12 ways to save money on healthy food at the grocery store

Groceries are a necessary expense, but they don’t need to be expensive. There are plenty of ways to save money on groceries—real, healthy foods, not just packaged snacks and frozen meals—that have nothing to do with cutting coupons or skimping on quality. You just have to be willing to get a little creative.

SELF worked with registered dietitians to come up with a handful of tips that will help you save money on groceries every time you go to the supermarket. Factor them into your plan, and say hello to an extra few bucks.

1. Make a meal plan and a grocery list before you hit the supermarket.
This is essential. Walking into the store with a plan will help you avoid buying things you don’t need. Abbey Sharp, R.D., blogger at Abbey’s Kitchen, even recommends going as far as planning your route through the supermarket—that way you don’t run into anything you can’t resist. For example, ice cream is my biggest weakness—I steer clear of the frozen dessert aisle at all costs.

2. Factor a few meatless recipes into your meal plan.
Protein is essential to any well-rounded diet, but quality meat can be expensive. That’s not to say you should never buy meat (we’ll get to that in a minute), but adding some vegetarian recipes into each week will save some money. Amy Gorin, M.S., R.D.N., owner of Amy Gorin Nutrition in Jersey City, New Jersey, tells SELF that large bags of dried chickpeas, peas, beans, lentils, and more, are very cheap. According to the grocery delivery service Peapod, they're often $1 to $2 per one-pound bag, while chicken is around $5 per pound, and beef is around $6 per pound. Meat stand-ins like tofu are also usually really affordable—about $2 a package per Peapod. Here’s a complete list of veggie-based protein sources that won’t break the bank.

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3. Don’t do all your shopping at one store.
Different stores have different deals. For example, at farmers markets you often can buy ugly fruits and veggies for a margin of the price of normal ones at a steep discount. And a bag of carrots at Trader Joe’s is always 89 cents. Do a little research to find out about ongoing sales before you go shopping. Better yet, sign up for club cards and loyalty programs, which will keep you updated, so you don’t have to do any digging yourself.

4. Store-brand products are usually cheaper.
Store-brand products are almost always cheaper than name-brand products, says Gorin. It’s not that the quality is worse than their name-brand counterparts, she explains, just that their prices are lower because they don’t need any fancy branding or marketing.

5. Stock up on certain things when they’re on sale.
Most pantry staples have a long shelf life, so you can buy in bulk as long as you have the storage space. If whole grain pasta that’s normally a dollar is on sale for 89 cents, buy a bunch. It might not seem like you’re saving much, but those 11 cents will add up. (Especially if you’re a pasta fiend, like me.)

You can also buy meat or seafood in bulk when it’s on sale, as long as you have space in your freeze to store whatever you won’t eat in the next couple of days.

6. But, only buy in bulk when you know the food won’t go to waste.
“Buying in bulk is great when it meets one of two criteria,” Brigitte Zeitlin, R.D., M.P.H., C.D.N., founder of the New York-based BZ Nutrition, tells SELF. “Either it is a pantry staple that will not go bad quickly, or it is something you use and eat frequently and you know it won’t go to waste.” Her favorite things to buy in bulk are olive oil, chia seeds, oatmeal, brown rice, quinoa, spices, and other non-perishable foods.

7. Know that bulk bins are actually great when you only need a small amount of something.
Stores like Whole Foods have bulk food sections where you can stock up on dried fruits, nuts, seeds, grains, spices, and more, for cheap. Bonus: You can buy as much or as little as you need. If a recipe calls for an ounce of almonds, that’s all you have to get.

8. Frozen fruits and veggies are your friends.
“My number one saving tactic is to buy frozen fruit and vegetables,” says Zeitlin. Freezing traps in all the nutrients, so when you defrost them they’re just as healthy as they were when they were picked. Plus, when cooked, they hardly taste different from the fresh stuff.

9. So are certain canned foods.
Canned beans are extremely affordable (and often on sale) and demand much less work than uncooked beans. And canned seafood like tuna or salmon is a great, less-expensive source of protein. One thing to keep in mind when rolling through the canned food aisles: Many brands sneakily add sodium, so double-check that nutrition label if that’s something you’re trying to avoid.

10. Swing by the butcher’s counter for small cuts of meat.
If you only need half a pound of beef, don’t spend $15 on a full pound. Just as with the bulk bins, you can order as much or as little meat as you like at the butcher’s counter. Plus, sometimes your butcher will clue you into a deal that hasn’t yet been posted, says Zeitlin.

11. Or buy large cuts of meat and butcher them yourself.
“Rather than buying individual pieces like chicken wings, breasts, and thighs, consider buying a whole chicken,” says Sharp. Buying a whole chicken is almost always cheaper, per pound, than buying individual parts like wings, breasts, or thighs. Same goes for larger cuts of beef or pork, as opposed to preportioned pieces. From there, you can either break it down yourself, or if that’s too daunting, she says the butcher will often do it for you. Freeze whatever you don’t use right away in airtight plastic bags or storage containers, then put it in the fridge to let it thaw at least a day before you plan to cook it.

12. Precooked rotisserie chickens are also super cheap, require hardly any work, and provide a ton of meat.
You can use a rotisserie chicken in your meals all week, and often they're often very affordable—you can buy one through Peapod for $4.49. Put your bird to use with these ideas.