Healthy, Cheap, Tasty, and Quick: The Grocery Store Grand Slam and Eight Tips on How To Achieve It

tomatoMost food purchases at the grocery store boil down to one of four factors:

Is it healthy? Is the food low in fat and provide good nutritional quality? Is it devoid of chemicals of mysterious origin? I also include ethical issues here, such as buying from local traders and such – healthy in a different way.

Is it cheap? Is the price reasonable compared to other similar food options? Is this item going to bend my food budget?

Is it tasty? Does this look like an enjoyable item to eat? Could this be part of an enjoyable dish?

Is it quick? Is the preparation time for this food relatively small? Will preparing this food interfere with other activities in my life?

Most people in the first world will take these four factors into account when considering a food purchase, but in varying degrees. For example, I focus on healthy above all when buying food that my toddler will eat, but I often focus on tasty for myself. During my earlier years, quick was the top factor.

However, I like to find items that manage to hit as many of these areas as possible. Here are eight techniques that I use to find home run food purchases.

Read through the sales flyer before going This takes care of the cheap, letting you use the other criteria to make a judgment on the food. For example, if I see produce at a great price in the flyer, I’ll often make a point to look up a recipe for it (making it tasty and possibly quick) – this turns into a home run purchase because produce on sale is already healthy and cheap.

Stock up on herbs and spices Herbs and spices are magical – they manage to turn a bland but healthy food into a tasty concoction. It’s worth an investment in some jars of quality herbs and spices of various types because of their amazing ability to take food that is healthy and make it tasty, too. Here’s an essential collection of herbs and spices to get you started.

Figure out how to make salads you like Salads are incredibly quick to make and are also very healthy (and lettuce is often cheap), but for me they’re often lacking in the tasty department. To make this a grand slam, I spent a lot of time trying various salad dressings and toppings until discovering the things that really make a salad pop for me (mushrooms, a sprinkling of cheese, onions, homemade garlic croutons, and a touch of vinaigrette dressing). It was worth the effort – now I have a staple food that hits a grand slam for me.

Use prepackaged foods as a template Prepackaged convenience foods are very strong in terms of tasty and quick and usually cheap, but they fail terribly at healthy. Instead of grabbing your favorite convenience food, try using it as a template for preparing your own. Match the ingredients with fresh and healthy versions and make several batches at home in advance so you can prepare them quickly when it comes time.

Try unexpected things This usually comes into the cheap realm: look for inexpensive and healthy items and give them a shot. Because of this, I’ve truly discovered the joy of cucumbers and onions – just slice a few cucumbers and an onion into a bowl with one parts water and four part vinegar (plenty to cover the onions and cucumbers), dash in just a bit of salt (to taste, you can add more if you like), and put it in the fridge. This is a delicious quick snack that’s very healthy, too, and it works as an appetizer before meals – my son even loves them and will munch on a cucumber slice before the main meal.

Look for recipes adaptable to the crockpot / slow cooker (or designed for it) This somewhat solves the quick aspect by allowing you to actually prepare the food whenever you’d like. One technique worth doing is to grab one of those frozen crock pot meals from the freezer section, reading the ingredients in it, then picking them up separately (making it more healthy) – in other words, use the template tip in conjunction with the crockpot. Another one is to find some crock pot recipes in advance. Here’s a primer on the crock pot and five great recipes for it.

If you’re picking up a canned item, see if it’s fresh Looking at the canned vegetables for an upcoming meal? See if that vegetable is fresh. The same goes for fruits and for meats as well – if you can get the item sans preservatives, you’re basically making a healthier choice, likely a cheaper choice, and also likely a tastier choice.

Buy lots of staples For me, chicken breasts and tomatoes are the two best staple foods one can get. You can make chicken marinara one night, then have chicken tortilla soup the next. Using such staples is quick (you can often prepare them all at once – making tomato juice or boiling the breasts) and also healthy (you’re starting off with the basic food). Plus, they’re so adaptable that you can make all sorts of delicious dishes from them.

A bonus tip: don’t be afraid of leftovers. Instead, learn how to use spices and other techniques to rejuvenate them.

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  1. Don’t forget that all-important fifth criteria:

    Is it chocolate?

    ;)

  2. I printed this out and will certainly take it along with me on my next grocery quest.

  3. Justin says:

    After finding “our salad”, I cannot go back to the bag-and-bottle of college days. We literally have it with every dinner.

    1. Crush garlic in a small bowl
    2. Mix desired parts olive oil and red wine vinegar (to taste)
    3. Add dollop of spicy mustard
    4. Sprinkle with Herbs De Provence and crushed black pepper

    Stir, then pour on a salad made of romaine lettuce, fresh spinach leaves, red bell peppers (expensive, but far better than green), sliced cucumbers, and lots of feta cheese.

    Inspired by a stay in France, we like to serve it on a plate with a thick slice of bread, which we use to sop up the remaining dressing so we can reuse the plate for the main course. Yum.

