Updated on 04.10.09

Buying Fresh, Buying Cheap

Trent Hamm

Rick writes in:

You talk all the time about buying fresh foods, but they’re always more expensive than the canned versions and other foods I buy. What am I missing?

Much of the time, Rick is right. If you just walk into a grocery store, pick a fresh vegetable at random, and compare it to the canned version, the canned version is usually cheaper.

So why buy fresh? Fresh produce and meats taste better, have no preservatives, and are more nutritionally powerful as well. Plus, if you use some careful, clever tactics, you don’t have to pay a lot of money above the cost of canned produce. Here’s how.

Use the flyer
If you’re buying fresh, the store flyer is your best friend. I do much of my grocery shopping at Fareway and, before a trip, I parse the flyer carefully.

What do I look for? I usually start by identifying what fresh produce is on sale that week. Then, I take those items and figure out a meal plan based around them. For example, this week green onions are on sale there, so I would seek out two or three recipes that utilize green onions – scrambled eggs for breakfast one day, a meatloaf another day, and maybe some sort of stir fry on a third day. This way, I can buy lots of green onions on sale and actually have a plan for using those onions.

Most stores tend to have several produce items on sale each week, so you can just pick three or four that seem interesting to you, then plan two or three meals using these items. There’s no easier way to get inexpensive fresh fruits and vegetables into your diet.

Know what’s in season locally
Another great way to find good prices on fresh produce is to figure out what’s in season in your area. If a particular fruit or vegetable is in season locally, it’s often on sale (and very, very fresh) at your local grocery store because there’s an abundance of it available.

You can get started by utilizing this helpful list at Sustainable Table that identifies what’s in season in each state during each month.

Leverage the farmers’ markets
Become a regular attendee at your local farmers’ market. There are several good reasons for this: you can regularly find good bargains there, you can build relationships with some vendors and thus get choice produce, the produce available there is very fresh (and thus tasty and very healthy), and there’s a wealth of information to be had, too. Don’t go with a shopping list – just take a cloth bag, some cash, and a sense of adventure.

Here are several tips for getting bargains at a farmers’ market.

Talk to your friends that garden
Quite often, even people who have small gardens have a surplus of produce when the peak of their harvest rolls around. My father, for example, often harvests fifty pounds of tomatoes a day during the peak of the tomato harvest.

If you have a friend that gardens, quite often you can make great trades for some of that excess produce, or perhaps buy it at a very nice rate. One way to help is to offer to tend their garden for them while they’re on vacation in the summer – if there’s anything that will need to be picked while they’re gone, they’ll often give some or all of it to you for the service of keeping things tended.

… or start your own garden
You can do simple things like growing a tomato plant in a pot in your home, starting a window sill garden, or even tilling up a small patch in the back yard.

A tiny garden, just consisting of a few plants, doesn’t require a lot of maintenance, just a bit of healthy outdoor activity once a week or so. Plus, when the vegetables come in, you can have ultra fresh produce. Trust me, there are few things better than picking vegetables out of the garden and immediately using them in dishes – a pasta sauce made out of tomatoes that were in the garden a half-hour earlier is sublime.

Look for bulk savings
Quite often, you can buy bulk amounts of fresh produce for substantially cheaper (per unit) than individual items. Look around and see what’s available.

One option is to split that large produce purchase with a friend or a neighbor. If you’re both buying carrots, for example, why not buy a large bundle for a cheaper per-unit price and split it? It can be very advantageous to coordinate on occasion.

Another option is to buy produce with some long-term storage potential for yourself, like potatoes, turnips, or carrots. These items can often be stored in the cupboard for long periods without going bad, which means you’re not forced to use them over and over again.

If all else fails, choose frozen vegetables over canned ones
If you still find that there’s a significant “produce premium” for you and decide to buy prepackaged vegetables or fruits, seriously consider buying frozen vegetables and fruits instead of canned ones. Frozen fruits and vegetables are substantially more nutrition-rich than their canned cousins and the prices per ounce are usually very comparable.

Good luck!

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  1. Stacey says:

    If you’ve got the room and patience, don’t be afraid to start canning or freezing your own produce! We have a small garden that gave us quite an overload of tomatoes – so I bought an inexpensive boiling water canner and canned half of our harvest. We’ve been eating “fresh,” no salt- or preservatives-added, tomatoes year-round. The cost is minimal if you commit to doing it for a few years, and it makes a fun weekend project.

    Have you SEEN the price for hothouse tomatoes in winter? And they taste awful… it really doesn’t take much space or too many plants to harvest a year’s supply of tomatoes. We had 10 plants and ate, gave away, and canned a boatload of tomatoes.

