Eating Clean for Less Green

Featured Article, Healthy Recipes and Nutrition, Nutrition
on November 10, 2011

“I’d like to eat healthier but it’s too expensive.”

Sound familiar? Coupon-clippers often complain that it’s easier to find savings on packaged foods like Pop Tarts than on fresh produce or lean meats, and many families find their bills go up when they commit to eating better. But it is possible to “eat clean”—make fresh, whole foods the focus of your diet–and keep your grocery costs under control. It just takes a little time and a lot of savvy. We asked two experts for a few of their secrets.

Upsize—just a little. Buying a case of canned beans or a 24-pack of paper towels at a warehouse store will certainly save you money, but it’s just not practical for every family. But there is a middle ground. Linda Watson, author of Wildly Affordable Organic: Eat Fabulous, Get Healthy, and Save the Planet—All on $5 a Day or Less, advocates buying in “mini-bulk”—just one to two sizes larger of an item than what you usually pick up. “Buy just a little bit more, store a little bit, and you can save a lot of money,” she says.

Canned tomatoes, bagged rice and beans and peanut butter are all healthy items that you can typically buy in the next larger size without worrying about spoilage. Just remember to compare the unit prices among sizes (which stores are required by law to display) to be sure you’re actually saving.

Use your freezer wisely. Unless you have a bomb shelter in your basement, stockpiling super savings every week isn’t possible. But if you’re strategic about what you freeze, you can still reap the economic benefits. For instance, says Watson, freeze seasonal produce so you don’t have to pay a premium price when it’s winter and you’re craving strawberries. But don’t take up space with things like onions, spinach or peas that you can buy at a decent price year-round.

And instead of freezing all individual ingredients, use some space to store pre-made meals and baked goods that you can just heat up quickly on a busy night. 

RELATED: Farmer's Market Shopping Guide

Interact with your favorite brands online. Even if you can’t find coupons for fresh produce and meats, there are other ways to get deep discounts on healthy foods.

“For any brand that you really like and want to consistently buy, consider checking out their website, signing up for their newsletter or as a fan on Facebook,” says Lisa Reynolds, personal finance expert and “Mom Saver-in-Chief” at RedPlum, one of the largest online and newspaper coupon outlets in the U.S. “You can get great deals that way.”

Health food stores and even farmers’ markets are increasingly expanding their online presence and offering deals to customers who interact with them via social media. If you don’t want updates from companies to drown out news from family and friends, you can simply hide them from your news feed. Or create a separate email or Facebook account that you can check only when you’re looking for sales.

Invest in a few gadgets. Not everyone needs a bread machine, an ice cream maker, a rice cooker and a stand mixer. But if you find yourself constantly falling back on certain meals—stir-frys on weeknights, frozen treats all summer long— it may be worthwhile to spend the money on gadgets that will make it faster and easier to prepare those foods from scratch. Even then you may not have to drop a lot of cash. Simply scour yard sales and thrift stores for barely used wedding gifts!

Get your family involved. There’s no way around it: The more time you’re willing to devote each week to looking for deals and planning your family’s meals around the best prices, the more you can save without resorting to convenience foods. But if the idea of spending more than a few minutes seems daunting, why not make it a group activity? Kids can help with cutting out coupons or matching them with store circulars, or flip through cookbooks for recipe ideas with certain ingredients.

“We absolutely recommend doing it with your kids,” Reynolds says. “It’s a great way to teach them how to be savvy about shopping. It can also be fun and a rewarding experience.”