PROMO Food - Grocery Shopping Cart Basket - iStock - Sergei Gnatiuk

Stretch Your Food Dollar: Strategies to Shop Smart and Fill Your Cart

© iStock - Sergei Gnatiuk

With rapid changes and uncertainty brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, people are making changes about the way they spend their money. Whether this is a forced change due to a loss of a job, a decision made because of fear about over-spending during uncertain times, or simply just a decision to save money, thoughtful consideration about spending is important. Spending money on food is no exception. Food is essential, and understanding how to make the most of your food dollar can help fill your cart while not overspending. Purchasing foods that are not only affordable, but also healthy, is important during a pandemic when immunity is key.  

With a little planning and strategy, shoppers can stretch their food dollar and get the most bang for their buck. Shoppers can consider the following steps to get started. 


First, know your budget.  Determine how much you have to spend on food each week, and work from that. Given changes in your life, you may find that you are working with a budget that is lower than you are used to. 

Plan Your Weekly Meals: 

Planning for and shopping every seven to ten days is a good option. This avoids visiting the grocery store too frequently during the time of social distancing, but also avoids going less frequently, which may lead to purchasing too much food and potential waste. Think about meals or recipes with enough servings for multiple meals. This can reduce the number of ingredients you need to buy, and save you time preparing another meal. Using a meal plan worksheet can help with planning. 

Take Inventory of What You Have and Make a Grocery List:

Refer to your written meal plan and recipes to make a grocery list. Before adding everything to your grocery list, look in your cabinets, refrigerator, and freezer to see what you already have. Make note of what you have on hand, as you will not need to add this to your grocery list. 

Shop Smart:

Before shopping, read the sales flyers for your grocery store and gather coupons, but use only for items that you need and know you will use. Inquire about joining a store’s loyalty program to take advantage of additional sales for members. Joining these programs is free. 

Read the expiration date on packaged foods and choose those with the latest expiration date, so they last longer. 

When buying fruits and vegetables, choose in-season produce when able. Items in season are often on sale and less expensive. A seasonal produce guide may provide more guidance. Consider canned and frozen fruits and vegetables. These products are just as nutritious as fresh, often cost less, and store longer. Choose fruit canned in 100% fruit juice and vegetables with “low-sodium” or “no salt added” on the label. 

Canned or dried beans and lentils; canned fish like tuna, salmon, and sardines; and eggs are all low-cost and healthy protein foods. Whole grain pastas, brown rice, corn meal, and whole oats are all budget- friendly whole grains. Check ingredient lists and pick the items that have a whole grain listed first.

Choose low- fat or fat-free milk. They provide just as much calcium, but fewer calories than whole and 2% milk. If you enjoy yogurt, buy the larger size of low-fat plain yogurt instead of individual flavored yogurt. Then add your own flavors by mixing in fruits. Not only does it cost less, but also eliminates added sugars. 

Understand Prices Before Purchasing:

Understanding the price tag on the grocery shelf can help you save money. The price you pay for an item is called the retail priceand the price an item costs per pound, ounce, quart, etc. is called the unit price. The unit price is helpful in comparing two items. The unit price is next to the retail price, highlighted in a yellow or red box. Look at this price to compare two items and see which is a better deal and for which you are getting more for your money. 

With a little planning and strategy, shoppers can stretch their food dollar to get the most for their money. 

If you are in need of food assistance, contact your local Human Services Department, or visit the links below: 

Colorado Department of Human Services:

The Colorado Program Eligibility and Application Kit (Colorado PEAK):