How to Save Money on Groceries | The College Nutritionist
Updated: Oct 10, 2019
This article is edited from Rachel's website. See the original version here.
I was tight on cash for the vast majority of my adult life (in college and out) - so I 100% hear you when you tell me that saving money on groceries is one of your top priorities.
Here are some of my top tips that have worked for me over the YEARS to help me manage my weight, save money, and get optimal nutrition.
1. Make a Meal Plan Ahead of Time
Planning is SO key - I know this for myself, and I hear this from my clients and those taking my course all the time.
Even though planning is key - it does NOT have to be stressful! I know it can seem like this big, daunting task. But as I’ll show you here, it 100% does not have to be.
I typically recommend planning 2 sets of meals: one for Monday through Wednesday, and one for Thursday and Friday. This way, you won’t get too sick of what you’re eating throughout the week. For example, you could plan:
BREAKFAST Mondays - Wednesdays: 2 hard boiled eggs + 1 apple + 1 string cheese
BREAKFAST Thursdays - Fridays: 1 to-go oatmeal cup + 1/4 cup nuts
LUNCH Mondays - Wednesdays: 1 can tuna + 1 Tbsp mayo + 2 cups celery +
LUNCH Thursdays - Fridays: 2 hard boiled eggs + 2 cups baby carrots + 2 single-serving packets of guacamole
Not sure how to meal prep? I got over it in detail and help you create a plan that works specifically for you in my course!
Also, here are some good articles on how to create meals and snacks:
2. Be Realistic About How Often You Will Eat Out
When creating your meal plan, try to be realistic about how often you will eat out. If chicken & veggies just isn’t going to cut it on Friday night, don’t even plan (and buy groceries) to last you that long.
You will end up SAVING money in the end when you plan for what is realistic in your life!
3. Buy Certain Foods in Bulk
Especially once you get the hang of meal prepping and shopping for yourself, buy certain foods in bulk that you know you’ll get through.
I typically recommend these foods you buy in bulk if you can - e.g. at the grocery store or at bigger stores like CostCo. These foods last a long time - which is important especially if you’re only cooking for yourself.
Frozen non-starchy veggies like carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, and green beans
Packs of nuts like peanuts, cashews, etc. (or better yet get a variety!) - if you want to make your own little packs, go ahead by all means! For me, it’s worth it to buy the pre-packaged packs because I’m lazzzyyyy
Jerky - lasts for so long!
Frozen protein - like burger patties, shrimp, chicken breasts
4. Use the Freezer
(Of course first think about how much room you actually have in your fridge!)
You may be surprised to hear this from a nutritionist, but frozen food is one my all time fave kinds of food haha!
I love using the freezer and the pantry - this way, I can eat exactly what I want, when I want it, and not worry that I have all this fresh food in the fridge that’s going to go bad.
Here are some good foods to stock up on:
Frozen non-starchy vegetables, such as spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, etc.
Frozen proteins such as turkey burger and regular burger patties, shrimp, fish filets, etc.
Frozen meals low in starchy foods, such as Trader Joe's frozen spinach & artichoke dip (eat it like a soup - SO good). Added starch and sugars already hide in so many of our foods - which is why I recommend searching for frozen meals that don’t blatantly have a starch in them (like pasta, rice, quinoa, etc.). These are of course healthy options - but it’s very easy to overeat them.
5. Use the Pantry
Similar to the freezer - stock up on wholesome, healthy options in the pantry that last for months! This way, again, you can eat what you want, when you want it.
Here are some of my faves:
Low-carb snacks like baked cheese "crackers" (also called “crisps” or “whisps” depending on the brand!), turkey or beef jerky, and single-serving packs of nuts or nut butters
Canned tuna and salmon
Canned tomatoes and beans (great for making chili, or adding to a stir-fry!)
6. Include Certain Foods That are Always Cheap
Some foods are (typically) always cheap - or cheaper - than other foods:
Produce sold in a bag versus produce you buy individually (e.g. 4 avocados sold in a mash bag vs. buying 4 individual avocados)
Oatmeal is a cheap whole grain that stays in the pantry for months (years?)
Frozen veggies and fruits are typically cheaper than fresh - they have very similar nutrient qualities, and then you don’t have to worry about eating them quickly!
Eggs are one of the cheapest complete protein sources
Canned tuna is also a cheap, complete protein source (by complete, I mean includes all of the amino acids - versus veggie protein sources which only include some amino acids)
Canned beans are v. cheap also - canned food lasts months! Try to find ones with easy-open lids
Bananas are typically the cheapest fresh fruit
7. Know What to Buy in Single-Servings
I’m a big proponent of making our lives as easy as possible. This is why I generally recommend buying some foods in single-serving packages to help with portion control.
It’s absolutely true that more packaging = more waste. If you can make little packages yourself, please do so! This is always my intention, but then life and general business gets the best of me. At this point in my life, buying single-serving packages is the way to go!
You may think - how does this save money? Aren’t single-serving packages more expensive?
