I thought this was a good article on ways to still eat healthy with the rising cost of groceries. I put my own comments at the end of each tip in brackets, plus some additional ones at the end. Please feel free to post your own tips in the comments section.

With Grocery costs On the Rise, Can You Afford To Eat Healthy?
by Mary Pickett, M.D., Harvard Medical School
May 27, 2008

Swallow hard—your grocery bill is getting more expensive.

According to a U.S. Government report, this April’s food prices were 14% higher for bread, 13.5% higher for milk, and 5% higher for food overall compared with last year’s prices.  Last month’s food cost increase was the largest in the past 18 years.

I am motivated, as I am sure you are, to find ways to keep my grocery bill in check. At the same time, I want to make sure I am eating healthy. But healthy foods can be expensive!  Is it possible for us to “tighten our belts” in both cost and calories at the same time, and still enjoy eating?

Here are some ways to keep healthy foods in your pantry, and more money in your wallet:

1.      Buy no sodas

Sweetened drinks have a major impact on weight and diabetes. Your body can absorb sweeteners easily, with little digestion. This results in a large spike of insulin in your bloodstream. Experts think that when dramatic insulin spikes occur over and over, this can lead to diabetes.

The Nurses’ Health Study interviewed and examined 50,000 American women in an eight-year period. Women who drank one or more sodas or sweetened drinks daily were almost twice as likely to develop diabetes compared with women who seldom drank soda. The women who drank sodas regularly also were about 10 pounds heavier on average, but the trend towards diabetes did not appear to be explained by weight gain alone. Drinking water (either straight from the tap or filtered at home) is much cheaper than buying soda.

 [I totally agree with Mary here, but I would add all junk food to this category: chips, cookies, snack crackers, etc. These have high calories and fat; and very little nutritional value. Snack on fruits, veggies, yogurt or hummus instead. These are healthy, low-fat, low-calorie options.]

2.      Put a limit on juices

Juices are more natural than sodas, but they pack a lot of sugar and they carry little fiber. They give you calories but they don’t fill you up. Juices should be limited, even for kids.

[I agree, plus too much juice is shown to lead to cavities in children, which adds an expense of another kind.]

3.      Always buy dairy

Milk products are loaded with calcium and are supplemented with vitamin D, both of which are important for bone health. Calcium may also be important for weight loss, although this is an area that needs more study. Keep low-fat or non-fat dairy options on hand all the time. Having basic dairy ingredients and eggs in your refrigerator at all times may enable you to pull together a fairly health and low-cost meal at home instead of eating out.

[Again I agree here, we never run out of yogurt, cheese or milk! Another tip, try plain fat-free yogurt instead of sour cream, it’s a little cheaper, much less fat and I personally prefer the flavor over sour cream. Boiled eggs are fast and easy for breakfast and nothing wrong with having breakfast for dinner!]

4.      Save on meats

I love meat, but you don’t need much of it for a meal. Groceries package meats in large portions, but packaging doesn’t have to determine your serving size. For example, I slice pork-chops into half-thickness slices, because they cook more easily and stretch farther.  Sometimes I will serve ravioli in broth, instead of serving meat on the side—the carnivore in me is satisfied, even though I haven’t eaten a whole serving of meat.

Remember canned fish and clams, which can be lower cost seafood items. Canned tuna is made from “throw-away” tuna fish that are too small to be cut into steaks. Since canned tuna is from younger fish, it has less mercury contamination per serving than you can find in a tuna steak.

[I agree again, though this is a hard one for our carnivore-ic society, including my family. I shop at Whole Foods for meat, so I can get the exact amount I want, rather then having to find a pre-packaged one with the amount I want (never happens). This allows me to control what I make, so it helps control costs. I do only feed my family organic meat. I truly believe there is a benefit to not eating all those hormones and extra pesticides.]

5.      Introducing legumes!

If you don’t regularly cook with beans, lentils, garbanzos, hummus, dal or other legume foods, find a recipe or two that you want to try and bring them into your household. These are a great source of protein and nutrition, and they are cheap.

[Give your toddler some pita and hummus as a snack – we never run out because my 2-year-old eats it daily. It’s her favorite! We love it as well – it’s loaded with protein, its low fat and it’s just all round healthy!]

6.      Is it important to buy organic?

Buying “organic” can steeply increase the price you pay for fruits, vegetables, milk and grains. For many people, this is simply not an option. If you can afford organic foods, are they worth their extra cost? It is hard to say for sure.

The most important difference between organic and non-organic foods is the presence of pesticides. Large exposures to pesticides are known to be dangerous, since pesticides can be toxic to nerves.  But small exposures (like the small exposure you can get from non-organic foods) don’t cause obvious harms.

One study of pre-school children showed that kids who eat an organic foods diet have less organophosphate pesticide measured in their urine, compared with other children. There is no good study that can prove—one way or the other—whether lifelong trace exposure to pesticides can cause human harm. The risk of pesticide exposure might or might not be worth your worry. It is probably not important enough to warrant the extra cost, although it is hard to be sure.

Don’t buy organic foods if you need to cut down on the quantity of fruits and vegetables that you buy in order to afford them. Washing, peeling, freezing and cooking fruits and vegetables eliminate a portion of the pesticides that contaminate them, so these are additional good strategies. Animals that are raised for meat have higher pesticide residue in fat, so removing fat and skin from meat also reduces your pesticide exposure.

If you choose to spend extra on organic foods, buy the organic versions of the fruits and vegetables in the “dirty dozen”—these are the foods that have the most pesticide residue: peaches, apples, sweet bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, pears, grapes (imported), spinach, lettuce and potatoes. Experts from the Environmental Working Group say at least half of our pesticide exposure from food comes from these items.

