How to Save Money on Food – Produce

This is part of our 5-part series on how to save money on healthy food. Hope you enjoy, and be sure to share how you save money in the comments below!

One of the toughest places to save money in your grocery bill is on produce. There aren’t many coupon opportunities with fresh food and you can’t (or at least you shouldn’t) just eat less of them. When you add in trying to avoid conventionally grown fruits and vegetables, it gets even harder.

With a growing 2.5 year old, we go through a lot of fresh fruit in particular. Therefore, we’ve had to find creative ways to save money on food, especially organic. In this post, I’ll share how to save money on food, as it pertains to healthy produce.

How to save money on real food - colorful beetsHow to Save Money on Food: Be flexible

This is the number one way to save money on food. Be flexible. If you are willing to try new vegetables or to forgo your favorite fruit when it’s not on sale, you can save a lot of money each week.

  • Know how to substitute in a recipe. Use raspberries instead of strawberries, or white onions instead of red. The taste won’t always be the same, but sometimes you can come up with some really yummy combinations that you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.
  • Plan your meals around affordable produce (instead of buying produce to match your meal plan). There are a few ways you can do this. Find a few staple recipes that use in-season ingredients, since you will be most likely to find those for a good price. Also, keep a recipe book (paper or digital) of your favorite recipes, so when you bring home your thrifty produce finds you can match them to a recipe.

Know when to compromise to save money on food

Buying all organic all the time can be very expensive, but there are ways to get the benefits of organic while reducing the harm of conventional produce. Focus on buying organic fruits and vegetables that are on the dirty dozen list, and compromise on conventional produce from the clean 15. You can find this year’s lists here.

For example, my family buys only organic apples, because we love them and eat quite a few every week, and because they are the most contaminated with pesticides. We prefer to buy organic berries too since they are on the dirty dozen too, but since we don’t eat a lot of berries I sometimes buy conventional. I tend to buy conventional onions, asparagus, and avocados. You can also treat conventional produce with a raw apple cider vinegar wash to help reduce some of your pesticide exposure.

Money saving tip: Shop the sales

When organic produce goes on sale, buy as much of it as you can afford and stock your freezer to save money on food. Even if you can’t find exceptional deals on organic produce, you can still save on conventional produce from the clean 15 list. You may even be able to find coupons for bags of organic frozen veggies or organic salad mixes directly from the company.

Though not always the case, sometimes warehouse stores like Costco and Sam’s Club can have good deals on large amounts of fruits and vegetables. Just be sure you can use or preserve it all before it goes bad.

Save on grocery costs and do the work yourself!

Prewashed and cut fruits and veggies can cost twice as much as whole produce. Buying whole organic carrots instead of baby carrots and whole pineapples instead of precut is the best way to save. You can cut and packaging them yourself for on-the-go snacks.

Learning to preserve your bounty is essential if you find a great deal on a bunch of produce. Freezing is usually the easiest way to go if you have the freezer space available, but canning or lacto-fermenting your produce is a great way to preserve since they last a long time and, in some cases, don’t require electricity to store.

I like to cut carrots sticks, slices of peppers, and celery and store them in the refrigerator so they are more accessible. Who wants to bother cutting and slicing veggies when you’re hungry anyway?

Looking to save on fresh foods? Buy in-season.

Stick to in-season fresh produce whenever possible, but don’t be afraid to check the frozen section for out-of-season fruits or veggies that may be cheaper than fresh. Doing this can save you money on food. Check this site for in-season produce in your area. Buy enough in-season produce for the whole year (or as much as you can). Freeze, dry, can, pickle, or ferment anything you can’t use before it goes bad.

Zucchini is one of my favorite vegetables because it’s so versatile. If I don’t have enough in my garden, I buy organic zucchini at the farmer’s market and either shred and freeze it to use in bread or zucchini pancakes, or I will bread and fry (or bake) them and then freeze for a quick snack throughout the winter.

