10 Rules of Healthy, Budget-Friendly Shopping

By Cari Coulter, RD, LD

Smiling woman with bag of groceriesRule #1 Plan Ahead

Plan out a basic sketch of your meals for that week:


  • Breakfasts: Include a dairy, a fruit, and a starch
  • Lunches: Include a fruit or veggie, a protein, a source of dairy, and at least 2 starches
  • Dinners: Include a protein, a starch, and at least two servings of veggies
  • Snacks: Make up for what you are missing in your meals: dairy, fruit or veggie, starch

Example Menu #1:

  • Breakfast- Cereal and skim milk with ½ a banana
  • Lunch- Ham wrap with FF cheese lettuce, tomato, peppers, pretzels, baby carrots
  • Snack- Apple and better n’ peanut butter, string cheese
  • Dinner- Chicken stir fry- cubed chicken, 90 second rice, frozen veggie mix
  • Snack- Fat free ice cream
Example Menu #2:
  • Breakfast- Granola bar, yogurt, berries
  • Lunch- Crackers with fat free cheese and Turkey, banana and better n’
  • peanut butter
  • Snack- Veggies and FF hummus
  • Dinner- Baked potato, fish, salad with FF dressing
  • Snack- Hot chocolate (made with skim milk) and popcorn

Make a shopping list:

  • Include specific brands
  • You may not get the portions right at first, but eventually you will get a feel for how much you or your family eats each week or two weeks.

Go only once:

  • Set a day for grocery shopping and commit to only going on that day.
  • Going 3-4 days a week to pick up one or two things at a time will increase the chances of impulse buying and take up much more of your free time.
  • Getting your children involved in food decisions is important; however, if they cannot handle long grocery trips, try to find a time when you can go alone. Get them involved while you make the list, unpack the food, or prepare the meals.

Rule #2 Mix Up Your Fresh and Canned Items

The long lasting shelf lives of frozen and canned foods make them ideal for busy families on a budget.

  • You do not have to use only fresh foods to make healthy, tasty meals for your family.
  • Frozen foods have as much nutrients as their fresh counterparts. In fact, the freezing process can preserve nutrients that are lost when a product sits on a grocery store shelf at room temperature.
  • Canned foods can sometimes be less nutritious than fresh, BUT….
  • Adding canned foods like vegetables, light tuna, or fruit in water natural juices, etc. to a meal still increases its nutrition value.
  • The sodium content of the canned version of a food is usually the biggest issue but lower sodium options are usually available.

Some Suggestions:

  • Add fresh mushrooms, peppers, and zucchini to canned marinara sauce to make a healthier, chunkier version.
  • Add canned black beans, corn, and salsa to turn your lettuce into a taco salad
  • Add celery, cheese, and green beans to spruce up your usual mayo and tuna sandwich.

Rule #3: Buy Nonperishable Items in Quantity When They’re On Sale

Canned goods, pasta and grains, and other dried goods have long shelf lives and can be used with many different dishes. Poultry and meat freeze well. Storing it in single portions makes it easier and faster to prepare.

Different sauces/marinades can turn leftover foods into completely different dishes:

  • Add BBQ sauce to last nights pork tenderloin for pulled pork sandwiches in lunches
  • Add Teriyaki sauce to leftover chicken breasts to put in stir fry the next day
  • Powdered ranch dressing mix can be added to uneaten baked potatoes from last night’s dinner to make zesty mashed potatoes

Rule # 4: Comparison Shop


Generic, store brands are often nutritionally comparable or equal to the more expensive versions.  Also, “organic” does not necessarily mean healthier, but usually means more expensive:

  • Progresso Light Chicken Noodle Soup (1 cup) = 70 cals, 1.5 g fat, about 8 cents/ounce
  • Health Valley Organic Chicken Noodle (1 cup) = 80 cals, 2.5 g fat , about 18 cents/ounce

Different brands of some foods can vary drastically in nutrition content.

