Grocery Shopping: Lists & Tips
There’s a sad truth that comes with starting to turn your health around: it is a lot more expensive to eat healthfully than it is to eat a standard American diet. When you decide to stop eating the 3 major subsidized crops–wheat, corn, soybeans–you essentially give up every packaged food item in the grocery store. And your budget could suffer because of it.
Encouragement comes in the form of optimistic statements like these:
“It’s cheaper when you start eating less food.”
“Think how much less you’re spending on medical bills.”
“Your health is worth it.”
While these statements are true in the long run (the last one, especially), it doesn’t help when your first “on-diet” grocery trip blows your entire food budget for the month. Nor does it help families with young children, who are attempting low-lectin family meals for growing bodies.
While it can be more expensive at first, especially when you’re replacing all the staples in your pantry (see my tips on how to do this), I’ve come up with the best way to save the most amount of money.
It requires extra time and planning, which I understand is a luxury for busy families. However, when you don’t have the budget to spare, and you need to make a health change, implementing this strategy will help reduce the sticker shock of Plant Paradox, AIP, Paleo, or any other anti-inflammatory diet.
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Saving the most money on groceries means shopping at multiple places and times. There is a hefty “convenience tax” for always-open, one-stop shops like Whole Foods and other specialty grocery stores. To avoid paying for convenience, you have to strategically divide and conquer. Start by making grocery lists at varying frequencies throughout the year:
- a seasonal list
- a monthly list
- a weekly list.
At the beginning of each season, make a list of items that you can buy in large quantities and freeze to use for several months–wholesale produce, meat shares, and fish. If you haven’t already invested in a deep freezer, now would be a good time. Especially if you’re feeding a family, the money you’ll save by buying these things in bulk will more than make up for the cost of running the freezer.
Buying wholesale, in-season produce directly from a farmer can save you a lot of money, if you have the time and space to preserve it for later. The price of out-of-season produce is often double or triple what it is during peak local harvest. To see what’s growing near you, check out seasonalfoodguide.org, and then start looking for local farms.
The farmer’s market is a good place to start. Ask vendors when the season runs for the specific produce you want. The cheapest time to buy it wholesale is at the tail end of the season. Farmers want to unload fruits and vegetables that are past their peak to make room for the next crop.
If you live near a coast, you’re in luck. The cheapest place to find quality wild-caught fish is straight from the source during peak season. You’ll know when it’s in season by the en masse appearance of road-side stands that advertise fresh seafood on spray-painted plywood boards. If you’re going to buy in bulk, though, it’s important to get good quality. Don’t look for the cheapest seafood around–it’s often cheap for a reason. To find a vendor you trust, read local reviews, get recommendations from local restaurants, or ask neighbors and friends.
Pastured and grass-fed meats are sometimes available at grocery stores, but the price is often exorbitant. You can easily double your grocery bill with meat alone. So what is a lectin-free carnivore to do? Once again, go local. For a variety of reasons, it pays to find a farmer you trust:
- learn exactly how the animals are raised and what they are fed
- tour the farm for yourself–see the conditions
- avoid markup by buying straight from the source
- buy in bulk
Farmers who raise pigs and cattle will often sell whole or half animals straight to customers. Even with butcher and processing fees, you can get dozens of cuts of meat for a fraction of what you’d pay at a grocery store.
There are a few websites that offer grass-fed and pastured meat, including whole, half, and quarter cow and pig shares, delivered right to your doorstep. Some examples:
If you need help finding a local farm that grass feeds and pasture-raises, check out Eat Wild for a list, by state. This is where I found my local farm, and I am very grateful this directory exists.
Weston A. Price Foundation
The Weston A. Price foundation has a directory of local farms that grass feed and pasture-raise animals. Each county of every state has a chapter member leader that keeps a running list of farms in the area. Check their sister site realmilk.com to find farms that offer raw goat, sheep, and A2 cows milk.
At the beginning of each month, make a list of all the non-perishable items in your pantry that are running low–both common ones and specialty items.
Despite a yearly membership fee, wholesale clubs offer steep discounts on everything from common pantry items to wedding dresses (just in case you happen to be looking). The following food items are usually available in large or bulk sizes at most membership clubs like Costco, Sam’s, or BJ’s:
- olive oil
- coconut oil (sometimes)
- sesame oil
- stevia (sometimes)
- coconut milk (sometimes)
- dried herbs and seasonings
- compliant energy bars
- butter (can be frozen)
- frozen vegetables (when not in season locally)
- canned beans (if vegetarian or phase 3)
- hot sauce and chili pastes
Non-typical food items like alternative sweeteners and nut flours–though gaining in popularity–are still hard to find in bulk. For the best prices on these items, you’ll need to go online. Shopping online is convenient for more reasons than “you can do it from your couch.” It’s also quick and easy to price compare. The only downside is you usually need to meet a threshold for free shipping, and this can be tough to do when shopping multiple sites. Here are the top sites for finding low-priced specialty items:
Like a wholesale club, Thrive Market offers generous discounts for members, but on specialty groceries. From algae oil to xylitol, Thrive has nearly every special-diet item for up to 50% off. Shipping is free over $49, and memberships are available at no cost for low-income families, teachers, and veterans.