Another way to buy “in-season” is with a meal delivery service. All the best meal delivery services work directly with farmers to ensure you’re getting the freshest, in-season produce.

How to save money on real food - grow a garden

Want to save on vegetables? Start a garden

Even if you live in the city, there are a number of easy to grow fruits, veggies, and herbs that can be grown in a windowsill. Herbs are especially expensive to buy fresh, but are relatively easy to grow at home. Some easy-to-grow herbs include rosemary, thyme, chives, mint, oregano, basil, and cilantro.

If you have a little bit of garden space, consider planting some of the produce that you would otherwise buy organic, like those on the dirty dozen list. Berries are a great choice, since they are expensive to buy even when they are on sale.

Farmer’s markets are also a great place to save money on produce

Farmer’s markets are a great place to buy local and organic produce for much less than at the grocery store. Build a relationship with your favorite local farm and learn to negotiate prices.

Also keep in mind that many small farms choose not to become certified organic in order to keep costs low, but may still follow organic guidelines. Ask around. These farms are the best place to get healthy produce for less.

Choose the best time to go to the farmer’s market… arriving at the beginning will ensure the best selection. However, if you show up near closing time, you may be able to get a better deal because many farmers would rather sell produce cheap than have to cart it back home.

You may also be able to get a discount on buying produce by the case or by purchasing the ugly fruit that some folks don’t want.

Joining a CSA can help you save money

Buying a share of a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) is less expensive than buying similar produce from the store. Check online directories like localharvest.org for local farms where you can buy a share in a CSA. (For a longer list of resources, check out How to Save on Real Food pt 2 – Dairy).

By participating in a produce CSA, you get top quality produce for a reasonable price. You may also get other perks. For example, if a farm has only a small amount of one type of produce, the CSA members often get it first. You may also get access to special deals or members-only events.

How to save money on real food - forage for food

Foraging for food is the ultimate way to save money

Foraging was once a large part of daily life, but is hardly done anymore. For beginner foragers, it’s best to get guidance from an expert on what edibles are available to forage in your area. With a little education, you could be enjoying fresh wild berries or dandelion coffee!

If you’re interested in learning to forage take a look at this list of foraging classes across the U.S. Another great place to find guidance is meetup.com. You may be able to find some local experts who can help you for free.

Of course, stop wasting produce

Have you ever stored produce in the refrigerator, forgotten about it, and then had to search for the foul smell in your fridge a week later? Yep, I know I have. And yep, it’s a huge waste of money. Here are some ways to avoid spoilage.

  • Get organized. Keep a list of what produce you have on the outside of the refrigerator, and check it off as it’s used up. Another way to stay organized is to use one produce drawer for leftovers from the previous week (which should be used first), and one drawer for new produce.
  • Learn how to use up leftover produce. Store carrot ends and other veggies in the freezer. When you have enough, take it out and add it to a pot of water to make broth. When you have just a few leaves of spinach or a couple of strawberries, toss them into the blender and make a smoothie.
  • Buy the freshest produce you can find. The fresher it is, the longer it will last.

How about you?

How do you save money buying produce? Share with us in the comments below so we can learn from each other!

20 Comments

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  1. I think one great way we can improve our health and save money is by eating organic food, grown in our own gardens, without pesticides. It’s fun too.

    If you don’t have much space (or a suitable garden), there are still plenty of plants you can grow in pots, or vertical planters.
     
    This is an interesting article on Why Growing Organic Food Never Works Out The Way You Plan. The Failures and successes of a first time organic fruit and vegetable gardener:
    http://busyparentfitness.com/growing-organic-food
    Thanks, George x

