In a previous post, I detailed why I stock my pantry with boatloads of healthy, shelf-stable staples and what those staples are.
Now, I’ll walk you through how I buy those healthy staples at the best prices.
Anytime I get remotely low on a staple, I add it to a running “stock up” list. At some point, when I run totally out of something crucial or when I’m visiting a store that I use to stock up, I bring that list and grab “lots” of everything we’re low on and “some” of everything else we generally stock up on from that store. Our diet is constantly evolving but as I’ve done this over the years I have developed a pretty good understanding of how much to buy of an item to last us 6 months to a year.
Where do I buy it all?
Are you familiar with the idea of a pricebook? It’s essentially a record of the prices for items you buy regularly and it is a major money and stress saver.
I made one like this:
- I listed items I buy a lot of (it looks much like the list in my previous post). I included frozen fruit and frozen berries, but I didn’t include fresh produce. You certainly could, but the price on produce can vary dramatically from season to season, and the quality difference is often more important than the price difference.
- I visited different stores in my area, over time, and filled in each store’s prices. I noted the size, price, and location in the store if it was hard to find or if that item was located in more than spot and price differently.
- I added online options I was aware of (for me this is amazon and a bulk natural food supplier).
- I calculated price per can/pound/ounce or whatever made sense for each item so I could compare accurately one store to another.
- I determined what the best deals are and highlighted or circled them on the list.
The next step for me was to make a “stock-up list” for each store so I know what to grab when I make my infrequent trips there. I ran things through a common sense filter so if lentils were $1.09/lb at one store and $1.12/lb at another store, I included them on the grab list for both stores. Even if the price difference is somewhat greater but that item is the only draw to one store, I gave consideration to the value of my time and the cost of gas.
Tips for Buying Healthy Food at a Great Price
- Be sure you look at ingredient lists so that you know exactly what you’re looking at. “Dry roasted peanuts” for example can come with or without added salt and a variety of powders and preservatives. Don’t let your guard down. You might think that since Wal-mart’s “unsalted dry roasted” peanuts have just one ingredient (peanuts), the regular “dry roasted” peanuts would have 2 ingredients (peanuts and salt). You would be wrong. They have 13 ingredients, including corn syrup solids. Crazy!
Never trust the front of a label. “Natural” peanut butter usually has palm oil and sugar and salt added to it. If you’d like a brand that contains just peanuts, you’re going to have to look carefully. Tip: Make your own peanut butter using dry roasted peanuts and a food processor. Jif actually advertises “90% peanuts” on their jar. You can eat “100% peanuts” for less money. We eat it before it has a chance to separate (weeks) so I don’t have to add palm oil as an emulsifier like Jif does.
The above “natural table syrup” is a landmine hoping to fool you into thinking it’s real maple syrup like this:
- For pantry staples, I generally start with the cheapest price first and try the quality. If I find it lacking, I’ll try the next brand up. In my experience, lentils are lentils but you may find a freshness difference in whole wheat flour, for example.
- Scour the store. Lentils are found in the soup aisle, in the bulk bins, in the Mediterranean section and in the Mexican section, all at different prices. Nuts are in the snack aisle, in the bulk bins, and in the baking aisle. The price and brand is almost always different. Be sure you check the “natural foods” section as well because they often repeat things like whole wheat flour, rolled oats, flaxseed, etc. but with different brands and prices.
Even if you’re in the right section, finding what you’re looking for can be challenging. Consider the oatmeal section. It includes all of this:
Food companies can make a lot more money by taking the original food (oats) and processing it, packaging it enticingly and marketing it. So instead of just oats, you get “Active Lifestyle – weight control” oatmeal in handy packets with encouraging green packaging (2nd shelf from the top on the left). It contains 28 ingredients, and even the recognizable ones like raisins, have been monkeyed with. The raisins are “Coated with Partially Hydrogenated Soybean and/or Cottonseed Oil”.
For less money, you can buy oats and plain raisins, walnuts, cinnamon, cloves, and allspice and leave the other 22 ingredients out of your breakfast bowl. By the way, how many people can feel satisfied until lunchtime when they only ate 170 calories for breakfast?! What a ridiculous serving size. Those tidy little packets nestled in their box 8 at a time give the impression that you have to feel miserable, hungry, and deprived to have a healthy body weight. Nonsense.
