A diet of fresh fruits and vegetables needn't eat up your budget

Question for the CreditCards.com expert

Dear New Frugal You,
We've been trying to eat healthier -- more fresh fruits and veggies. But I'm beginning to think that our old junk food diet was easier on the budget. Can you give me some advice on how to buy fresh fruits and vegetables for less? -- Kendra


Answer for the CreditCards.com expert

Dear Kendra,
Eating healthier is always a good frugal choice! And, making sure your family gets enough fresh fruits and vegetables is a big part of any healthy diet. 

But, as you've found out, shopping for fresh produce takes some skill if you're not going to bust your food budget. So let's look at some tools you can use to reduce the cost of fruits and veggies. 

Buy in season
A key element is to shop in season. Modern global food distribution means that you can buy almost any fruit or vegetable throughout the year. But it costs money to pack and ship fruit from around the globe. Naturally, you pay for that.

Before worldwide shipping became the norm, we ate seasonally. There was a time of year when strawberries or tomatoes were ripe and came to market. And because they were grown locally or regionally and the supply was abundant, prices were lower. 

You can still do that today. When domestic corn on the cob comes to market, have it frequently. Don't worry about your family complaining. After waiting nearly a year they won't mind it showing up often for three or four weeks.

Don't over-buy
The next big secret to reducing the costs of fruits and veggies is to only buy what you will use. We've all bought produce only to see it overripen before it was eaten. I've read estimates that up to 30 percent of the food we buy doesn't get eaten!

So don't buy produce just because it looks good. Have a specific use in mind for everything you buy. And, don't buy anything that won't make your planned use date.

Beyond the basics
Those two simple concepts -- buy in season and don't buy more than you'll use -- will get you most of the way to frugally adding fresh produce to your diet. If you want to go further, here are six more-advanced tips that take a little more effort, but are worth the time.

  • Spend a little time researching how to store your produce. There are a number of ways to increase the shelf life. Some items do better in sealed bags or containers. Others do not.
  • Also learn which fruits and veggies can be frozen or canned. For generations, people have used both techniques to allow them to enjoy off-season produce. You can use the same tools to allow you to buy when prices are low and enjoy year-round.Canning is not nearly as hard as you might think. You can find videos online that will walk you through the process or find an experienced canner to teach you.
  • Don't overlook local farmers markets. Many offer high quality, local produce at low prices. You'll also find reasonably priced organic fruits and veggies. It could take a little research to find them since some are only open one or two days a week and they're often outside of town.
  • Ask your produce manager about slightly damaged items. They want their displays to only show perfect produce, so damaged items get set aside. Many produce managers are happy to sell them to you for a greatly reduced price.
  • Consider planting a garden. Even apartment dwellers can have a small, container garden. Many common veggies are easy to grow. And gardeners will tell you there's nothing like eating produce that you grew yourself. If you do garden, make friends with other local gardeners. They may be happy to trade some potatoes for those beautiful cucumbers that you've grown.
  • Finally, check out local co-ops. Membership will provide you with a basket of fresh produce on a regular schedule. An Internet search will turn up any in your area that are accepting new members.

The bottom line? Feeding your family fresh fruits and vegetables doesn't need to rot your budget. It's just a matter of learning to use a few new frugal tools.

See related: MM-mmm, cheap: Finding inexpensive food, recipes

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Updated: 12-19-2018