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Christine Skopec/ MEDILL

A trip through the grocery store with a budget of $40.

Groceries on a budget: a week of healthy food for $40

by Christine Skopec
Apr 17, 2014


Christine Skopec/ MEDILL

It's still possible to make tasty meals, like a stir fried chicken and veggies, on a tight budget.

Shopping List

Apples, carrots, green beans, cabbage, parsley, cilantro, snow peas, bananas, lime, lemon, red bell pepper, sweet potatoes, onion, jalapeno


Eggs, milk, cheddar cheese

Corn tortillas, canned tomatoes, canned chicken stock, pasta, brown sugar, soy sauce, apple cider vinegar

Oats, pinto beans, brown rice, raisins, chili powder, cinnamon


Total Cost: $38.80

Budget-conscious shoppers do not have to sacrifice nutrition in order to save a buck at the grocery store because it is possible to get a week’s worth of healthy groceries for $40 or less.

Oneika Mays, a yoga instructor in Jersey City, N.J., participated in a three-week challenge to prove to her friends that a budget of less than $40 was enough to cover her weekly groceries by planning ahead, keeping an eye out for sales and being willing to shop at more than one location.

“Buying all of your food in one place is convenient, but that doesn’t equate with cost effective,” Mays said. She spreads her food budget over the regular grocery store, farmers markets and ethnic food stores in order to get the best prices.

It’s tempting to eat out after a long day at work but restaurant meals lead to compromises on cost or health. Fast food is quick, but not very healthy while nutritious meals from more upscale restaurants will blow the budget.

“You have to cook,” said Amari Thomsen, a Chicago dietitian. She recommends buying grains, beans and even seasonings from the bulk aisles. “Things like spices are dirt cheap in the bulk aisles,” she said.

It can be easy to get lost in the center aisles full of ready-to-eat products and even entire meals that need only to be reheated, but avoiding processed foods is a must for staying on budget.

“Focus on the perimeter aisles of the grocery store,” said Dan McCullough, a Chicago writer and chef with 17 years of experience working in kitchens. He explained that the layout of the grocery store puts the unprocessed foods like meats, dairy and produce along the outside of the store while the processed foods rule the center.

While harsh temperatures prevent many from gardening during the winter, the spring and summer months provide excellent opportunities for people to save money by growing their own produce.

“We grow our own foods organically,” McCullough said. He added, “The initial investment is almost nothing, really.”

While many prefer to buy organic food to avoid pesticides, the products are more expensive.  Thomsen suggests people focus on the dirty dozen, a list of 12 fruits and vegetables that contain the highest amount of pesticide residues, which includes strawberries and lettuce.

For adults with families, the shopping experience can be a lot more daunting than for single people. Megan Hickman is a stay-at-home mother of one with another baby on the way and she insists that organization is crucial.

“I like to plan out what we are going to eat for every meal, that way I know exactly what I need to get,” Hickman said.

In order to save the most, Hickman encourages people to pay attention to how the store orders and cycles out the most expensive products.

“Find out what day the grocery store marks down meat and go that day,” she said.
Thomsen recommends taking a closer look at the specific cuts of meat in order to make the most cost-effective decision.

“Don’t buy the grass-fed steak, but the grass-fed ground beef,” she said.
While most people eat animal protein as a main component in their meals, Thomsen, McCullough and Mays all agree that one of the best ways to reduce food expense is to eat more vegetarian protein from beans, dairy, lentils and quinoa.

“Incorporating a routine like Meatless Monday can cut down on food costs,” Mays said.

That doesn’t mean that die-hard meat lovers have to give up their favorite foods. Hickman regularly incorporates meat into her meals by sticking to her menu plan and keeping an eye out for deals.

“I went grocery shopping yesterday and bought a week’s worth of groceries for $57,” said Hickman.