This is true at face value, but let me tell you, it’s very common for us to eat multiple servings at once if we eat chips from the bag, or peanut butter from the jar.
I do believe it is very likely that you will SAVE money in the long run if you spend a little extra up front to buy single-serving packages.
8. Know Your “Food Facts”
One of my favorite authors Gretchen Rubin has these “commandments” or “facts” that relate to her as a person. These are her “truths”.
For example, one of my food facts is that "Protein bars don't fill me up. It doesn't make sense for me to buy new ones or (especially) one's I've already tried before because that's a waste of money!"
This is personal fact about me. It doesn’t matter what’s true for other people!
It’s important to know your own personal truths or “commandments” so that we can know what foods to buy, and which foods we can say adios to!
9. Make a grocery list!
Based on your meal plan, which should take into account 2-8, make a grocery list that includes what you are going to eat for the week.
You may need to buy certain foods (like the frozen and pantry varieties) only once or twice per month, so also account for this!
Honestly, I just make a list of my groceries in the Notepad on my phone, but in my course we have a more structured grocery list!
Here’s a good general checklist, but again, your specific grocery list should reflect what exactly you’re eating. This list is based off of my weight management philosophy!
WHOLE GRAINS AND STARCHY VEGGIES
Select 1-2 whole grains and/or starchy veggies for the week - like popcorn, oatmeal, whole wheat bagels, etc.
Choose a few protein sources. Some good ones that last a while include eggs, canned tuna or salmon, and frozen chicken breasts, burger patties, etc.
Choose some fats such as avocados or single-serving packs of guacamole, cheese, bacon, olives, nuts and nut butters (I think buying these in single-serving packs is v. helpful for portion control!)
Let’s be real we need our food to taste good! Here’s a full list of my fave toppings, but some are:
Low calorie salad dressings (under 50 calories per 2 Tbsp)
Sauerkraut or pickles
Mustards (except honey mustard)
Pre-mixed seasoning blends (like TJ’s Everything But the Bagel seasoning, or any of the Mrs. Dash varieties!)
10. Just Because There’s a Sale, Does NOT Mean You Need to Buy it
This is something I learned the hard way! And I saw my grandpa fall prey to this all the time :) Love you grandpa.
JUST because a certain food is on sale, does NOT mean you should buy it!
You may very well end up eating that food, maybe in a large quantity, not be satisfied or be over-stuffed, and wish you had made a different choice!
11. Just Because Something is Healthy - Does NOT Mean You Need To Buy It - Know Your Food Likes and Dislikes
Another thing I learned the hard way was to not fall prey to the newest health fad or buying something just “for the health of it”!
This really, in the end, comes back to what our true food likes and dislikes are. What foods do you love - do you love the taste of and that you feel nourish your body? And which foods can you go without?
For example, for me, here are some of my…
TJs Cauliflower Crust Pizza
Grilled chicken and grilled salmon
Cucumbers and sliced, crisp (important!) tomatoes
Plain yogurt (without e.g. adding fruit)
These foods ^ are very healthy, I just don’t prefer the taste or smell! Therefore, there not foods I have in my grocery list rotation, and that is perfectly fine!
12. Keep Track of Your Expenses. Where Do You Overspend?
Do you buy a coffee every morning? Do you eat out for lunch when you brought something and it’s in the fridge?
Keep track of your expenses for at least 2 weeks to see the truth come out!
Some ways to do this are to log everything on your phone, or use an app (many banks have this already built into their own apps), or keep track with an excel document on your computer.
13. Set a Budget For Yourself
A good trick to also use is setting a budget, or limited amount of $ you will spend on groceries per week. It may be a good idea to set different budgets, e.g.:
One for weekly groceries
One for eating out - morning coffee, lunch on-the-go, dinners out with friends, etc.
This of course varies on your stage in life, your income, etc.
A good thing to do at first is to keep track of how much you actually spend. Spend 2 weeks doing this at first. Keep track on your phone, write it down, or use an app like Mint (many banks though have their own apps you can use!).
14. Use Cash to Your Benefit
I also take out $100 in cash about once every 3 weeks - many places in NYC only accept credit cards with a $5 or $8 minimum purchase.
This way, I don’t have to buy the gum and the nuts and the iced coffee to get to $5 - I can just get my $2 pack of nuts and be on my way!
Taking out cash can also be helpful for budgeting - maybe you want to spend $100 in the whole week on groceries and eating out. Taking out $100 in cash at the start of each week can work wonders!
15. Don’t Go to the Grocery Store Hungry
I’m sure you’ve heard this one before! When we’re hungry, we’re more likely to make impulse purchases at the grocery store!
Dr. Rachel Paul is a registered dietician who completed her undergrad, masters, and Dietetic internship at Case Western Reserve University and her PhD in Behavioral Nutrition at Columbia University. She is an expert on intuitive and practical nutrition for college students. She can be found on instagram, LinkedIn, and Pinterest. Her website is https://www.collegenutritionist.com.