Sometimes it feels like the entire food industry is trying to fatten us up. A study of supermarket discounting practices in New Zealand found that stores are more likely to discount sugary drinks, such as sodas and sports drinks, than they are healthy beverages like low-fat milk or soymilk. Even when the healthier items are discounted, the discounts are better for drinks overloaded with sugar, fat, and calories.
It’s difficult enough to eat healthy when we’re constantly bombarded with marketing messages that scream, “You’ll love it! You’ll want it! It’s entertainment! It’s fun!” says David Kessler, former FDA commissioner and author of The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite (Rodale, 2009). Slashing prices on already-cheap and very unhealthy food during a challenging economy sets up one more hurdle we have to all overcome in our quest to eat a more nutritional diet. "Some of my colleagues in the obesity-research field are not very optimistic that the individual alone can overcome this constant bombardment of food cues that they’re encountering,” says Kessler. “It sets the average person up for failure."
Unfortunately, since government subsidies support the massive farms that grow the cheap corn and soy that make all those unhealthy foods cheap and affordable, the deck is unfairly stacked against people who want to eat healthy and affordably. Yet there are ways to do it, provided you know how to navigate supermarket sales tactics.
Here are 8 ways to start saving money while eating healthy:
1. Don’t chase advertised specials.
Supermarket ads use very enticing pictures and words to get you to think you need to buy what they’re selling, says Barbara Salsbury, author of the book Beating the High Cost of Eating: The Essential Guide to Supermarket Survival (Horizon, 2005).
But often, what seems to be a deal is anything but. “It might be a markup, it might be a tie-in. Only rarely are the sales real bargains.” She’s a big proponent of making lists. “If you have 10 things that you normally buy, write them down, and keep track of the prices every time you see them.
It will just take a few weeks until you know what’s a good price on those items,” she says. Once you know what they normally cost, you’ll know if those “sales” are really a good deal.
2. Consider the cupboard.
Many of us diligently make lists and plan out our weekly meals before we shop, to avoid temptation from junk food we don’t need. But instead of looking at what we already have, we read recipes and get more stuff we don’t need.
“Throw out the traditional meal menu planning, and start by making do with what you have in your cupboard,” says Salsbury. So if you’ve already stocked up on staples, and you have a box of pasta and some frozen vegetables, you may just need some spices or a different kind of cheese to make that into a meal.
Or, once you’ve sharpened your deal-spotting skills, make meals from the food you find on sale at the store, she says. True, supermarket discounts favor unhealthy foods, but if you consistently shop for the few healthy items that are on sale, you’ll make a huge dent in your grocery bill.
3. Beware of store loyalty programs.
Coupons, store discount cards, and even advertisements are all designed to promote store loyalty, Salsbury writes in her book.
But, she says, you’ll get the most out of your food dollar if you shop around instead of sticking to the store that gave you a card.
Read the ads and write down which stores are having (real) sales on the items you need, and “you can normally save $25 go $30 per trip,” she says.
4. Look high and low, but never straight ahead.
The placement of products on shelves is very carefully choreographed, says Salsbury.
Items on lower and higher shelves are generally cheaper than products placed at eye level.
Likewise, she says, “we have come to assume that anything on a display table or displayed at the end of the aisle is ‘on sale.’ Most of the time it’s just ‘for sale.’”
5. Look for generic organics.
Organic products are just as creatively marketed as conventional, and we can be tempted to buy more expensive brands by glitzier labels, Salsbury says.
Many stores now carry private-label organics that are just as good as national brands; just look for the USDA organic seal.
“Made with organic ingredients” and “all-natural” products can look convincing, but “we need to read labels and make sure we’re getting what we think we’re getting.”
Also, she adds, look for local organic produce, now working its way from farmer’s markets to chain stores. Stores usually offer it for less than organic produce that’s shipped from far away.
6. Stick to basics and weigh your options.
Oatmeal, beans, whole grain pastas, and whole grain rice are easy to cook, full of protein, and among the cheapest foods at the store.
But double check prices at the bulk bins, says Salsbury, which people assume are cheaper than prepackaged versions.
A quick price comparison sometimes reveals otherwise, and “notice that they put the scales at either end,” Salsbury says.
“You just keep putting scoops of stuff in a bag and assume that you’ve got enough.” If you’re not weighing it, you could be buying more than you need.
7. Make it yourself.
“We’re being convinced that we don’t have time to cook for ourselves anymore,” says Salsbury.
But convenience foods, even familiar kinds like dry cereal or canned soup, eat up your budget.
Buy quick-cooking oatmeal instead and add some jam or (real) maple syrup for flavor.
Throwing your own mix of beans together to make a bean soup is cheaper than cans and doesn’t take that long, says Salsbury.
8. Forage for fruit.
Take a look around your neighborhood, and you might be shocked to find free fruit begging to be picked, whether from a tree near the sidewalk or branches hanging off your neighbor’s fig tree (presuming your neighbor won't mind).
There’s a growing interest in neighborhood fruit foraging, and quite a few cities have maps that plot out where you can find fruit trees.
To make your own natural cleaning concoction: Mix 1 tablespoon lemon juice, 2 tablespoons distilled white vinegar, and 1 cup cold tap water in a spray bottle, shake well, and apply to your produce. Rinse with water.