Navigating the Grocery Store on a Budget

So you want to eat nutritious, delicious food without spending a fortune on groceries? I hear you.

You might have heard the rumor that going Primal or paleo is expensive. Yes and no. The truth is, I do spend considerably more on groceries now than I did in my pre-Primal days. However, that’s mostly because I pay more for grass-fed, pastured, and organic options when possible, which isn’t mandatory. I choose to allocate a hefty chunk of my monthly budget to food, but I’m not convinced that eating Primally has to be way more expensive than a typical grain-based diet. Not in the big picture, anyway.

Even if you do experience some supermarket sticker shock, those higher grocery bills are at least partially offset by savings elsewhere. My family rarely eats at restaurants anymore, and I don’t even know how much I used to spend driving through McDonald’s for a Diet Coke (and maybe some french fries) on my commute home from work. Also, you probably believe, as I do, that nutritious, high-quality food is an investment in your health. The money you spend now will hopefully save you money on future medical bills. The immediate savings can be impressive, too. We’ve collected hundreds of success stories from readers who were able to get off various prescriptions once they started following the Primal Blueprint.

Still, I know the theoretical future savings don’t necessarily help when you’re looking at the balance in your checking account today. Never fear, there are ways to make your dollar stretch while still avoiding grains, sugar, and dodgy oils.

Making the Most of the Meat Department

The meat department is where you can net some of the biggest savings if you shop smart. Here’s how you do it:

1. Compare the butcher case, the prepackaged meat case, and the freezer section to find the cheapest price per pound or kilo. Don’t shy away from frozen meat, poultry, or seafood. Nutritionally, they are pretty comparable to fresh.

2. If you have freezer space, stock up when things are on sale. Check out weekly specials, but also hit up the grocery stores right after major holidays. In the U.S., for example, you can get turkeys after Thanksgiving for a steal. When buying in bulk, ask the butcher to wrap individual portions separately—two steaks or one or two pounds of ground beef per package. Before freezing meat at home, make sure it is wrapped tightly, labeled, and dated.

As a side note, if you are choosing less expensive cuts of meat, it’s probably worth it to invest in a pressure cooker that doubles as a slow cooker to get the most out of your meat.

3. Buy whole chickens, fish, and bone-in meat. Not only are they’re usually cheaper, but also, you can use the bones to make bone broth. Save carcasses, fish heads, and bones in the freezer, along with vegetable scraps, until you’re ready to start a batch.

4. Embrace offal. I know preparing liver, kidney, or tongue at home is a big hurdle for some people, but it’s so worth it—financially and nutritionally!—to push past the mental block. Beef heart is usually much less expensive than beef roasts or steaks, but it’s fantastic.

The Best Way to Save Money on Meat:

Talk to your butcher! Tell them what you want to make and get their recommendations for budget-friendly cuts or substitutions. If you find roasts at a lower price per pound/kilo than steaks, ask whether the roasts can be cut into steaks. For example, strip steaks come from boneless beef top loin, and pork chops are cut from pork loin (not tenderloin!). Your butcher will probably even be willing to cut them for you, but if not, you can do it at home with a sharp knife and a YouTube tutorial. At many stores, butchers can also cube meat for kabobs, cut up a whole chicken or turkey, debone chicken, tenderize beef, even clean and fillet whole fish. Some will also sharpen your knives!

Prevail in the Produce Section

1. First things first, in-season produce will usually be cheapest, so plan your menu accordingly. That’s if you menu plan. I typically choose whatever’s freshest and most affordable and then figure out what I can do with it when I get home.

2. Don’t buy more than you can use. Most articles about budgeting advocate for one big weekly trip, but I think going at least twice per week is better if you have time. You won’t have as many issues with produce spoiling in your fridge. Buying giant tubs of salad greens may be more economical than smaller packs, but not if half of it gets slimy before you can use it. I’d also rather buy fresh herbs a day or two before I need them, or else they’re likely to be forgotten in the back of the crisper drawer. (Growing herbs is the most economical option if you have space and, unlike me, you can keep them alive.)

3. Speaking of salad greens, look at the price per ounce/gram of a head of lettuce versus bagged salad, or a whole zucchini versus precut zucchini noodles. Decide if the convenience mark-up is worth it to you.

4. What about organic versus conventional? Buy what you can afford, and don’t stress. If you can afford some organic, prioritize the EWG’s Dirty Dozen and/or the fruits and vegetables you consume in the greatest quantities.

5. Finally, you shouldn’t have any qualms about buying frozen vegetables. Frozen vegetables are usually picked at the peak of ripeness and flash frozen, so they may even be nutritionally superior to produce that has been shipped from far away. Berries are usually much cheaper frozen than fresh. Frozen spinach and kale are great for smoothies. There are a few vegetables I won’t buy frozen because I don’t enjoy the texture (looking at you, Brussels sprouts), but for others, like green beans, I prefer frozen over fresh.

Eggs and Dairy

Eggs offer a nutritious source of affordable protein that you can turn into a ton of different dishes. There’s no question that farm-fresh, pasture-raised eggs have a richer color and, according to most choosy egg lovers, better flavor than conventional eggs. But, if conventional are more to your wallet’s liking, they are still a great choice.

I’m going to get potentially controversial here and say that if you’re really trying to budget, you could consider skipping the dairy section. Dairy is optional on a Primal or Primal+keto diet, and I can’t count how many people have told me that their longstanding troubles with gastrointestinal symptoms, acne, joint pain, and various autoimmune issues cleared up after they eliminated dairy.

Not interested in giving up dairy entirely?