  2. After I pay all the bills I have $15 a day left over for food. I spend $6 a day for the mall pigeons so they get raw organic nutrients because they spend their entire lives suffering while they barely survive from the scraps of frankenfood they get. While I am walking on the downtown mall, feeding the pigeons, getting some exercise, making frequent rest stops, I find a lot of delicious food that is low in toxins in the trash cans. I bring a drink with me that contains raw nutrients and food grade diatomaceous earth to neutralize toxins. At home I make a drink from raw Mexican cane sugar that costs only 50 cents a pound and coconut flour for fiber. The water I use to make the drink is a supernatural miracle called high ormus sole that I make myself with ingredients purchased from Natural Grocers. I go there every morning and get a free cup of coffee in the community room before buying stuff. I get a free gallon of water from a restaurant 3 blocks from my room. For more nutrients I take the super foods, herbal extracts, and supplements. Once a week I soak a chopped up organic red or yellow onion, summer sweet has the most quercitin, and some organic fruit peels, in some sole salt water. Then I drink the water. I eat 2 organic overripe bananas every day, including the peel..

  3. We have a family of 11 so saving on fresh produce is a necessity. Our favorite way is by participating in http://www.BountifulBaskets.org which is a produce co-op that currently exists in 23 states! Unless you can grow all your own (I can’t grow bananas here in the Midwest) I haven’t found a better way than paying wholesale prices!

  4. I’m sure it’s different everywhere, but I’m always surprised when people talk about farmer’s markets being cheap, because here (in SW VA) it is WAY more expensive than organic grocery store produce. Of course it is worth more too, because you are supporting local farmers and getting fresh, more nutrient dense produce that hasn’t traveled across the country…but it can be cost prohibitive too. However, I’ve found our CSA to be a fantastic deal, comparable to grocery store organic produce or maybe even conventional produce. I could never afford the same produce (probably even from the same farmer) at the farmer’s market because it would be marked up a lot more. Ours starts this week, yay!
    But these are great tips! The only problem is that we already do a lot of them 😉 I’m going to have to grow more this year though (just the ‘dirty’ ones, like you said, since I’m busy with two littles) and maybe try supplementing our salads with some dandelion greens from the yard 😉

    • I agree!! I would love to shop at my local farmers market, but even the in season stuff can be more pricey. Plus it’s an extra trip, and when I get there, the have the same Driscoll’s strawberries as the supermarket, plus bananas and pineapple and oranges… Which are certainly not local where I live! I suppose they do that to avoid being an extra trip and give people that one-stop shopping experience like the grocery store. I still love the idea of supporting local farms, and the produce does taste better, but… Yeah. Overall, it’s not usually worth it. Our farmers market is our preferred place to pick up our Halloween pumpkins and mums, though 🙂

      PS, if you have a Super Target nearby, they always have coupons for produce! Meat too.

      • On the Cartwheel app/website, that is.

  5. What a great list of suggestions! As a plant-based household, we try to save as much as we can while purchasing produce. Buying organic is very important to us, but sadly, it’s not always an option for everything!! On the same lines as a CSA, Portland has many amazing co-op grocery stores you can buy into … Then, you have the ‘power’ to determine what produce they carry. They are also more flexible with purchasing food that’s past it’s prime (ie: we don’t need super green bananas if we’re planning on chopping & freezing for smoothies … we’ll take the ones with brown spots that are headed for the trash). Really, we just use staple foods … each week we buy peppers, onions, zucchini, and potatoes. Past that, we might buy ingredients for different meals, but we know how to make 100 different meals with our staple (less expensive) foods. Getting creative with grains and spices can help a ton. Thank you for sharing!!

  6. I feel like a lot of people look down on those who shop at Costco, but seriously there is do much organic goodness happening there. Frozen organic vegetables galore, frozen organic berries galore, bags of fresh organic kale, bags of fresh organic greens, enormous bags of organic carrots (processed and whole), inexpensive organic bananas, organic Kirkland brand salsa (off the hook, folks), organic muir glen tomatoes, organic snacks (chips, pretzels, chocolates), organic string cheese, organic milk, organic coffee, unrefined coconut oils, avo oil, chia seeds, flax, quinoa… And even some of the non-organic store varieties (although there is a lot of organic) have stellar ingredients – like the Kirkland vanilla ice cream ( the best!).

