Walking into a grocery store at this time of year is like walking into an autumn oasis. Fresh, crisp apples await your attention. Fall harvest foods, including squash and pumpkins, stand patiently waiting to be made into pies, side dishes and more.
If you're attempting to make healthier food choices for your family without breaking the bank, you're in luck: There's no better time than fall to start saving money on healthy foods.
"It is definitely possible to eat healthier on a budget," said Corrine Kanetski, a registered dietitian at Blue Mountain Health System. "It's all about choosing the right foods that are nutrient dense, that are low in fat and high in vitamins and minerals."
Shopping for sales
Start your search for savings in an obvious place: Weekly grocery flyers. These flyers contain the store's best sales each week, and can give you advance notice as to what healthy foods will be less expensive during your weekly shopping trip.
"Shopping the ads is important," said Frank Kuhn, the owner of Mallard Markets in Lehighton. "In this area alone, you could probably look through 10 different grocery ads and find some great deals. You can save money and also eat much healthier if you plan ahead."
Use these sale flyers to plan your family's meals for the upcoming days or week. If skinless chicken breasts are on sale along with strawberries and grapes, consider making grilled chicken breasts with a fruit salad for dessert. Get creative, and imagine new meal combinations from each week's offerings.
"If you can plan your meals for the whole week, you can take that plan, shop the ads, and save a lot of money," said Kuhn.
Once you get to the store, start by shopping around the perimeter of the store. Most grocery stores display fresh fruits and vegetables, protein, and dairy along the store's walls, leaving the middle aisles to hold prepared foods and higher-priced, less healthy items.
The foods that are less expensive, and often healthier, tend to have less packaging and are closer to their original form. Apples have more fiber and often less sugar than apple sauce or apple juice; they're also less expensive per serving.
"Any type of prepared food is going to cost more," said Kuhn. "With a bit of creativity, you can do much better." He encourages parents to look at child-friendly options marketed toward children, and find ways to make equally appealing meals for less.
"Check what's in those packages. Would you rather have your children eating a Lunchables, or something that you prepared? We're all time-starved, but we should probably spend more time thinking about what our families eat."
Kuhn was surprised to learn that one of his young niece's favorite treats is frozen grapes. Now he enjoys them to: it's a refreshing, inexpensive treat that doesn't include chemicals or added sugar.
"There always alternatives to prepared foods," he added. "You just need to think outside of the box."
Because most food prices are based on supply and demand, food is cheapest as it is being harvested. In-season foods are plentiful and also cost less because they don't need to be transported across the country.
"We work with Graver's Orchard in Lehighton whenever possible. We have beautiful apples coming in," said Kuhn. "If we can purchase food from a local farm, we can offer it for a better price. It's fresh, the price is better, and you're supporting local farmers."
Local farmers are also selling the last of their summer harvest, including corn and watermelon. Take advantage of these last-minute offerings before the harvest season ends.
Don't be afraid of sale items or clearance fruits and vegetables, added Kanetski. They're priced right to sell quickly, but if you plan to eat these items in the next day or two they can be a great bargain.
"They might look a little overripe but there's nothing wrong with the food," she said. "It's just not as pretty, so they package it and sell it cheaper."
Fresh versus frozen
When it comes to purchasing fruits and vegetables, freshness matters, said Kanetski.
"Fresh is always best. If you can't afford fresh, frozen is the next best," she said. Frozen foods are often picked and frozen at the peak of freshness and can be equally healthy, but take care not to purchase foods frozen in sugary syrup.
Read labels to make sure you're getting just the fruit or vegetable with little or no additives.
Likewise, use caution purchasing canned items. Canned fruits and vegetables can be a great timesaver and store easily, but most have added salt or sugar. Look for low-sodium canned vegetables or rinse the vegetables before serving. Purchase fruits canned in their own juices, not those in syrupy sugar.
Finding time to shop (and cook!)
The top tip from both Kuhn and Kanetski: Don't wait until 5 p.m. to choose tonight's dinner. More importantly, don't start shopping for tonight's ingredients when you should be sitting down to eat.
"Don't shop when you're hungry. You just want to grab food," and are less likely to make good choices, said Kanetski.
If you're not convinced that making time to cook should be a top priority, take a look at the quality and quantity of your next takeout dish.
"You're getting very little food for a lot of money," said Kuhn. "You can get a nice beef roast on sale, some potatoes on sale, frozen vegetables. You can prepare a nice meal for your family and still have leftovers for the next day. And because you prepared the meal yourself, you know exactly what's in it."
Make the most of dinner preparations by planning for leftovers, he added.
"Get a bigger roast so that you have leftovers. You can slice the leftovers for lunch, so you're not using lunch meat in a sandwich. There's nothing wrong with lunch meat, but if you use real beef or other leftovers you're avoiding all of those fillers and additives."
Don't underestimate the power of controlling ingredients and portion size, he added.
"When you cook at home, you control what your family is eating. It's a great opportunity to have a healthy meal and to sit around the table as a family. That family time is almost as important as the meal itself."