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Finding value at the grocery store Thumbnail

Finding value at the grocery store

Whether it’s a routine bowl of cereal in the morning or a celebratory dinner with family and friends, food plays a pivotal role in everyone’s life. But the reality of rising prices is forcing many Canadians to find new ways to stretch their grocery budget. It’s now estimated that the average family of four is forking over about $16,000 annually to cover food costs – a budget that includes groceries, takeout and restaurant meals.[1]

As food prices climb, a survey out of Dalhousie University says 64 per cent of Canadian shoppers are shifting their grocery shopping habits to stretch their budget, which includes shopping less often, waiting for sales and switching to cheaper brands.

The goal may be to stick to a specific shopping budget, but the reality is that grocery stores are designed to entice impulse buying. Manulife wellness consultant, Kristen Teixeira says being a bit more aware can help you stay on track.

“Everything from the produce to the checkout is really designed to help us stimulate spending,” says Kristen. “For myself, it's much worse when I'm hungry - there are a lot of impulse buys happening at that time.”

Shopping with a list

Since the checkout aisles are designed to encourage impulse buying, a good first rule of thumb is to have a snack before shopping. The second is to plan out your meals for the week and stick to shopping only for what’s on your list. If the idea of meal planning feels a bit daunting, then start with shopping for a theme meal for supper.

“Maybe it's meatless Monday, Taco Tuesday or Fish Friday – having a theme can simplify the planning so you have an idea of what you're looking for ahead of time,” says Kristen. “Take a quick check through your pantry and freezer, and then add any missing ingredients to your shopping list.”

Stretching your food budget

As food prices take a bigger bite out of the household budget, a few things can help you save money and keep the focus on healthy, balanced eating.

“Making meals at home is going to be more economical than spending money on fast food and restaurant foods, so one trend I’m seeing is consumers spending more on store brands and buying more food in bulk,” says Kristen.

Paying attention to weekly sales and using a grocery app for price matching can add to the savings, along with shopping for what’s in season and food alternatives. Consider buying fruits and vegetables that are locally grown and available in-season, which tend to be more reasonably priced – think strawberries and fancy local lettuce in spring and potatoes, squash, corn and other veggies later summer. Consider more plant-based cooking that incorporates beans as a protein source and choose more economical cuts of meat that can become deliciously fork-tender in a slow cooker.

And don’t forget to check out clearance deals – fruits and veggies that may be a bit bruised or at their peak of ripeness tend to be perfectly fine for baking or cooking. Grocery stores will also offer deep discounts on products set to expire, including meat, canned goods and packaged products, and there are apps available that will notify you of these sales.

Nutritional value

While the financial cost of groceries may be grabbing news headlines, shoppers need to be mindful about getting the best nutritional value for their grocery budget - and that means sticking to the basics of whole foods with a focus on ‘eating the rainbow’ and whole grains.

“Consuming a variety of fruits and vegetables is a great way to make sure that we're getting the right balance of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other nutrients that are important to good health,” says Kristen. “Orange foods, such as carrots and squash, are going to provide us with beta carotene. Red foods, like tomatoes provide lycopene - each color gives us something a little different.”

Whole foods left in their natural state – such as brown rice, beans, sweet potatoes, vegetables, fruit – are packed with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber. “These nutrient-dense foods are going to take longer for us to consume and digest, which give us longer lasting energy. So, the bulk of our meals should really be from these foods that are going to provide us with the most nutrition,” says Kristen.

On the flipside are processed foods. Some foods are only minimally processed, such as canned or frozen fruits and vegetables. But other foods are considered highly processed, which can strip away nutritional value in the quest for convenience. Fiber may be stripped away for faster cooking times, and various seasonings, colourings and preservatives are added to help food items last a little bit longer on the shelf. And yes, packaged processed foods tends to cost more than whole foods – think of mashed potatoes in a box versus making your own from scratch.

Store psychology

Careful planning is put into a grocery store footprint and the path you’re likely to walk. Appealing fruits and vegetables are typically right at the front door to convey a message of healthy and fresh. Dairy and eggs are way at the back, and those irresistible imported jams, crackers, fancy chips and salsas and chocolates are usually right at eye level and in the middle of the healthy essentials, baiting you to stray from your shopping list and cave into temptation. Understanding how this layout is designed may help you to stick to the basics, for best nutritional and dollar value.

“The end of aisle product displays are where you’ll find promotional items or things on sale, and the centre aisles are where you’ll find processed foods and some healthier options such as low-sodium broth, dried beans and whole grains – but also the tempting packaged cookies, granola bars, crackers and chips. The key is to stick with your shopping list to avoid temptation and spend most of your time in the store periphery, where whole foods are in abundance.”

Finding value at the grocery store might take a bit of planning and willpower, but the impact on your budget and your health will make it all worthwhile. For more household budgeting support, check in with your advisor who can help review your expenses and offer suggestions on other ways to rein in spending.

Check out these other budget resources:

Navigating the grocery store (podcast)

The superpower of super foods (article)

Managing sticker shock (article)


Feed a family of four on a budget

Looking for some inspiration? Here’s a couple of meal ideas that are both delicious and economical.



[1] 2024, Canada’s Food Price Report

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