You don’t need to compromise healthy eating to save a little money
By Bonnie Munday
The numbers were in as of the end of 2018: Canadians’ food bills are set to rise by up to 3.5 per cent this year. That’s according to “Food Price Report 2019,” an independent analysis produced by researchers at Dalhousie University and the University of Guelph. The average expenditure of the average Canadian family of four will increase by $411 this year, to $12,157.
The good news is that the price of meat is forecast to drop by up to three per cent and seafood, by two per cent; a shift towards plant-based diets has reduced demand. The flip side, however, is that the price of fresh produce is expected to rise—fruit prices will increase by between one and three per cent; vegetable prices will go up by four to seven per cent. Restaurant prices are also expected to rise by two to four per cent this year.
Given all this, we asked some leading registered dietitians to weigh in with their tips on how to maintain a healthy diet while spending less on groceries.
Planning helps you take advantage of sale items and keeps you from making impulse buys. Consider those store flyers that are stuffed in your mailbox each week—resist the temptation to toss them directly into the recycling bin; they’re full of great deals. So are the websites of the big grocery chains. Additionally, the website Smart Canucks (smartcanucks.ca) is an up-to-date resource for special prices from retailers, including supermarkets.
Besides having a plan for which specials to buy, take a few minutes to plan meals—at least the nightly main dish—for the next week or even the next month. “This takes away the stress of making last-minute meal decisions and reduces the temptation to make a fast-food grab,” says Gina Sunderland, a Winnipeg-based registered dietitian and a consumer-relations dietitian at Manitoba Chicken. “Dining out almost always costs more than preparing your own meals at home.”
“Plan to stock up on sale items,” says Sue Mah, an award-winning dietitian based in Toronto (nutritionsolutions.ca). “But stock up only on things you have the storage space for and then only if you know you’ll consume them by the best-before date.”
Once you’ve got your plan, do an inventory of your cupboards, fridge, and freezer to see what you have and what you need. Create a shopping list by category, Sunderland suggests: sample groupings can include fruit/veggies, meat/poultry/fish, deli, bakery, and dairy. “This will save time at the store and reduce the chance you’ll forget a crucial ingredient or buy things you don’t need.” Did you know that perishable items make up the largest percentage of our grocery bills—and yet are the most likely to be wasted?
So stick to your list, whether it’s on good old paper, or even via an app on your smartphone—there are many available that make it easy to create a shopping list. Try Wunderlist, which, among its many features, allows you to share your list with family members or friends, or Grocery Pal, which shows you stores where you’ll find savings and offers digital coupons.
Buy in Bulk
Bulk buying can help prevent the wasting of food—and money. According to a study by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (an international body set up under a NAFTA side accord), Canadian consumers throw out an average of 170 kilograms (375 pounds) of food per person each year. Researchers say that’s like tossing out a quarter of what you’ve just bought before you even leave the grocery store.
Aside from the environmental impact of wasted food—for example, resources such as water and energy that wouldn’t otherwise have been used—dollars are being wasted. The average household grocery bill is $214 per person monthly according to Statistics Canada; that’s $2,568 a year. This translates to $642 (one-quarter of the total) of wasted food per person each year.
We’ve all heard of some of the remedies to prevent overdoing it at the supermarket, such as not shopping when you’re hungry. That’s great advice. Shopping in the bulk-food section instead of going for packaged items is another solution that’s increasingly popular. That way, you control the amount you buy. Let’s say you want to try a Jamie Oliver recipe that calls for one vanilla bean; it’s a lot cheaper to buy just one vanilla bean than a whole package you’ll end up throwing out.
Bulk foods have long been a staple of health food stores, but now they are going mainstream. Some large chains—including Loblaws, with locations across Ontario and Quebec, and some in Alberta and British Columbia—now have bulk sections. And according to Canadian Grocer, an industry magazine for grocery retailers, by early 2018, the Bulk Barn chain had grown to 265 locations across Canada, up from 190 in 2013.
“For staple pantry items often used in your kitchen, buying in bulk can really save you money,” says Michelle Jaelin, a registered dietitian based in Toronto. “Rice, quinoa, pasta, and flour have long shelf lives.” Check what you’ve got in your pantry to see which foods could go on your bulk list.
Consider Meal Delivery
Meal delivery programs involve ready-to-prepare dishes delivered to your door with preproportioned meal ingredients and an easy recipe, and they’re increasing in popularity. According to the Canadian market research company NPD Group, the business of home-delivered meal kits is growing quickly. In fact, these programs, often marketed as healthy and delicious, are now among the fastest-growing food segments in the Canadian marketplace. Sales roughly doubled between 2014 and 2017; the latest estimate is that it’s set to become a $120-million industry in Canada.
