasing bottled water. Make coffee at home instead of going out every morning for that specialty coffee drink.

Spreads, Dressings and Condiments

Some condiments contain high amounts of fat, sugar and sodium so look for all-natural varieties of peanut butter, fruit spread, salsa, salad dressing, mustard and ketchup.

Best Buys:

Store brands

Bargains:

Compare different size containers of the same product.

Cheap Eats:

Whip up homemade salsa: combine chopped tomatoes, red onions, bell peppers and/or jalapenos and a squirt of lime juice. To make honey mustard, simply whisk together Dijon mustard, honey and a splash of rice wine vinegar. Make your own salad dressings, too.

Snacks

You can fit snacks of 100 to 200 calories into a healthy eating plan. When you’re hungry, reach for snacks that contain protein and fiber such as fruits and vegetables, whole grain crackers, yogurt, popcorn or nuts.

Best Buys:

Fresh fruits and vegetables provide the most nutrients for the lowest price.

Bargains:

Instead of buying 100-calorie snack packs or individual bags of baked chips or pretzels, buy the bigger box and portion them yourself in zip-top sandwich bags.

Cheap Eats:

Pop your own popcorn; assemble your own cheese and crackers; make your own tortilla chips by cutting up whole grain tortillas, spraying them lightly with oil and baking them for 7 to 8 minutes in the oven.

Alternatives to the Fast Food Dollar Menu

These tasty dishes are quick, easy and inexpensive to make—and they’re much better for your health than high-calorie fast food:

Black bean salad: cut up some of your favorite fresh vegetables, add them to a can of rinsed black beans with a squirt of lime juice and some cilantro. Serve in a tortilla or with some baked tortilla chips.

Vegetables and scrambled eggs: Toss fresh veggies, such as broccoli and peppers, into the pan with your eggs. You can also use frozen veggies or leftover veggies from the night before.

Tuna Puttanesca: Cook canned tuna, olives, garlic, red pepper flakes and diced tomatoes with fresh herbs. Serve over penne pasta.

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at Healthcommunities.com

Published: 31 Mar 2009

Last Modified: 05 Jan 2016