During my years in university and internship, it was imperative to stay on a budget for everything – including what I ate. So, I made an effort to budget my groceries, while making sure I was well-fed and eating healthy.
Eating well doesn’t have to be expensive. When I lived in Toronto, Ontario, my cost of living was high, so I kept a strict $15 CAD/week grocery budget. Here are my top tips on how I did it, my grocery staples list, and my favourite, simple meal ideas.
1. Make an essentials grocery list and stick to it
I would make a flexible grocery list with food groups – once I was in the store and taking advantage of sales, I could tweak the list. Instead of searching for recipes before hitting the stores, I would do my shopping, and then find a suitable recipe later (or make my own). I also always ate a snack before getting groceries, because – if you shop when you are hungry, you may be tempted to buy more than you need.
2. Select your grocery store and look through flyers
If you are able to go to several stores, I recommend using the app ‘Flipp’. It helps you search flyer deals by item, brand, or category to quickly find the best deals on your weekly essentials. Since I didn’t have a car, I would get my essentials from the store ‘No Frills’, and my produce from independent fruit and vegetable stores. Every Saturday morning, I looked through the No Frills flyer and planned out what I would buy for the week. You can also save by shopping at a grocery store that price matches competitor’s flyers – but make sure you bring your flyers with you when you shop to cash in on this.
3. Take advantage of ‘ugly’ produce
The independent fruit and vegetable stores I frequented, always had a section of produce they couldn’t sell – either because it was ‘ugly’ or reaching the end of its life. My roommate and I would visit these stores every weekend, and come back with loads of goodies. For a low cost of $1-5, we could get 20 bananas, or 3 boxes of raspberries; a big bag of green beans, or several eggplants. Since these finds were ripe, I would cut up the fruits and vegetables and freeze them. When it was meal prep day, I would throw the veggies in a pan to sauté, or into a pot for a stew or soup. Vegetables and fruit are also cheaper when they are in season.
Here’s a mixed berry smoothie, topped with blackberries, chia seeds and peanut butter.
I would regularly cut up and freeze fruits, which I would later blend and make into quick, nutrient-dense smoothies.
4. Buy generic brands instead of name brands
For staples like sugar, flour, rice, oats, cereal, pasta, beans/lentils, spices and many other items, I found no discernible difference in quality – only in price. I mostly shopped no-name or store brand items and found that I saved quite a bit. If brand name groceries were on sale, I would substitute generic or no-name brands for brand names.
5. Stock up on sales
Some weeks my grocery bill was higher due to stocking up on sales, but this decreased the bill for other weeks or I could skip grocery trips entirely. This could only be done for items that were non-perishable or could be frozen like bread, meat, and canned goods. I would buy several almond milk cartons (as I knew these would be used before expiration dates), cans of beans, and meats/cheeses I could freeze. Remember, you are only saving money if you stock up on things that you normally use.
6. Shop with cash
Every Saturday morning, I would take a $20 bill and a few grocery bags for a run, from High Park station, where I lived, to ‘Carload Food Market’ (see map below). I would then make my way back hitting up several stores on the way, checking out deals and spending my $20 wisely. If you only shop with cash, then you can only spend what you have.
A google maps shot of my grocery store path. There are two more unmarked fruit and vegetable markets on the path. I enjoyed visiting these stores right when they opened on Saturday morning, as I would snatch up the good deals, especially for produce.
7. Try going meatless
Eating mostly plant-based meals is not only great for the environment, but also for your budget. Meat, poultry and fish are some of the more expensive items in the grocery store, and there’s usually some waste associated with that as well. Replacing these items with beans, tofu or tempeh would result in significant savings.
8. Cook from scratch and make leftovers
The more prepared the food is, the more it usually costs. Making your own meals from scratch saves money, and it’s healthier. Always try to cook more food than you need and then freeze the leftovers, or take them to work/school for lunch the next day. Freezing meals can help you save a lot of time and can make cooking meals from scratch more realistic.
If you have a busy lifestyle, allocated meal prep days are helpful in saving time, money and allowing you to have healthy meals prepped and packed.
Do you make a list before you shop? Below is a list of my grocery staples and meal ideas.
My grocery staples
- Fresh vegetables on sale (zucchini, broccoli, green beans, cauliflower)
- Bag of frozen mixed vegetables
- Box of mixed salad leaves
- Cabbage (so cheap and lasts long)
- Bags of whole carrots
- Fresh fruit in season
- Onions and garlic
- Canned tomatoes to make pasta sauce or to add to a curry
- Store brand bread and whole grain cereals
Bulk purchase of:
- Rolled oats
- Vermicelli noodles
3. Milk and Alternatives
- Almond milk which would go on sale every two weeks so I’d stock up when discounted
- Bricks of cheese – I usually froze half
- Large containers of Greek yogurt which I could divide into smaller portions for breakfasts – instead of multi-packs or smaller containers
4. Meat and Alternatives
I mostly purchased:
- Beans and lentils
- Peanut butter
- Whole chicken – pre-cut is more expensive
- Ground beef
- White fish – sole or tilapia
- I always have tons of spices and curry mixes (mostly given to me by family)
- Hot sauces
- Soy sauce
- Canola and olive oil
- Lemon juice
6. Bulk bin
- Chia seeds
- Coconut shreds
- Flax seeds
- Variety of nuts that are on sale
- Medjool dates
- Overnight oats or yogurt with peanut butter and fruit
- Scrambled eggs or tofu with spinach
- Hard-boiled eggs with toast and fruit
- A smoothie of all your cheap finds
My favourite breakfast bowl with Greek yogurt, blueberries, mango, coconut shreds, chia seeds and peanut butter.
- Egg/tofu, veggie fried rice
- Roasted veggies with tofu or beans
- Veggie-bean chili with rice or potato
- Lentil pasta
- Frittata with spinach
- Lentil/meat and vegetable curry with rice
- Chipotle rice and black beans
My roommate and I enjoyed cooking together. Here’s our Thai Basil Beef (Pad Gra Prow) – cheaper than eating at a restaurant, and still as good.
- Hummus and veggies
- Fruit and yogurt
- Roasted chickpeas
- Kale chips
- Banana bread
- Fruit and peanut butter
- Crackers and cheese
I would often bake kale chips, and my roommate would bake chickpeas. Paired together, they were a perfect, crispy snack.
Did you find these budget-friendly grocery shopping tips helpful? Do you have more ideas/tips and tricks? Let me know in the comments below.