Across Canada, you can find companies such as Chef’s Plate (dinners include “Tangy Turkey Stir-fry” and “Rosemary Steak and Roasted Tomatoes”; starting price per serving, about $9), Blue Apron (“Spicy Tomato Gnocchi” and “Cajun Spiced Chicken”; starting price per serving, about $9), and Good Food (“Cajun Sausage Gumbo” and “Greek Haddock With Toasted Orzo”; starting price per serving, about $10). Others include Fresh City and Hello Fresh. Almost all of the services offer deep discounts to new customers.
Delivered meals are great if you’re unable to cook much for yourself or if you simply have too much going on every day to bother with cooking. “Meals on Wheels is also a great option,” Mah suggests. “It’s a non-profit, so costs are kept to a minimum.” For example, hot delivered meals cost around $7 each. You can also buy packages of frozen meals; a pack of seven entrees costs around $40. Check what’s available at your local Meals on Wheels.
Consider These Money-Saving Tips:
Kick the bottled-water habit. We are fortunate in Canada to have clean drinking water in most cities and towns. Bottles are handy for when you’re on the run, but using a refillable container will save you money.
Save on meats. “Don’t be afraid to be your own butcher,” Jaelin suggests. “Purchasing larger, cheaper cuts of meat is less expensive than purchasing precut, preportioned, and packaged meats.” For example, you get a lot more bang for your buck buying a whole chicken than just the breasts or thighs. Freeze what you don’t use. And of course, you can easily make your own stock with the bones.
BYOC. Coffee lovers now have many options for thermal bottles that keep drinks hot for many hours—S’well is just one example. If you’re making a pot of coffee in the morning to have with breakfast anyway, why not bottle some of it to take with you? It’ll save you money and time.
Get a toaster oven. How often do you end up using your large oven to cook just one or two servings? Over time, that really adds to your hydro bill. “My all-time favourite appliance is a toaster oven,” Mah says. “It’s so energy-efficient. I use it every day—from making toast and bruschetta to baking cookies or chicken to making a small beef roast for Sunday dinner.”
Take advantage of seasonal produce. Preserving used to be a summer and fall tradition, but it fell out of favour as stores began to source produce globally, making most fresh fruits and vegetables available year-round. “Fortunately,” Sunderland says, “interest in canning, pickling, freezing, and drying is increasing again. Home preserving is an economical way to enjoy local fruits and vegetables out of season.” Most fruits can be frozen or canned and many make delicious jams and spreads—a wonderful treat in the middle of winter. For veggies, try pickling, canning, or freezing.
Buy frozen. “Frozen veggies are just as nutritious as their fresh counterparts,” Mah says. “When I was growing up, the selection of frozen vegetables was limited to corn, peas, and carrots. But today, there are more choices than ever before—you can find frozen kale, butternut squash, and sliced beets.” The best thing about them—besides reducing the time and energy spent on all that chopping—is that you can take only what you need from your freezer. “There’s little if any waste.” For maximum nutrition, she suggests lightly steaming or stir-frying the vegetables rather than boiling them.
Choose by quantity. To counter the rising cost of vegetables, choose types that allow you to control the quantity, so that you don’t buy more than you can use—for example, mushrooms, Brussels sprouts, green beans, and sweet potatoes. “Sometimes I buy only five mushrooms because that’s all I need to make omelettes for breakfast,” Mah says.
Repurpose. There’s often no need to throw out leftovers, Sunderland says. “Try to think about other ways you can use them.” For example, leftover meat and poultry are great in soups and stews or as filling for burritos, enchiladas, and tacos. Leftover mashed potatoes make a great topping for shepherd’s pie and can make soups smooth without the cream. In fact, Mah suggests, consider “planned-overs”—planned leftovers. “For example, you can make a big batch of brown rice, have some as a side dish tonight for supper, and use some the next day in a vegetable-rice-bean casserole.”
Make it count. Studies show that fresh leafy greens are associated with helping to prevent dementia; in fact, the MIND diet, which promotes cognitive health, prescribes eating at least one leafy vegetable every day. So don’t be shy about using all parts of the vegetable when you can—which is also a money-saver, Mah says. For example, if you’re roasting beets, use the greens off of the tops for salads. You can sauté most leafy vegetable tops with garlic and olive oil and enjoy them as a side dish.
Buy generic or no-name brands. There’s little to no difference between these products and the leading name brands, Jaelin says—except the price. In fact, often the same company that produces the name-brand version makes the generic.
Try healthier, cheaper choices. The new Canada’s Food Guide stresses plant-based diets. To compensate for the rising price of fresh vegetables, you can save on healthy plant-based foods by buying canned pulses such as beans, lentils, and chickpeas—or dried pulses, which are even less expensive. Those are low-cost ways of getting a lot of fibre, iron, and protein.