Food shopping on a budget

Paying for groceries can be downright painful! Our dollars just don’t buy as much as they used to. And buying healthy foods, like fresh meat, fruits and vegetables, seems much more expensive than buying not-so-healthy packaged and prepared foods. So what’s a shopper to do?

Here are some tips to help you shop for healthy foods without breaking your bank:

What can you do before heading out?

  • Make a budget. Know how much you can spend before you go to the store.
  • Plan your menu for the week. See what you already have at home, and make a list of what you need to buy.
  • Check store flyers to see what’s on sale. It’s OK to shop at several stores to get the best prices on the items you need.
  • Find out if the store you use has a discount card. It can help you save money on what you buy. Most discount cards are free, so get one for every store you go to.
  • Clip coupons for items you regularly buy.
  • If you have kids, leave them with a sitter. Kids can distract you from sticking to your shopping list.
  • Eat. Don’t go food shopping on an empty stomach. If you’re hungry, you may buy more food than you really need. Or you may be tempted to buy something that looks really yummy but isn’t all that good for you.

What can you do at the store?

  • Shop at larger grocery stores, at farmers markets or at farm stands. They may have better prices for fresh foods than smaller grocery stores in your neighborhood.
  • Buy whole fruits and vegetables. The ones that come already washed and cut cost more. If you can’t get fresh, buy frozen or canned. Frozen or canned fruit should be packed in its own juice.
  • Compare prices between store brands and name brands. Store brands often cost less.
  • Pay attention to the unit price. This number usually appears on the store shelf right next to the item's price. It tells you how much you’re paying for each piece or unit, rather then the whole package. It can help you find the better bargain when you're looking at similar products sold in different sizes. For example, an 8-ounce bottle of orange juice may be more expensive per ounce than a 12-ounce jug.
  • If you find a good price on an item you buy often, buy extra. Be careful, though, not to blow your budget.
  • If you use coupons, be careful not to overbuy or try new items just because you have a coupon for them.

How can you make the most of what you buy?

  • Make more than you need and freeze the leftovers for future meals. Freeze vegetables and spices, like onions, peppers, parsley and garlic.
  • Make a meatless meal now and then. Meat (including beef, poultry, pork and fish) is most likely the most expensive item on your list. So have a few meals without it. For example, try rice and beans or vegetable lasagna.
  • Keep staple foods on hand. These are foods that you can use for almost any meal. Examples are beans, rice, pasta, frozen vegetables, pasta sauce and peanut butter.

Last reviewed July 2012

Most common questions

How much weight should I gain during my pregnancy?

The exact amount of weight you need to gain depends on how much you weigh before pregnancy and your Body Mass Index (BMI). Below are some guidelines, but talk to your health provider about your specific pregnancy weight gain goals.

If you began pregnancy at a healthy weight, you should gain 25 to 35 pounds over the 9 months. If you gain between 1 and about 4 ½ pounds in the first trimester, you should put on about 1 pound every week in the second and third trimesters.

If you began pregnancy underweight, you should probably gain about 28 to 40 pounds. If you gain between 1 and about 4 ½ pounds in the first trimester, try to gain slightly over a pound a week in the second and third trimesters.
If you began pregnancy overweight, you should gain only 15 to 25 pounds over the 9 months. If you gain between 1 and about 4 ½ pounds in the first trimester, you should put on slightly over ½ pound every week in the second and third trimesters. While you don't want to gain too much weight, never try to lose weight during pregnancy because that could harm your baby.

If you were obese (with a BMI over 30) at the start of your pregnancy, you should gain only 11 to 20 pounds over the 9 months. If you gain between 1 and about 4 ½ pounds in the first trimester, aim for gaining slightly under ½ pound every week in the second and third trimesters.

Is it safe to eat cold cuts when I'm pregnant?

It's not safe for pregnant women to eat deli meats (such as ham, turkey, salami and bologna) or hot dogs unless the food has been thoroughly heated and is steaming hot. These foods can cause a form of food poisoning called listeriosis and is caused by bacteria. Heating deli meats until steaming hot will kill the bacteria if it's present.

Listeriosis is especially dangerous during pregnancy. Most people don't get sick when they eat food contaminated with listeria. But healthy pregnant women are more likely than other healthy adults to get listeriosis and are more likely to become dangerously ill from it.

The flu-like symptoms of listeriosis can sometimes advance to potentially life-threatening meningitis (infection of the membranes covering the brain, with symptoms such as severe headache and stiff neck) and blood infection. Contact your health care provider if you're pregnant and you develop any of these symptoms.

Is it safe to eat fish raw or seared during pregnancy?

You should avoid all raw or seared fish when you're pregnant. (Seared fish are typically not fully cooked throughout.) Raw fish, including sushi and sashimi, and undercooked finfish and shellfish (including oysters, clams, mussels and scallops) are more likely to contain parasites or bacteria than cooked fish. 

Avoid swordfish, shark, king mackerel and tile fish, even when cooked. These fish have more mercury than other fish. Mercury can be transferred to your growing baby and cause serious health problems. Stay away from game fish, too, until you check its safety with your local health department. A game fish is any fish caught for sport, such as trout and bass.

The USDA recommends that pregnant women limit their fish consumption to 12 ounces of a variety of cooked fish per week.

©2013 March of Dimes Foundation. The March of Dimes is a non-profit organization recognized as tax-exempt under Internal Revenue Code section 501(c)(3).