  • Buy organic or grass-fed butter in bulk when it’s on sale and freeze it.
  • Look at the price difference between heavy cream and half and half or light cream. Heavy cream is the darling of keto diets because it has more fat, but don’t get sucked into the hype. The carbs are basically the same. Choose the less expensive option.
  • Good cheese is costly—I treat it more like a “treat” than a staple food.
  • Greek yogurt and sour cream taste good, but you don’t need them.

Mastering the Middle Aisles

1. Skip the snack foods and cereal aisle entirely.

2. Spices: Look for the bigger boxes or bags of salt that are cheaper per ounce than individual shakers. You don’t need the most expensive Himalayan pink salt. Grab Redmond Real Salt or Celtic sea salt on sale. Before buying any spice rubs or blends, check the label. If it’s mostly salt, you might be able to make a copy yourself for less money by mixing individual spices. If it’s mostly sugar, skip it. Your best bet for spices you use a lot is to look for places to order in bulk online.

3. Baking section: This is another one I recommend skipping to save money. Almond flour, coconut flour, and alternative sweeteners like monk fruit and erythritol are way more expensive than white flour and white sugar, and calorie for calorie, they aren’t worth the money compared to meat, eggs, and vegetables.

4. Condiments and cooking oils: Obviously, we have strong feelings about avoiding seed and vegetable oils like canola, corn, and safflower here. Better cooking oils like avocado, olive, and coconut do usually cost more than cheap vegetable oil, so my best advice is to stock up when you find sales. Check out Mark’s Guide to Olive Oil for tips on choosing the best one. You can also ask the butcher about getting some inexpensive beef or pork fat to render your own tallow or lard.

5. Nuts: Another optional and often expensive category that you could absolutely skip to save money. If nuts are on your list, conventional is fine, but check the label for funky oils. Look in the bulk foods section to see if they’re cheaper there.

6. Canned fish: Canned fish are tremendously nutritious, and it’s worth it to pay more for quality here, in my opinion. You don’t want the cheapest canned fish. Look for sustainably caught fish packed in water or olive oil. The good news is, these do go on sale fairly often, so grab extra cans when they are marked down.

Stretching Your Dollar

Top 9 tips for making your grocery budget go further:

  1. Eat offal.
  2. Make friends with your butcher. Ask them how to cut roasts into steaks. Let them tenderize or grind tougher, less expensive cuts of meat for you.
  3. Buy whole birds, whole fish, and bone-in meat. Make your own broth.
  4. Avoid waste by shopping more often for produce and meat.
  5. Learn how to store your produce properly so it stays fresh until you eat it.
  6. Bigger isn’t better if you won’t use it all, but buying in bulk can save you money. Stock up on non-perishables when they are on sale.
  7. Use your freezer to save money and avoid waste. Buy frozen meat and produce, and buy meat in bulk when you can. Freeze leftovers to avoid waste.
  8. Sign up for customer loyalty cards and use the coupons they send you.
  9. Prioritize meat, produce, eggs, canned fish, and high-quality fats. Dairy, nuts, and grain-free baking ingredients are optional and unnecessary.

Bonus #10: Round out your Primal diet with potatoes and legumes if you want. They are budget-friendly and relatively nutritious, though they deliver too many carbs to be staples of a keto diet.

Also, bear in mind that a giant bag of rice or generic cereal is cheaper than meat or most veggies on a cost-per-serving basis, but not on a cost-to-nutrition basis. You may not be used to thinking about food in terms of nutrient-density or even energy, but how much are you really getting from that rice? Reframing in these terms can help you feel better about spending money on Primal foods.

Remember, Grocery Stores Aren’t Always Your Best Option

I might be in the minority here, but I love grocery shopping—wandering through the produce section, seeing what I can find at the meat counter. However, budget-conscious shoppers should think beyond the grocery store.

For produce, farmer’s markets and CSAs often offer better prices. Plus, you get fruits and vegetables that are locally grown and freshly picked, and you can talk to the farmers about their growing methods. The same goes for eggs and sometimes even meat, nuts, and honey.

If you have a chest freezer, it’s worth the time to investigate buying a whole cow, sheep, or pig. Consider cowpooling if you have limited space.

Shopping online can be more cost-effective, especially if you are buying in bulk or looking for specialty items. Things like loose-leaf tea, coffee, bulk spices and nuts, or cases of canned fish or coconut milk can often be cheaper online. Look into ordering directly from brands you love.

Shop around locally. Get to know the options in your town and surrounding communities, including large grocery stores, smaller and specialty markets, co-ops, warehouse stores, farm stands, and small farms that sell directly to consumers. You might decide it’s worth your time to shop at several different places to take advantage of the best prices at each. Some apps will also compare store prices for you.

Finally, consider doing even your local shopping online. Thanks to the pandemic, many stores offer online ordering and curbside pickup. That gives you the chance to browse sale items and menu plan from the comfort of your home. It also means you won’t tempted to make impulse buys as you wander the aisles.

Your turn: How do you eat healthfully without breaking the bank? What items are you willing to pay more for, and where do you cut costs? 

About the Author

Lindsay Taylor headshot

Lindsay Taylor, Ph.D., is a senior writer and community manager for Primal Nutrition, a certified Primal Health Coach, and the co-author of three keto cookbooks.

As a writer for Mark’s Daily Apple and the leader of the thriving Keto Reset and Primal Endurance communities, Lindsay’s job is to help people learn the whats, whys, and hows of leading a health-focused life. Before joining the Primal team, she earned her master’s and Ph.D. in Social and Personality Psychology from the University of California, Berkeley, where she also worked as a researcher and instructor.

Lindsay lives in Northern California with her husband and two sports-obsessed sons. In her free time, she enjoys ultra running, triathlon, camping, and game nights. Follow along on Instagram @theusefuldish as Lindsay attempts to juggle work, family, and endurance training, all while maintaining a healthy balance and, most of all, having fun in life.

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