  4. Kenny says:

    Trent, I have two words that make everything better:

    REFRIED BEANS

    thank you.

  5. Bill says:

    Sounds like you’re on your way to “refrigerator pickles”

    I’m convinced cheap eating is a lot easier with a crockpot and chest freezer.

    >just slice a few cucumbers and an onion into a bowl with one parts water and four part vinegar (plenty to cover the onions and cucumbers)

  6. yvie says:

    I have one more question that I ask during the summer and fall months: Is it local? I support my local farmers whenever I can, rather than some far off place with less than fresh fruits and veggies.

  7. N'Awlins Kat says:

    I’ve found that eating ethnic foods can be a lot cheaper….eat like the immigrants do. They eat far healthier foods than most Americans do; they haven’t been seduced by the supersize concept. In college, I learned to make a number of Middle Eastern, Indian and Greek foods from exchange student friends. My 9-year-old would eat out every day of the week if she could; we compromise by dining at “Casa Mamacita” one night and “Chez Maman” the next, or “Tandoori Ama.” Still trying to broaden my picky husband’s horizons a bit (he’d rather eat MREs, but frankly, I’ve had my fill of them). You’re right, though, Trent; it’s amazing what you can make out of a hunk of chicken if you add the right spices.

  8. Rebekah says:

    Thanks for linking back to the essential spice list, which you first published before I was subscribed to this site.

    My friend’s son is a recently-deployed chef. I’d decided yesterday to include in his care package a few packages of dried herb to, if you’ll pardon the pun, spice up the other Marines’ meals – especially if I wind up sending him something he can’t get wherever he is.

    For the past fifteen years, I have only cooked and eaten vegetarian (and, as yvie said, I’ll pay a bit more to support our local farmers’ market which, here, supports the Women Infants Children program) and don’t know what to use with meat. Your post will help!

  9. Justin says:

    @N’Awlins Kat: Awesome tip. Indeed, ethnic foods can be very cheap and fresh. Asian supermarkets, in particular, are excellent for some awesome food.

  10. N'Awlins Kat says:

    @Justin: Yes, we occasionally go to the Little Saigon area of New Orleans–wonderful breads, spices, exotic fruits, etc., and great prices. In college, a group of us used to split 50 pound bags of rice and other huge staple purchase.

    I miss living IN the city, where I had easy access to the Middle Eastern groceries. They sold bulk spices for a pittance; at one point, I think I had something like 50 or 60 different spices in my kitchen. Now, because of the influx of Hispanic workers here, there are Latino groceries springing up, and I’m hoping to score good deals on spices, etc, there, too. We particularly like Tex-Mex style cooking, and I mix my spices up in a quart canning jar and then measure out accordingly. I use the base spice mix, then toss in extras depending on what I’m cooking that day.

  11. Wild Cherry says:

    Remember when you buy staple foods that cheap is not always best. Try to get brown or black rice, and whole wheat pastas. (If you get the store brand pasta it’s not too pricey.) Sauces like barbecue sauce, ranch, and ketchup are not necessarily good condiments because they contain corn syrup, which can lead to loss of appetite control–meaning you will be eating more food than you should!! I totally agree with you guys about buying ethnic foods; the only thing you have to watch out for is MSG in the Asian prepackaged foods, and Mexican foods as well.

  12. Extraordinary Wife says:

    Also, look for frozen veggies. I have heard that those which are simply flash frozen (no butter, sauces or salt) are also excellent choices when fresh may not be optional and in some cases, even better than fresh (e.g. peas).

  13. Here’s what we refer to as a “slap salad” which is a salad we slap ingredients into the lettuce. It starts with a head of iceberg washed and torn and bag of spinach and another of spring mix which we fondly refer to as “yard clippings”. Mix them all together and put them in a large container with a paper towel in the bottom which helps keep it fresh for a week. To serve: Grab a big handful of the greens and slap them into a bowl. Add some cherry/grape tomatoes, a few cucumber slices, dried cranberries, some bacon bits, some sunflower seeds, toasted walnuts or pecans, any leftover meat chopped up–we use whatever’s leftover–chicken, beef, tuna or cold cuts and any leftover veggies–corn, green beans, beets–whatever you have and slap those on top of the greens with everything else. Leftover lunch meat–turkey or ham can be slapped in the salad too. Any leftover beans–kidney, garbanzo–slap them in. Make a simple Italian dressing with 1 TBS basil 1 tsp Italian seasoning, 1 tsp garlic powder, salt, pepper, a little sugar, olive oil and 1/4 cup water and 1/4 cup basalmic vinegar and a dollop of dijon mustard. Whisk or shake it till well mixed (for a creamy dressing whisk in some mayo)and pour over greens, top with a few crushed potato chips or corn chips and you’ve got dinner from leftovers that seems like a new meal!

  14. joan says:

    Have you started making notes on that cookbook? Can we preorder it? Just a hint that I’m looking forward to the day you write a cookbook.

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