I wouldn’t buy a single thing in that picture. The only thing not processed beyond recognition is the cans of steel cut oats at the top and they are priced at $5.13/lb. For $1.69/lb AT THE SAME STORE, you can get organic steel cut oats. They’re located in the bulk bins. (And I pay $.60/lb by ordering online through a natural food co-op. I order them once or twice a year and skip the whole cereal aisle every single shopping trip.)
- When it comes to maple syrup, grade B is better than grade A. It’s much more maple-y and delicious!
- If you bake breads with any kind of regularity you should not be buying yeast at a grocery store. At its best, it costs on the order of $15/lb and at Costco it’s $2.50/lb. It’ll keep in your fridge in a tupperware for over a year. Ask a Costco-going friend to pick you up some! (Or order online from a place like Honeyville Grain or Something Better.)
Use My Price Book
I made a price book for healthy staples from nearly every grocery store in my part of Columbus. It’s in a spreadsheet on google drive and I’ll happily share it with you via email if you’re local and leave a comment. I included Meijer, Kroger, Costco, Marc’s, Aldi’s, Trader Joe’s, the LDS cannery, and my favorite Indian market. I found such a big price difference and availability difference that it was well worth my time. In the process of scouring stores I discovered some gems I was totally unaware of, and I also learned a lot about marketing, product placement and branding. It’s eye-opening to scrutinize grocery store shelves and food labels!
Update: I wrote this post back in May but didn’t publish it until October because sometimes that’s the way life goes with caring for little people and moving across the country. I made a price book as soon as we got to our new city and that effort has already paid for itself many times over. If you’re in Salem, Oregon you can leave me a comment if you want THAT healthy price book. We live 20 minutes from some of the best places to stock up, and I love having a “what I buy where” list handy so if we’re going to that part of town I can grab it and stock up on staples quickly.
What I learned along the way (and you can, too!)
- Costco is a smash hit for healthy staples. I wish ours had some things I’ve seen elsewhere like whole grain pasta, but what they do carry is almost invariably the best price in town. I splurge regularly on their avocados, frozen berries, all their raw nuts, their pre-washed baby kale, and much, much more. It is a dangerous place for someone who wants to eat healthy but is still tempted by processed food, but with a list in hand you can score great prices on simple, healthy foods and skip the garbage. Walk right on past all the “natural” “organic” food that has long ingredient lists and stick to the basics.
- I can now tell at a glance if a sale on raisins (for example) is actually a good deal compared to the regular price I get at a different store. That lets me skim ads very efficiently, skipping over all the gross food and quickly determining what healthy foods are actually a good deal.
- It’s probably worth revisiting prices after a period of time to see if there’s been a significant change. I think Costco changes their nut and frozen berries price seasonally, for example, so there might be a better time of year to stock up on certain items for even greater savings.
- Knowledge is power. You don’t need to always buy things at the best price, but being aware of the facts helps you make an informed decision and weigh convenience against economics.
Notes about online natural food orders
- I am a big fan of the buying power of a group. I’ve probably coordinated a dozen food orders among my friends here in Ohio, including a gallon of double fold Mexican vanilla from The Vanilla.COMpany, 50 bags of homemade dough conditioner, many hundreds of pounds of grain and gluten from Honeyville grain, and most recently a huge order from Something Better Natural Foods. I simply email my peeps explaining what I hope to order and what the estimated cost and shipping costs will be if we get a large enough order going… then I take orders, make a massive spreadsheet, and distribute stuff with final totals when it arrives. Often I’ll divvy up big bags of things among friends who wanted a smaller amount.
- Although Honeyville has great flat-rate shipping, I found that for a large order, Something Better Natural Foods was a much better deal. They are a distributer for Country Life Natural Foods, which is based in Michigan. We ended up paying $5 shipping per family, plus 10% freight on the price of what we ordered.
- Update! Since we moved to Oregon, I can order through Azure Standard, a similar company with delivery routes through our city. There’s already a coordinator and a set drop-off site so it’s super easy for me to order. Shipping is free with no minimum order and the prices on some things are literally half what I pay at the grocery store (lentils, oats, whole wheat, and a few more). Again, this is because there’s an established drop site near us so you’ll need to check on what’s available in your area. I check their bargain bin when I order and have received half price near-expiration soymilk as well.
In the next post, I discuss how I store my food.