      • I also agree! We don’t have Costco but have BJ’s. I get a lot of our staples there, all organic: fresh and frozen spinach, mixed greens for salads, frozen broccoli, apples, fresh green beans, onions, garlic, quinoa, peanut butter, Muir Glen diced tomatoes, organic sugar, granola bars. The amount we save definitely exceeds the membership cost, especially since we get our gas there too.

    • Do you find your membership fee + buying in bulk is better than buying at a grocery store? We’ve considered joining, but aren’t familiar with how beneficial it would be for us.

      • We have a “Gold” membership at BJs (we live in NC) and so we get 2% back. Since we buy gas there along with a lot of groceries that 2% usually pays for the membership fee. I also get a $10 discount through my work as we are right next to BJs.

        We do find that we purchase enough there to make it worthwhile. Ours carries Applegate farms lunchmeats, hotdogs and Kerrygold butter as well. (Maybe not perfect but reasonable for my school aged kids to take in their lunches,) They also sell ground lamb $5.99/lb and lamb is almost always grass-fed so a good choice.

        • Also, you should ask about a trial membership. I often see coupons for 30 days free trial. If you have neighbors that belong these coupons are usually in the back of their monthly coupon books.

    • I wish Costco had more organic fresh produce, but I find they have very little. I also wish their portions weren’t so huge. I live alone and can’t eat 10 pounds of (fill in the blank). I live in an apartment building and don’t have neighbors or friends who shop Costco, so forget splitting. I know this is how they keep their costs down, but can a family of five even eat a 10-pound tub of sour cream? I buy my gas there, as well as staples like paper towels and toilet paper. I’m leery of organics that are in cans or plastic bottles, so I usually stay away from them. Costco is big on plastic.

      • Can you form your own “co-op” with friends and shop at Costco together and split things? I used to do that when I was single w/ roommates.

        Our Costco has organic apples, squash, spinach, power greens (blend of spinach/kale/baby lettuces for salads), raspberries, other fruit, sweet potatoes, avos, etc. We are able to buy quite a bit organic in season – and sometimes out of season too. We’re close to Mexico though so I think quite a bit of it is from there and maybe easy to source? Anyway I <3<3<3 Costco!

        • Oh I forgot to mention milk, chicken, eggs, etc. The thing I REALLY want them to have is Strauss organic yogurt. Maybe someday.

    • I love this site for ideas on living natural, but supporting places like Costco don’t create a sustainable world for us to live in. What about the high degree of promotion of consumerism and use of non-renewable resources by these types of stores? It may be more affordable now, but I firmly believe we are living in a time whwre sustainability of our entire planet is just as important.
      Many of the ‘natural Momma’ sites that I follow don’t ever mention how our lifestyles in general (ie the mass consumerism) don’t align with the ideas of living ‘naturally,’ and using products such as coconut oil, Palm oil, even things like easential oils are not sustainable practices and these products are shipped to us in North America from halfway around the world. So yes, our bodies may be benefiting from those products now, but our global communities are suffering from this new wave of ‘natural living’ consumption.

  7. I am soo guilty of wasting produce! I have the best intentions when I buy some greens and they go bad before I remember I wanted to make something with them! I’ve been also meaning to get on the CSA bandwagon, but in our area it’s so expensive. Makes me dream of moving to Asheville again 😉

    • As soon as you notice your greens starting to turn, throw the bag in he freezer! Then you can add it to soup, eggs, smoothies – no need to waste them. We buy 3 enormous bags of baby kale + greens mix every week and 2 go directly into the freezer and one in the fridge. This is for a family of 5, however.

  8. I believe in supporting organic. I get told All THE TIME to Skip the Organic onions and bananas. To me, it’s also about the ethics behind it. A quick google Search Shows that Conventional bananas may be ok to Consume, but What about the workers? AS for onions… I am not sure how much Conventional cost, but organic is right around 3#s for $4, not too bad IMHO. The only produce we buy Conventional is Brussel sprouts , they are Way too expensive for the amount we eat.

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