Cate Meade is at the grocery store nearly every day — and to save money, she says it's just as important where you shop as what you buy.
Grocery shopping can be both time-consuming and expensive. On average, the primary grocery shoppers in U.S. households make 1.6 trips to the grocery store each week, according to figures from Statista. And in 2018, Americans spent 5% of their disposable personal income buying food to make at home, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
For Meade, grocery shopping is a key ingredient for her career as a private, in-home chef for six families in the Chicago area. The former finalist on the Fox reality show "MasterChef" also conducts 60- to 90-minute tours of grocery stores as part of her business, Cate's Kitchen Fit.
In addition to oft-cited advice to stick to the perimeter of the store, Meade recommends combining monthly trips to Costco with regular trips to a specialty store. "You save so much more money doing this," she says.
Here are four of her best tips for saving money on groceries.
While you can make some purchases at Costco without a membership, like prescription drugs or alcohol, you'll generally need one to buy groceries. And buying in bulk can save you money, even if it means paying a fee, like a yearly membership that costs $60 at Costco or $119 for Amazon Prime.
These stores don't require frequent trips, maybe once a month or every other month. When you do go, stock up on the essentials and on nonperishable items. On Meade's shopping list at either Costco or Amazon are foods that she uses frequently, like milk, oils, beans, and grains, or those that can be repackaged and frozen, like meats.
Costco is useful for ensuring you can always prepare a meal at home, like one of Meade's favorites: a taco bowl made from quinoa, corn, turkey, beans, and salsa. "If you know the spices that you're constantly using, like garlic, paprika, or oregano, stock up on those things," she says, "because they can form the base of a pantry so that you can make something out of nothing."
Because Meade shops for groceries so frequently, she knows how much items should cost — and when she's overpaying. Meade's job takes her to various suburbs in the Chicago area, so sometimes she prioritizes convenience over saving money, but she tries to be mindful about her spending because clients are paying for groceries in addition to her daily rate of $500.
In two different shopping trips recently, she spent $123 at a produce store versus $289 on a comparable basket at Whole Foods. "That's just one day as a cook. It can be a big difference," Meade says. "You may think, 'Oh, it's convenient and I'm here,' but it's really not, especially when you see what the competitive prices are somewhere else."
Meade recommends finding a specialty store to do the majority of your shopping. This could be an international grocery store or a produce market. Meade likes these stores because they have the same high-quality, organic foods as the bigger chains, but at a fraction of the cost.
Once there, focus on shopping the perimeter of the store and buying fruits or vegetables that are in season: "These stores save [you] a lot of money at the end of the trip. Even organic meats and seafood are less than at Whole Foods."
In addition to making healthier choices, you'll save money by making a list before you go to the grocery store. Meade recommends planning out at least one or two meals in advance to avoid impulse purchases, though she says she's gotten caught up in the moment and bought "that random cantaloupe" that ends up going to waste.
Try to plan your meals to incorporate fruits and vegetables that are in season, Meade says. You'll find better prices.
With time, you'll also realize that stores have patterns. When fresh corn is in-season, for example, frozen corn often is marked down, Meade says. "Once you get acquainted with your grocery store, you'll know what's coming on sale."
Once you have a good sense of "normal" and "sale" prices, you can make smarter buying decisions for your favorite go-to vegetables. And in that case, it can be safe, or even smart, to deviate from your list.
Meade says she always makes a trip through both the fresh and frozen vegetable sections to see if there's something worth buying that she can freeze for later. "If bananas or avocados are ever on sale, I'm buying a bunch and peeling them, putting lemon juice on them, and freezing them," she says. "They're so good in a smoothie."
Video by Jason Armesto
Most of Meade's clients want organic meats, which means this generally is the most expensive purchase in her grocery trips. One client, for example, requests a rack of lamb that costs about $120, she says.
When shopping for herself, Meade buys most of meat in bulk from Costco, then divides up the package into 1-pound portions and saves the remainder for later. She also recommends considering cuts of meat — like the tougher ones — that can help you save money but still have a lot of flavor.
Video by Jason Armesto
Finally, consider adding a couple meatless recipes to your weekly routine or going light on the meat to save money.
"If you're cooking with organic ground turkey, you can halve the portion and add beans, lentils, or chickpeas instead and it makes it so much cheaper," Meade says. "You'll get so much good protein and fiber too, it's great for completing the meal."
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