I use to buy into a myth. Maybe you have too, or still do.
The myth is that you have to be wealthy to afford fruits and vegetables in your diet, or to eat healthily in general. Every time I hear someone claim that they can’t afford produce, it’s backed by a ridiculous example—”that little box of blueberries costs $6 and a package of noodles only costs $1. How can anyone afford to eat fruits and vegetables?”
It is possible to fill your diet with fruits and vegetables on a low income. Our family’s income is defined by the state as “very low” for our county, and we spend almost half of our take-home pay on our rent (which incidentally, is on the low end for our area). And yet, we still eat a satisfying diet with plenty of whole grains, and a variety of fruits and vegetables. Of course, if you have a restrictive grocery budget, keeping produce in your diet (like any quality food) will take greater effort than if you have abundant funds to use on groceries. I’m going to give you some ideas on how to start exerting your efforts to make produce more affordable. Even if you don’t need to spend less but simply want to be smarter with your shopping, these basic principles will help immensely!
Buy only in season.
This is part of the absurdity of the blueberry “evidence” I mentioned above.
Buying produce out of its growing (and selling) season will decimate your budget. Produce is at its cheapest when it is in season, but just as importantly, this is when it tastes good. If you live in North America and you buy fresh peaches in December, then eat them and conclude that you don’t like peaches, there is a reason. Peaches shipped to the USA in December have to be shipped from so far away that it means they never had a chance to ripen naturally. They won’t taste anything like a peach should. I attempted to make a December peach pie as a high school student. I did not realize my folly until I tasted that pie–it wasn’t even recognizable as peach!
If you have no clue when produce is in season, start by looking at your grocer’s ads. The price is your guide. If it’s on sale, it is most likely in season. You could also ask someone from the produce department at the store to point out what is in season. And of course, the internet has many resources to guide you in the seasonality of produce and how to look for quality when purchasing. Here is one good reference from the USDA.
Some produce is in season year round. However, if really want something that is out of season, you need to consider other forms than fresh…
Consider all your options—fresh, frozen, and canned.
People often assume that canned produce is the cheapest, but this is not always the case. If there’s anything we’ve learned in the Frugal Grocery Guide, it’s not to make assumptions!
Fresh produce that is on-sale and in-season will often be the same price or less expensive than its canned or frozen counterparts. For example, a 15 ounce can of corn has about 1 ½ cups of corn and costs me $0.50 on sale. An ear of fresh corn yields about ¾ cups of kernels. When fresh corn is in season, I buy it for $0.20 per ear. Considering both cost and taste, it makes more sense to buy the corn fresh at this point. However in the winter, fresh corn is much more expensive, if available at all, so canned corn wins out. Another example is carrots. A 16 ounce can of sliced carrots holds about 1 ¾ to 2 cups of carrots and costs me $0.50 on sale. I purchase fresh carrots (year round) for $0.79 for 2 pounds, which yields about 5 cups of sliced, cooked carrots. Fresh is the obvious winner in this case, at less than half the price-per-cup of canned. In other instances frozen will offer the best price.
Some fruits and vegetables are consistently low-cost. I typically see carrots, potatoes, onions, celery, cucumbers, and apples for less than a dollar per pound. That’s far less expensive than most meat or cheese, and usually less expensive than grains such as pasta or bread. In addition, a pound of fruit or veggies usually divides into more servings (as defined by the USDA) than meat.
If you really want produce that is out of season, see what frozen or canned options there are. I regularly buy bags of frozen blueberries that equate to $0.17 per ounce. That is equivalent to buying a 6 ounce clamshell of fresh blueberries for only $1. Frozen produce tends to stay about the same price year-round.
The Nutrition Factor
Is fresh, frozen, or canned produce the most nutritious?