  • Nature’s Own Double Fiber Wheat- 50 calories, 5 g fiber per slice
  • Oroweat- 100 calories, 3 g fiber per slice
  • Nature Valley Peanut Butter Granola Bar- 180 calories, 2 g fiber
  • Fiber One Oats and Peanut Butter- 150 calories, 9 g fiber
  • Trader Joe’s Organic Vegetarian Chili- 190 calories, 7 g fiber
  • Health Valley’s Mild Vegetarian Chunky Chili- 150 calories, 10 g fiber

Rule #5 Be Selective About Buying Pre-prepared Foods

Pre-packaged, pre-prepared foods are usually more expensive. However, if a convenience item significantly reduces your time and hassles in the kitchen, it may be worth the extra cost

  • Trimmed chicken breasts rather than a whole chicken
  • 90 second rice that is already spiced instead of the regular, slow-cooked kind
  • Baby carrots instead of whole ones

Save money on anything that can be prepared quickly and easily at home

  • Bag small portions of chips and crackers rather than purchasing individual packages
  • Cut cheese from a brick rather than purchasing individually wrapped slices

You know yourself. If you know that you are not going to scoop out individual portions of yogurt or cut up melons, but you will eat yogurt and melons if they come pre-prepared, then buy them that way!

Rule #6: Only Purchase A Couple Varieties of Snack Foods

Snacks, especially those for children, should be used to make up for what is missing from that day’s meals. I.e. an apple and cheese stick if your child had a sandwich, chips, and baby carrots for lunch.

The more options you provide, the more you will eat. Treats need a place in every diet, but should not be an assumed part of every meal and snack.

Buy the healthier version of your usual snack foods:

  • Dreyer’s Fat Free Vanilla Ice cream instead of Ben and Jerry’s version
  • Wow! Light Sour Cream and Cheddar Ruffles instead of the original
  •  “No Pudge” brownies instead of Betty Crocker’s

Rule # 7. Buy a Mixture of Longer Lasting Fresh Produce and Produce That Goes Bad Quickly

Buying a mixture will allow you to purchase a week or more worth of produce without having to deal with spoiled foods. Try to eat the produce that goes bad quickest at the beginning of the week and save the longer lasting produce for the end of the week.

Produce that starts to go bad in 1 week or less (if taken home ripe):

  • Fruits: apricots, avocados, bananas, berries, cherries, grapes, guavas, kiwis, melons, nectarines, papayas, peaches, pears, pineapples, plums, rhubarb
  • Veggies: artichokes, asparagus, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, celery, cilantro, corn, greens (spinach, collards etc.), green beans, lettuce, mushrooms, green onions, parsley, peas, peppers, tomatoes, zucchini

Produce that typically lasts 2 weeks or longer:

  • Fruits: grapefruit, lemon, limes, oranges, apples
  • Veggies: beets, cabbage, carrots, hard squash

Rule #8. Slash the Fat From Your Choices

Replace regular or whole dairy products (cheese, sour cream, ice cream, milk, yogurt) with 2%, light, and fat free/skim versions

Purchase light spreads, condiments, sauces, and spices to use in place of butter or oil to season and/or cook foods.

  • Fat free vegetable/chicken broths
  • BBQ, teriyaki, and steak sauces
  • Fat free marinades/dressings
  • Balsamic/red wine vinegar

Choose leaner proteins:

  • White meat poultry without skin
  • Fish (white flaked fish like flounder or tilapia are the leanest)
  • 96% lean ground beef or turkey
  • Beans
  • Round and Loin cuts for pork and beef

Rule # 9: Vary Your Dairy

Many people in the United States do not reach their calcium requirements. By purchasing a number of different dairy products (cheese- blocked or shredded, yogurt, milk, light ice cream), you are more likely to meet your goal.

Each serving of dairy (8 oz milk, 6 oz yogurt, 1-1.5 oz cheese) has about 300 mg of calcium. How many servings should you aim for? Look at the list below:

  • 0-6 months:  210 mg calcium/day
  • 7 months-1 year: 270 mg calcium/day
  • 1-3 years: 500 mg calcium/day
  • 4-8 years:  800 mg calcium/day
  • 9-18 years (including pregnant/breastfeeding): 1300 mg calcium/day
  • 19-49 years (including pregnant/breastfeeding): 1000 mg calcium/day
  • 50+ years: mg calcium/day 1200

Source: National Academy of Sciences 2004

Rule #10: Skip the high-calorie, sugary drinks

  • Fruit juices, even those made from 100% fruit juice, tend to still contain a lot of calories and sugar. Regular sodas and imitation fruit drinks are almost pure sugar and provide no nutritive value whatsoever.
  • Eating the whole piece of fruit, rather than drinking it in the form of juice, is always a better choice as it provides additional nutrients and fiber without any added sugar
  • If you still drink fruit juices, try to drink the light or diet versions. Or, try using Crystal Light, or drinking unsweetened tea.
  • Most of your fluids should come from water and skim milk.