The application to apply for free membership can be found HERE.
Get an additional 25% off your first order HERE.
Vitacost can be hit or miss. They offer flash deals on many specialty items and supplements, and, like Thrive Market, shipping is free over $49. It’s a good idea to price compare with Vitacost when ordering groceries for the month.
Anthony’s Goods offers their own brand of organic nut and root flours at a fraction of the cost, including nearly every flour on the Plant Paradox Yes list. The quality of their flour is consistent, shipping is free, and, for the price, it can’t be beat.
If you have a favorite brand, it’s sometimes best to shop straight from the source. Often, brands will have flash deals to unload their product before new product comes in, and those are the best times to buy. Now when does that happen? Beats me, but if you are loyal to a certain brand of oil, sweetener, or flour, it can pay to check the brand site before shopping elsewhere.
Your most frequent list will be at the beginning of each week, when you determine which items you need for the week’s meals. If you’ve conquered your seasonal and monthly lists, you may not need much more than seasonal produce and some dairy products and eggs each week.
Need help planning meals?
You may be able to find everything you need for the week from a discount grocer like Aldi, Target, or Walmart. They carry the most popular seasonal produce items at prices that can’t be beat. There are even organic and grass-fed options now at most of these stores. If you live near an ethnic grocery store, take advantage of inexpensive imports (konjac noodles, coconut oil, cassava flour, green plantain chips) that are branded specialty items elsewhere (with a premium).
To see what’s in season and to support your local farmers, head for the weekly open-air market. The best part about the farmers market is you can talk face-t0-face with the person who grew your food. Beware: not everything is cheaper at a farmers market (especially hard-t0-grow items like delicate berries). The taste and quality of imported grocery store produce, however, cannot even begin to compete with the taste of local, picked-ripe produce in season. Don’t be fooled by elaborate “seasonal” grocery store displays–they will often showcase cheaper, imported produce during local growing seasons that was not picked ripe.
Other Cost-Saving Tips
In addition to mapping out and sticking to your grocery list plan, here are some additional cost-saving tips:
Go meatless. If you’re not already vegan or vegetarian, commit to doing one meatless meal a day. Then see if you can make 1 or 2 days a week completely meatless.
Stretch the meat. For meals where you do use meat, “stretch” the meat by mixing in filling vegetables. An example would be using chopped cauliflower florets with a few ounces of ground beef, some onions, and seasonings to make taco filling.
Stick to the list. Seriously, just stick to your grocery list. Get in and out of that grocery store like you’ve got better things to do (like cook it all up at home!)
Make your own. I know–it requires even more time, but if you have a free day during the week, making your own staples can save a ton of money on specialty packaged foods. Check out my recipes for 3-ingredient cassava flour tortillas and sweet potato gnocchi that you can make in big batches and store or freeze.
Buy organic when it matters. Check out the 2017 Dirty Dozen Guide to see which produce items receive the highest amounts of pesticides. The good news is, most of the list is fruit, which you should be buying local and moderating anyway! When you buy local, you can ask your farmer how they manage pests. Even if he/she isn’t an organic farmer, many farmers are what we call “transitional.” This means they are making strides to reduce or eliminate pesticide use, but lack the money or resources to become certified organic.
Grow your own. Perhaps the cheapest way to eat produce is to grow it yourself. Urban farms and community gardens are sprouting up across the country, so you’re running out of excuses if you haven’t tried already!
When to Splurge
There are some items that are worth the extra money, simply because you pay more for better quality (this is not true for every food item). If your budget allows, these three items are worth the extra buck:
Extra-Virgin Olive Oil
Many olive oils are diluted with cheaper oils–watch out for words like “blend” on the bottle. Quality extra-virgin olive oil will not be exposed to heat during the process–look for terms like “cold-pressed,” “stone-pressed,” or “unfiltered.” Look for brands from California and bear seals of approval from the North American Olive Oil Association (NAOOA) and the International Olive Council (IOC), like this brand available on Amazon.
The term “certified organic” means the chickens are fed organic corn and soy, when they should be out eating grass and bugs. Even more misleading are terms like “cage free” and “free range,” which simply mean, no matter how cramped living conditions are, chickens are not kept in cages. Often they are living literally on top of one another in a dark warehouse, instead.
Chicken is one of those things I recommend going without if you aren’t able to find a local farm. The quality of commercial chicken is so affected by its diet and living conditions, it can wreak havoc on a weak gut. Search for a farmer who raises chickens outside, in a pasture where you can see them, without antibiotics. Check out the sources I mentioned above to find a farmer near you.
I previously mentioned that the farmer’s market is not always cheaper. And to reiterate, grocery stores will often prominently display cheap, imported produce during the local growing season to compete with local farms. Not only is this misleading, but the quality is also lacking, because the produce is often ripened on a truck. Some local fruits and vegetables don’t even taste like the same thing, eaten side by side with imported. Support your local farms whenever you can.