  2. Mule Skinner says:

    If you live in a cold climate, the farmer’s market season is short. I like the things I can find there, particularly the Asian vegetables, but they don’t last long.

  3. Dana says:

    Fresh groceries will always cost more than canned stuff. But if you think of it as something preventative, i.e. against future ailments and illnesses, it’s a pretty good investment to make on yourself.

  4. Zink says:

    Your link for in-season produce might be useful for

  5. Johanna says:

    I don’t think there’s a hard-and-fast rule that fresh is always better than frozen, and frozen is always better than canned. I would much rather have canned tomatoes than out-of-season fresh tomatoes – and since I’m not into home canning, that means canned tomatoes bought at the store. And based on my limited experience, canned corn tastes a lot better than frozen corn. That said, those are the only exceptions I tend to make – I do buy a few other things canned and frozen rather than fresh, but that’s more for convenience than for quality or nutrition.

    I can’t speak highly enough of farmers’ markets. Fruits and vegetables you buy from them really do taste better, not just because they’re fresher, but because farmers who sell their produce locally can concentrate on varieties bred for flavor and quality, not for transporting long distances. It sometimes costs more than buying the same fruits and vegetables at regular supermarkets, and I don’t always worry about getting the best deals, because having food that tastes good is worth a slight premium to me.

  6. Zink says:

    Whoops, accidentally clicked the submit button early. Anyway, here’s what I was going for: The link to local in-season produce might help you out at the farmer’s market, but it won’t do you much good at the grocery store. Supermarkets do not, as a rule, buy local produce, but rather from whatever growing location worldwide is the cheapest, i.e. most prolific. A more apt tip would be to look for produce that is in-season wherever it is grown. Examples include citrus (from AZ, CA, FL, TX) in the winter, versus stone fruits (from CA and WA) in the summertime. Obviously that’s a generalization, but a quick google search pointed me to this site http://www.produceoasis.com/ which seems pretty detailed for growing seasons and typical sources for various fruits and vegetables.

  7. sarah says:

    If you live in a big city, check out small lesser-known produce markets over chain stores. Yesterday I spent $10 on beans, carrots, spinach, eggplant, tomatoes, parsnips and yucca, plus a couple other non produce items. Granted, I don’t buy large quantities because I’m only purchasing for one. Even so, the price & quantity definitely beat a few portions of frozen or canned vegetables.

  8. DaVe @ FupDuckTV says:

    I love fresh fruit in season. I particularly like raspberries. I have even found a location where you can got pick your own.

    Some of my other writers at FupDuckTV.com and I have debated the whole “organic” or “mass produced” produce. I personally don’t see the big deal in “organic”. Buying organic reminds me of drafting the mildly retarded football quarterback with a limp when you have five steroid fueled five year college veteran quarterbacks already on the team. Better living through chemical enhancement.

  9. Monica says:

    Don’t forget about CSAs! (Community Supported Agriculture)

    Another thing to mention is that fresh produce may not be the most nutrient-rich choice if it has travelled long distances to get to you. Those vegetables may already be past their peak, whereas canned or frozen vegetables were processed when freshly harvested. Plus, transporting produce across the continent (or between continents) is not a very environmentally friendly choice.

  10. Luke says:

    Every April my family takes an annual day-trip to a local strawberry farm. We each pick a basket of strawberries for making homemade jams and preserves, and we freeze a few packs for strawberry shortcake desserts throughout the year. The bonus is a number of roadside stands that crop up near the event selling fresh fruits and vegetables. I only wish this was a monthly event so we could avoid grocery store produce altogether!

  11. NYC reader says:

    Another option for finding affordable fresh produce is to visit markets in the ethnic sections of town. You may find vegetables that you are unfamiliar with, you will likely find some of the same produce as in your local stores, and you will almost certainly find the prices are lower than your local store.

  12. 60 in 3 - Health and Fitness says:

    Also, think of buying healthy food is an investment. You’re already saving money over eating out. Now you’re saving more money by being healthier, which will save you medical costs in the long run and increase your quality of life over your whole lifespan.

    It’s like buying a more expensive dishwasher because it will last longer and work better. Sometimes it’s worth investing in quality and not just focusing on the cheapest price.


  13. I’ve found that buying fresh produce and meat can be more cost effective than purchasing processed meals, it is just a matter of convenience for most people not to buy fresh. I wrote an article on my website describing how I tried keeping my weekly dinner budget (for 2 adults) under $10 by purchasing fresh produce instead of processed foods. You can find the results of this experiment by searching for “Results of the $10 Grocery Experiment”.