Well, it depends. Frozen produce is consistently equivalent to fresh. The nutritional content of canned produce varies depending on what it is. Many fruits and vegetables lose nutrients during the heat and pressure of the canning process. There are a few, however, that are actually enhanced. Tomatoes and pumpkin have higher nutrient counts after being canned, and they also retain a good flavor, unlike most canned veggies. Most canned fruits and vegetables do retain their fiber even though their nutrients are diminished, which does makes them better than having no produce in your diet.
In addition, frozen fruit and veggies are usually comparable or even less expensive than canned goods, as well as claiming superior taste and texture. Don’t neglect the freezer aisle if you want your diet to be produce-rich year round! I typically find a variety of vegetables here for less than $1 per pound.
Keep your produce in fresh condition.
If you buy frozen produce, keep it in the freezer, obviously. If you buy canned, stack it in your pantry, under the bed, in the garage…anywhere in normal living conditions.
If you buy fresh, however, you need to invest a little Google time (or talk-to-your-produce-man-time) into learning how to keep those fruits and veggies fresh and tasty until you’re ready to use them. When you buy some lettuce and don’t know how to keep it fresh, search “how to keep lettuce fresh” on the web. You’ll get answers quickly, and it will be worth your time to have fresh, crisp lettuce when you need it later on this week instead of limp, moldy lettuce. In short, acquire the knowledge you need to actually use what you buy instead of letting it go to waste. Likewise, don’t buy more than you are able to use or preserve.
Buy produce in bulk and preserve it.
If you have the luxury of a deep freezer, it’s easy to stock up on quality fruits and veggies when they are on sale. Most fruits need only be peeled, sliced, and placed in freezer bags. Berries don’t even require peeling. Some vegetables, such as onions and carrots, can be frozen after peeling and slicing, while others like broccoli and green beans require blanching (a brief bath in boiling water) before they are frozen. By stocking up on on-sale produce and freezing it, you can have fresh-tasting produce any time of the year. Here is a nice starting guide to give you ideas about freezing food. If you are in doubt about whether you can freeze something, there are many resources online to help you.
If you have some basic canning equipment, you can choose to can your fruits. Canning acidic fruits and veggies requires only a large pot and rack for water bathing the jars, while canning non-acidic foods like beans and meats requires a pressure canner. Canned foods can obviously be stored more easily than frozen, however, keep in mind that home canning still depletes the nutrients in some vegetables, as compared to freezing them.
The USDA link I mentioned above has great, quick information about selecting and storing many different types of produce.
Buy locally and think outside the box.
Your grocery store is likely not the only place to get fresh produce. During the summer and fall, many areas have a variety of farmer’s markets and fruit and vegetable stands. These are great places to find bargains and grab up the freshest, sweetest produce.
Many places also have access to food co-ops. I buy most of my produce through this one, which serves several of the western states. Buying through a co-op eliminates many of the “middle-man” fees associated with grocery store produce. It is simply a group of people pooling their money to buy fresh produce (or other food) directly from farmers, so the co-op isn’t marking up the food for a profit.
Don’t forget the smaller stores. Even if you do most of your shopping at big chain supermarkets, don’t forget about smaller local or ethnic stores. They can have some great prices and fresher produce—if you’re serious about working produce into your budget, they are worth exploring.
In addition to famer’s markets, many farms offer “pick your own” deals. If you are willing to do the work of harvesting yourself, you can get fresh produce for less.
Grow your own.
Ah, I saved my favorite for last. Growing your own food, even a little, is something that I love to encourage. If you have a yard with some open space you can really go gangbusters, but there are many other ways to grow a little food even without acres of land. Depending on your produce preferences, you can save a pretty penny by growing your own, especially if you know how to preserve your harvest for later. Even a small pot of fresh herbs in your windowsill will save you quite a bit of money over buying fresh every time you want them!
You Can Make Produce Affordable!
Even on a low income, fruits and vegetables can be part of your diet. It requires effort on your part, but it is possible. Eating well is easier when money is abundant. But by investing the principles above, you can absolutely afford produce without breaking the bank. Even if you are already buying plenty of produce, utilizing these strategies will help you spend less on that great colorful food. Give it a shot and tell me what you think!