How to grocery shop for nutritious foods on a budget


by Alessandra Stasnopolis, RDN, LDN

Apr 28, 2023

With grocery prices increasing, you probably feel like you are overspending on groceries every time you go to the store these days. Something I often hear when coaching others is that it’s especially expensive to eat healthy.

When I explore what healthy food means to them, often I hear fresh produce, organic meats and nothing from the middle aisles of the grocery store. When defined like this, it makes sense why people often feel like eating healthy is not cost effective. This definition eliminates half of the grocery store.

But what if we expanded our definition of healthy foods? See, foods can’t hold moral value because they aren’t alive. So, instead of thinking of the health factor of foods as “good versus bad,” maybe we should think of health in variety. Why can’t foods in the middle of the grocery store, which are often more affordable, be healthy in a varied diet?

That brings us to the cost factor. If we focus on utilizing foods from all parts of the grocery store, we can often save money. Food that is located in the middle of the grocery store is nutritious, can fit into your diet and often save you money.

A quick side note: There is also nothing wrong with having fun foods (like desserts or potato chips) in your grocery haul. All foods nourish us in different ways!

Related: How to build a healthy relationship with food 

12 more affordable grocery store food options

Here are a few more affordable options that can help you save money on your grocery bill and still provide a wealth of nutrients in a varied diet:

  1. Canned veggies (including beans and peas), fruits and proteins
  2. Tofu, tempeh and edamame
  3. Frozen veggies, fruits, proteins and meals
  4. Dried fruits and veggies
  5. Peanuts, nuts and seeds
  6. Peanut butter, nut butters and seed butters
  7. Canned soups and sauces
  8. Fruit and veggie juices
  9. Yogurt and cottage cheese
  10. Minute rice and other easily cooked grains
  11. Any items you can buy in bulk
  12. Any items you can buy on sale or in season

Other ways to save include participating in a community garden or starting a garden at home.

If you are concerned about how the foods you purchase and consume will impact your blood pressure or blood sugar, there are ways to make these affordable foods work better for your health. Here are a few:

  • Washing canned produce before consuming can significantly lower added sodium and sugar.
  • Choosing lower sodium options can help manage blood pressure and heart health.
  • Eating more fiber and pairing carbs with proteins, fats and non-starchy veggies can help manage blood sugar. Carbs aren’t the enemy!
  • If you plan to have something with a lot of sodium or simple carbs in a day, plan around this. Have your high sodium or carbohydrate meal and then moderate these items the rest of the day. Create a tool kit or plan to manage your chronic conditions in all scenarios (if you need help with this, book a session with a dietitian for personalized support).
  • Foods high in potassium can help lower blood pressure and offset sodium intake.
  • Exercise and foods high in fiber, protein and fat can help offset simple sugars and blood sugar spikes.

What about ingredients and food quality?

If you’re concerned about ingredients, keep in mind that nothing is ever perfect. Organic foods, for example, can have up to 10% genetically modified organisms in them and still be considered organic. There is also no nutritional difference between organic and conventional products—both will still provide the same amount of nutrition.

People spend so much time vilifying food but give no thought to the impacts of pollution, dietary supplements, dishwasher detergent, household cleaning products, technology, substance abuse and rainwater on health. The point is, you can only control so much. When we create a narrative that “clean” or “organic” is the only way to eat food, we prevent so many people from consuming a variety of foods due to cost barriers.

It's better to eat produce, lean proteins, whole grains and legumes in general than to not eat it at all. All food is nutritious!

Another concern people often have is not recognizing ingredients in foods and automatically labeling them as dangerous. Keep in mind there are plenty of chemical compounds that are hard to pronounce but are just a fancy word for something else. For example, pyridoxine hydrochloride sounds scary, but it’s actually just vitamin B6.

Instead of being worried about long and complicated words (unless you have a medical reason to be worried), try to focus on trying to get a variety of foods from all food groups. This will ensure you get all the nutrients you need to maintain health.

Just remember, while it’s good to want to nourish your body with the best foods, “clean eating,” isn’t a medically backed term. It can be expensive and actually have poor health outcomes by leading you to not eat enough and cut out whole food groups, and by creating a financial burden and causing stress.

At the end of the day, keep in mind that all food is nutritious!

Need help navigating your grocery store options? Connect with a dietitian today for personalized support.

About the Author

Alessandra Stasnopolis, RDN, LDN, is a clinical dietitian and wellness coordinator in the Baylor Scott & White Health wellness department.

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