  14. Chris says:

    It also helps to learn how to keep what you buy fresh once you have it home. One can’t just toss stuff in the refrigerator and expect the best. Onions and potatoes in the same closed space will rot each other. Bananas and citrus are not a good combo unless one is trying to force green bananas to ripen. The list goes on….

  15. Sarah says:

    I was going to mention CSAs as well. Not only are they economical, but you’re supporting your local farmers as well.

    They can be a bit overwhelming for a single, though.

  16. Mike says:

    Great posting. I agree with the point of using frozen veggies versus canned. In the comments, Johanna first paragraph really balanced the posting wonderfully. I steer away from all canned items except corn and tomatoes. Frozen is the better choice for us in terms of flavor and health benefits.

  17. Margaret says:

    Canned, frozen or fresh, the important thing is that you are eating vegetables, so good for you!

  18. Sarah in Alaska says:

    I second the planning a menu around the week’s sale items. I’ve been doing that about a year now and I’ve gotten alot more fresh foods into my diet. Usually I’ll try to buy several weeks of harty sale items (apples, carrots, onions, etc.), because I know they’ll stay good for a while. If I can’t eat everything before they start to turn, I freeze them (bananas, blanched spinach, cauliflower, etc.)

    I’m also not afraid to purchase “older” produce. Last week I picked up 12 lbs of strawberries that were past their prime. I had to throw out about a dozen rotten strawberries, but I had berries for breakfast and dessert and froze the rest. Oh, and I got a 71% discount. :)

  19. Ben says:

    This has already been said in passing, but it REALLY needs to be emphasized here — ‘fresh’ vegetables are RARELY more nutritious than frozen ones. The reason for this is that once vegetables are picked, they have enzymes that begin to break down bits of the plant. This in turn alters the nutritional value of the vegetable as well as the taste. Since the vast majority of produce in the supermarket comes from quite far away, then most of it has spent several days in transit (not to mention the time it spent on the shelves waiting to be bought) and has lost a great deal of its nutritional value. Thus, for almost all of the ‘fresh’ vegetables you see in the store, you will be better served to have bought frozen ones (since these are picked at their peak and blanched and frozen right away). It turns out that your pocket book will also be better served by this most of the time.

    Of course frozen things are still shipped a long way, so it would be best to buy locally, but at least with frozen items you preserve much of the nutrition.

    NOTE: This reasoning does not necessarily work with fruit (ie. tomatoes, bell peppers, apples, etc.) which lack the enzymes that immediately start acting once picked — however, much of the fruit will still be better bought frozen than fresh, but for different reasons.

  20. a farmers market and growing your own are both great suggestions.

    Personally, since I live in condos, space is limited to only being able to grow herbs on the window sills. To get further savings, I make sure I scan the flyers before I head out to get the best deals on the fresh produce I get weekly.

    Finally, as others suggested, proper storage and only buying as much as you will use before it rots is also essential to saving.

  21. liv says:

    i never would’ve thought that i’d ever want to start a garden, but holy moly, i DO want one.

    has anyone seen that infomercial for the upside down tomato plant grower thing? does that work?

  22. Trent sure is right about frozen vegetables. Tinned fruit, however, is great for making easy and (fairly) healthy puddings, like clafouti. Just make sure you get it in juice and not syrup.

  23. Cyllya says:

    Fresh vegetables are healthiest, but unfortunately it’s hard to buy fresh vegetables from the store. The supposedly fresh ones have been picked who knows how long ago. Personally, I don’t bother buying them except for the difference taste, texture, etc. If you’re going to buy “fresh” vegetables, make sure you eat them as soon as possible.

    Farmers’ market veggies might be fresher, but…

  24. Candi says:

    Actually when it comes to tomatos, canned is the healthier choice. The lycopene content of tomatos is tremendously increased when they are canned as oppossed to fresh. This actually makes them better for you.

    As for most other veggies, unless it is local, it is healthier if it is frozen.

    So because of that fact, I have joined a CSA for this coming growing season and I am looking forward to fresh, local veggies! (I would garden, but I manage to kill potted plants like ivy, YIKES!)

  25. Kim @ money for disney says:

    I’ve been doing a lot of bulk cooking with my main course meats lately (ie. marinating then freezing). I do it when I hit a big meat sale. This frees up much more of my budget for side items like good fruits and vegetables. It takes only a few minutes of prep work to get a very healthy meal. I am finding that I use very little in the way of processed foods now.