[I don’t agree with everything here. I personally believe there is a lot of benefit to eating organics and limiting exposure to pesticides, especially in young children. While we are not 100% organic, I always buy the organic versions of the dirty dozen, meats and milk. To be perfectly honest, sometimes organics are cheaper than the conventional version (this is rare but have seen it with items such as kiwi). It will also be interesting to see how prices will compare to locally grown items – they don’t have to travel far, one of the main reasons for the drastic increases in food – higher gas prices means it costs more to transport food. Try local farmer’s markets, a farm co-op or the locally grown section at your grocery store. Locally grown does not mean it’s organic, but typically has less pesticides since they do not have to travel far and are usually eaten more quickly.]

7.      Is it important to buy the more expensive hormone-free (r-BGH and r-BST free) milk?

Probably not. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has gone to great lengths to reassure the public that hormones used to boost milk production in cows don’t present a danger. The FDA is probably correct in taking this stand. These hormones, and the hormone that is associated with them in cows (insulin-like growth factor-1, or IGF-1) would create concern if they were digested in a way that they could enter the human bloodstream in significant levels. However, like other complicated proteins, these hormones deteriorate in our digestive tracts when they are exposed to stomach acid and digestive enzymes. Some studies dispute that the hormones are even present in cows’ milk in the first place, after they are injected into the cow. All milk on the grocery shelf—as long as it is pasteurized—is probably safe to buy.

[I do not agree with this either. I do not see how the presence of hormones and pesticides in milk can be beneficial. Also, organic milk tastes so much better to my family, so I am likely to drink more and waste less. The FDA is wrong a lot, so you can’t go just based on that. And they best they can say is conventional milk is “probably” safe, and that’s just not good enough when it comes to the health of my family.]

Whatever you do to reduce your grocery bill, don’t sacrifice fruits and vegetables. They can be expensive, but cutting down on garden foods in is not a good idea. These foods are just so good for you, that this is not the place to save on your grocery bill. Fresh produce is best, but canned or frozen fruits or vegetables have almost equal nutritional value to fresh foods, and they may be less expensive during certain times of the year. Remember that you can freeze vegetables if you don’t eat them right away.

[Agree here again – don’t skimp on fruits and veggies. Eat seasonal fruits and veggies – they are much cheaper in season. You can buy in bulk and share the food and cost with neighbors/family; or you can freeze and eat it during the “off season.” Pick a few items you may regularly eat and start your own garden (i.e. maybe tomatoes, onions, carrots).]

What are your priorities when you shop for groceries, with both health and cost in mind? What tricks do you have to save on healthy foods? What do you leave out of your grocery bag?

Mary Pickett, M.D., is an Associate Professor of Medicine at Oregon Health & Science University where she is a primary care doctor for adults. Her field is Internal Medicine. She is also a Lecturer for Harvard Medical School and a Senior Medical Editor for Harvard Health Publications.

Other tips:
1. Make simple, healthy, low cost meals that will generate leftovers (i.e. spaghetti, shepherds pie).
2. As Dave Ramsey says “rice and beans, beans and rice.” This is good ole meal with or without meat.
3. Buy store brands: I can be brand loyal, but some items you really can’t tell the difference. I get Whole Foods brand milk, store brand butter, sometimes rice, some canned goods (though it’s very rare I buy canned foods since the lining contains BPA).
4. Clip coupons.
5. Watch your grocery’s weekly circular. Plan your meals based on what’s on sale that week.
6. Make a shopping list and stick to it! Do not stray or make impulse buys. I make one exception, if I see an item on sale, or a buy one get one free deal for something I use regularly, I will get the item because I will save in the long run. Pasta sauce for example – we eat spaghetti a lot! Or if ground beef is on sale, I will get a couple extra pounds to store in the freezer.
Got a tip to save on groceries? Please share by posting a comment!

5 thoughts on “Eating healthy with the rising cost of groceries

  1. I’m reminded of a automobile oil commercial…… pay me now or pay me later. If you don’t do an oil change you buy a new motor. If you keep eating things with pesticides and growth hormones you can’t get a new body but will pay the doctor more later for your declining health.

  2. WOW ……my grocery bill has gone up $80 per week! It happened over night. We buy as much organic as possible but are budget is being pushed to our limit.

    One thing we are doing is shopping at the local fruit and vege stands. It is considerably cheaper, by almost $1 or $2 a pound. I will pay $5.99 for a pineapple at the grocery store and $2.99 at the fruit stand so this is a definite savings!

    I want to emphasize, as stated in the comments above the importance of eating organic foods especially if you have children. It really is just common sense……I agree with the info in regards to the dirty dozen. That is a great starting point…..but I absolutely think ‘milk’ and dairy products should be organic no if ands or buts about it! Also if you do eat meat that should be organic as well. It is tough on the budget but much healthier for your family.


  3. There were a lot of extremely helpful tips in this post. Higher grocery costs have hit my family hard, but I try not to scrimp on the most important: fresh fruits and vegetables – seeking organic, pesticide-free as much as possible. However I do have us drink a nutritional juice product to make sure that we get what we need in phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals. With gasoline prices going ever higher, that will drive food prices higher still.

  4. I think the biggest problem is that we seem to be losing control of our own cost of living with the soaring prices of produce and fuel. I am going to start a business that sets up low-maintenance, raised beds with self-watering systems on timers for growing vegetables and fruits that is aesthetically pleasing as well and is geared for the average person that doesn’t have much knowledge of gardening so they can grow their own produce for their families!

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