Don’t shop on an empty stomach.
The cardinal sin of grocery shopping, hitting the store when you're hungry, will put you over budget faster than you can say "junk food." If you have no choice but to go to the store without a meal, buy an apple and some nuts (or another snack rich in protein and/or fiber) to munch on while you’re shopping.
At the very least, make a list before you shop. At the very best, plan your weekly menu or list a few main dishes that you can eat throughout the week. This will save you not only money on your grocery bill by preventing you from buy (and possibly pitching) food you don't need, but also time and fuel savings, from fewer trips to the store for essential ingredients.
Held to the same standards as name-brand versions, store-brand products are usually just as good—and less expensive. Generic products are available for nearly every product you can think of, so be on the lookout for them (and watch your savings add up).
Sometimes this just isn’t possible, but if you can shop solo, you’ll be able to focus on finding the best deals and taking as much time as you need to make it through the store. In addition, no one else will be begging for items that aren't on your list.
Use your calculator.
Sometimes the largest container of, say, tomato sauce, isn’t actually the best deal. Unless you like to do long division in your head, use the calculator on your phone to figure out the real prices for items. As long as you can afford it at the time, buy the brand and size of a product that has the lowest per-unit (per pound, ounce, etc) price to get more for your money.
Make smart substitutions.
This one may be hard for some of us, but it has the potential to save you a great deal. Think about what you eat, and then think about what may be a cheaper—and equally healthy—substitute. Like breakfast cereal? Oatmeal is usually cheaper. Love soda? Try sparkling water with a little fruit juice mixed in. Snack on chips? Pop some popcorn kernels on your stovetop instead. Be willing to make substitutions on brands and specific ingredients based on sales, too. You may find that a different brand or flavor of yogurt, for example, is a better deal one week.
Buy whole foods.
Sometimes, the less processed a food is, the cheaper it is per serving. Apples may cost less than applesauce or apple juice. Canned black beans will be cheaper than refried beans. A block of cheese costs less than shredded cheese. Whole grains like brown rice and oats will be cheaper than processed cereals. Think about the original, whole food that a product is made from and decide if you can eat that whole food as-is or use it to make your own sauce, cereal or juice—instead of paying food manufacturers to do it for you.
Buy in bulk.
Long a staple of natural food stores, bulk or "bag and weigh" sections are now appearing in traditional supermarkets. Items like flour, beans, rice, nuts and dried fruits are available for less than prepackaged versions of the same foods.
Don’t get stuck in the middle (of the grocery store).
Packaged foods have been condensed, salted, refined, sweetened or otherwise processed. They may seem like a good deal, providing more calories for less money, but those calories usually aren't very nutritious. Resist the lure of the middle aisles and stick to the perimeter of the grocery store; you’ll save money and wind up with bags full of whole foods. When you do find yourself in the middle aisles, aim your gaze toward the top or bottom of the shelves, where the prices are usually lower. Grocers strategically place higher-priced products at eye level.
Eat your protein without the meat.
Try substituting one meat meal per week with a vegetarian meal to save money and benefit your health. Beans, eggs and tofu all provide high-quality protein for a fraction of the cost of meat.
Read ads and clip coupons.
A "loss leader" is a sale item that a store is actually selling at a loss in order to get you in the door. Take advantage of these deals when you see them, but remember, a good deal is only good if it’s on something you’d normally buy, not just something you’re buying because it’s on sale. Many sales and coupons are on less-than-healthy processed foods, so look for special deals on healthy items like yogurt, canned or frozen fruits and vegetables, and similar staples that have a longer shelf life.
If you’re really craving a special treat, make it from scratch. You can make it from healthier ingredients and spend less. Tell those muffins in the bakery case that are calling your name to hush, and whip up a batch of some with whole grains, blueberries and honey at home that would put the store-bought ones to shame.
In-season produce costs less, thanks to the law of supply and demand. You might miss having tomatoes in the heart of winter, but the fresh, perfect tomatoes of summer taste better, cost less and are more nutritious anyway. Check out sales flyers and base your menu off fresh foods that are available right now (instead of foods that have to travel across the country or an ocean to make it to your store). Make a trip to your local farmers market to get some great prices on local produce.
Carry out—from your kitchen.
Packing your lunch, snacks, drinks and other meals are usually less expensive and healthier than eating out. It will require more planning, but the dollars you save will be worth your time in the end. If necessary, invest in some reusable lunch bags and containers instead of buying disposable sacks and baggies for your food week after week.
Grow your own food.
Plants are cheap, and seeds are even cheaper. You can grow your own fruits and vegetables—tomatoes, peppers, squash, garlic, onions, broccoli, herbs and many more delicious crops—right in your very own backyard (or in containers on your balcony) with a minimal amount of effort. They’ll save you money and taste far better than store-bought. If you’d like some instant gratification, consider sprouting, which you can do in a few days right on your kitchen countertop. Alfalfa, sunflower, broccoli or bean sprouts add a nutritious crunch to sandwiches, wraps and salads.
When it comes to saving money on food, you often have to sacrifice more of your own time—planning, cooking, growing and clipping coupons—but most people agree it's worth the time they put into it. All of these tasks will become easier and more efficient after a while. You may find that shopping, cooking and eating will become that much more rewarding, and not just for your wallet!