  26. AnnJo says:

    My freezer space is limited, and things like canned corn and tomatoes are staples I use in a lot of cooking. Otherwise, it’s fresh for me too(or what passes for fresh after transport) for flavor. But there is a place for canned fruits and veggies to supplement and give variety to emergency supplies.

    To second Trent on storage, if you have a cool basement or garage secure from rodents, you can store some fresh veggies for quite a long time. Last November, I bought a couple of 10 lb. boxes of yams (sweet potatoes) at Costco at 70 cents a pound (compared to store prices of .99 – 1.69 a pound), stored one in the basement and basically forgot about it until last month; there was a little loss to spoilage, but less than 10%. Russet potatoes, sweet potatoes, yellow onions, and whole winter squashes all store for at least 2-3 months and often more. Keep potatoes completely covered to prevent the light from greening them, and keep potatoes and onions well apart. When they’re on sale cheap, they are often only 1/4 – 1/3 the price of regular, and you can store plenty to carry you through until the next great sale.

  27. Kristin says:

    I really liked the link to help me figure out what fruits and vegetables are in season! Thanks for that!!

  28. Bill in Houston says:

    If you can’t find a farmer’s market (I’m in the middle of a megalopolis) I might suggest an ethnic market. They’re nearly ALWAYS cheaper than your neighborhood supermarket (mine are Kroger and a Texas chain called Randall’s). You also get an interesting variety. There is a Korean market a few miles away where the prices are half, and often more than half the prices of the local chains. We’ve found some interesting and exotic fare there. In addition they stock a lot of local favorites, too (jalapeño peppers and the like for a nearby hispanic neighborhood that is primarily Mexican). It is worth the six mile drive since it is all freeway.

  29. Amber says:

    Fresh fruit and veggies from the grocery more than likely have less nutrients than canned or frozen foods since the later are harvested and preserved immediately. Fresh is better if it is truly fresh (garden, farmer’s markets).

  30. Sarah says:

    Thanks for the seasonal produce calendar website! I’ve always wondered what was in-season when but never thought to actually look it up. Great post, if my shared RSS list was working, I would be linking to it on my site.

    Thanks! I love when you cover food ;)

  31. Michele says:

    To the person who said canned corn is better than frozen, you must try Trader Joe’s frozen sweet corn. It is absolutely to-die-for. Besides fresh corn, I can’t eat any other than TJ’s frozen.

  32. Jen says:


    I will think long and hard before buying an out-of-season tomato again.

  33. Julie says:

    liv – have had the upside down tomatoe planter for several years and will have to replant this year as the 2 year 8 month old cherry tomatoe plant i had in it died this winter. finally get to try out a pepper plant in it. would have to say i like mine and being surprised with something growing and fresh in the winter is great. good luck if you decide to try it and have fun.

  34. Britt Landon says:

    Don’t forget home-grown sprouts for an easy, inexpensive fresh veggie. You don’t need an expensive sprouter–just a quart canning jar, a towel, a piece of cheesecloth, a rubber band, some sprouting seeds, and a couple of kids who want to “give the sprouts a bath” three times a day (before or after mealtime works well). Use the sprouts raw, in soups, and in stir-fry.

  35. Jules says:

    I love our farmer’s market, but I have to say–canned tomatoes work out just as well as fresh ones.

    The supermarket vegs where I live are…uninspiring, to say the least. I usually just get staples there and head to the farmers’ market for the fresh stuff. But even there, you have to be careful. Some stalls are better than others (one guy never bothers to weigh my purchases; he just says “1 euro”).

  36. Johanna says:

    @Michele: Thanks for the tip. My most recent experience with frozen corn was Cascadian Farm (it was on sale and I had a coupon). They usually do a really good job with frozen vegetables, but I thought their corn was pretty bland. But I’ll give TJ’s a try.

  37. Yogesh says:

    Hey just a quik one, try MagisJack for your calls it is awesome…

  38. Lori says:

    CSA’s also offer an affordable way to get grocery. Fresh locally grown produce for a family of 4 for $15 a week by us.

  39. Sharon says:

    Folks, magical thinking is not the way to go for a frugal lifestyle, or any other kind of healthy lifestyle. Eating fresh, even organic food is not any kind of guarantee against illness. Our bodies are designed to die, and all the “great eating habits” and exercise in the world will not prevent disease eventually. I know many people who “ate right and exercised religiously” and still got cancer, heart disease, etc. at young ages.

    The human race has used food preservatives for tens of millenia. Why do you think that they are somehow “bad?” Without preservatives, we would have very little food available to us. We are all walking, talking, and even sometimes thinking chemical factories. The fear of “chemicals” is so irrational! Try going to the website of the American Council on Science and Health and search for “Thanksgiving menu” to see what chemicals you find in that good food. The bottom line: all these preservatives, and pesticides, etc. have led to a LONGER LIFE EXPECTANCY. Thinking of them as “poison” is completely unjustified.

    The danger here is in spending more than necessary to eat well, i.e., organic foods, and in deciding that since you are being so virtuous and “good” that you can skip that checkup. Also, when you do get sick, money thrown away on magical food will not be there for medical care.

    Try actually talking to scientists, chemists and biologists at local universities. Study some toxicology. Study it for yourself, and from legitimate sources, not the organic foods industry. Try searching for peer-reviewed, well-designed studies to see if the dough you are putting towards organic foods is actually being well spent. Basically, try thinking for yourself instead of the “greens.” You’ll be surprised at how much you know that just isn’t so.

  40. AnnJo says:

    Sharon, I completely agree with you, but having tried to make these points before, I’ve come to realize that you can’t counter religious fervor (or as you put it, magical thinking) with peer-reviewed studies. And maybe for true believers there is a placebo effect that keeps the extra money from being a total waste. After all, if people THINK they’ll feel better eating “organic” foods, they probably WILL feel better.

  41. Candi says:

    I will say for me it is not about eating organic. For me it is about taste! I have joined a CSA because the local supermarket produce tastes awful. I grew up eating fresh garden grown goodies (with pesticides on ’em) and now frankly nothing else tastes the same. I miss the flavor so I intend to get it back. If I didn’t have quite the brown thumb, I would give a home garden a go but I truely do horrible things to plants.

    Oh and to be completely fair, food is not what has extended lifespan. It is mostly childhood vaccines and the fact that women do not routinely die in childbirth anymore that have really made a difference.

  42. Sharon says:

    My point is that if we live in such a “poisoned” world that eating organic, etc. is “necessary,” it sure is interesting that life expectancy is going up, not down.

    Actually, Candi, what has really extended life expectancy mostly is basic sanitation and clean water. Everything else is gravy.

    AnnJo, I agree with the religious fervor problem. However, if perchance I can open a mind or two that hasn’t had the advantage of our education and can’t see the brainwashing going on, then it is worth a shot. Feeling better from the placebo effect is one thing; expecting to get out of life alive is quite another!

    Candi, I quite agree about eating fresh for the taste. No problem there. The only tomatoes worth eating in the winter are canned, IMHO. Sometimes the “vine ripened” are edible. Otherwise, I call them “little red decorative objects.”

  43. Nate says:

    I live outside the US in a country where people don’t like eating canned or frozen vegetables except for canned corn, fruit coctail, spaghetti sauce, and spam (YES SPAM). Frozen vegatables are almost impossible to find unless you go to Costco, an hour away, and canned foods are more expensive than the cheapest fresh ones. We end up eating alot of seasonal produce. In the summer it is cheap but in the depths of winter and early spring it takes a bite out of your wallet. I spent amost $6 on 5 tomatoes last month. And no they weren’t organic- Just tomatoes.

  44. Beth says:

    Canned veggies are VERY HIGH IN SODIUM; always choose zero sodium frozen over high sodium canned.

  45. Georgia says:

    For ways to keep your fresh produce stored longer, I have 2 tips I read and tried and they do work well.

    1) When you buy bananas in a bunch, pull the bunch apart at once for separate bananas. The article I read said that bananas in a bunch all begin to go bad when one starts going bad. They are one unit in the bunch.

    2) I am able to keep head lettuce and celery much longer now. The lettuce is the shortest lived, but still much longer than normal. When you buy either of them, bring them home, leave whole in head or stalk, wrap in a dampened paper towel, cover tightly with aluminum foil. Lettuce usually lasts 1-2 weeks (I live alone & don’t use as much) and the celery lasts at least 3 weeks and is as crisp at the end as at the beginning. I just pull off 3 pieces, slice up in 3-4″ pieces, and put in a storage container in the fridge. Try it, you’ll like it.

    Oh, and I also heard, never put a sweet potato in the fridge. It will decay.

  46. Candi says:

    Ah but if low or now sodium canned goods are not on your available price list, a frugal trick can be had. Simply pour off the existing liquid, rinse with water and refill with water to cook them. This removes between 25 and 30% of the sodium.

  47. Fresh is always best and as you point out your own garden is one of the best ways to get it affordably . . .

  48. Very useful post. I linked to it in my 30 Quick, Green and Frugal Meal Planning Resources list.


  49. Buying fresh is always a good idea, it’s a lot healthier. Thanks for the tips. Now I know where to look if I want to save money on fresh food.

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