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10 Ways to Save Money Buying Fresh Produce – Fruits & Vegetables

By Matt Breed

You know you’re supposed to strive for five servings of fruits and vegetables every day, but healthy choices aren’t always cheap. If you cut corners to save money, you’ll end up with less nutritious foods.

Don’t waste your money on watered-down, sugary alternatives to healthy foods, and don’t get stuck with a kitchen stocked with expired produce either.

Follow these steps to stretch your food budget and keep a nutritious diet without spending too much on fresh food.

Where to Buy Produce

1. Start a Home Garden
Growing you own food is challenging and rewarding, but it is not easy. First, before you decide to grow your own produce, think about how “green” your thumb is. If you’re new to gardening, start with simple seeds, like tomatoes and peas, which are resilient plants that grow in most environments. Radishes grow very quickly, and spinach is reliable too. As you expand your home garden, you’ll learn that the one characteristic you need above all is patience. You’ll need to dedicate time and energy to get a high-quality, high-quantity crop.

2. Talk to Your Friends
If you don’t have the time to maintain a healthy garden, talk to your friends. One of my good friends lives nearby and has a bountiful garden with plenty of cucumber, tomato, and peppers plants, among others. He is always more than happy to share, and in return I help him take care of his plants when he’s traveling. Most of the people I know who keep a garden of their own have more food than their family can consume, so never hesitate to ask if you can partake.

3. Shop at Farmer’s Markets
I’m ashamed to admit that until a few months ago, I had never been to a farmer’s market in my adult life. If you haven’t been to one either, visit one as soon as possible. You can even look into taking part in community supported agriculture.

Buying local produce from the people who maintain the land has many perks, like:

  • Lower prices than at a supermarket
  • Healthier, pesticide-free options, with no preservatives – great if you’re looking to eat organic on a budget
  • Support for smaller, local businesses that are more eco-friendly and keep overall prices down

If you’re unhappy with the size of the produce grown locally, remember that some of the big food companies pump their products full of hormones and other unnatural chemicals that alter the size. These bigger crops could harm your long-term health.

4. Pick Your Own
If you don’t have a farmer’s market nearby, you’re not necessarily out of local options. See if there are any farms in your area where you can pick your own fruits and vegetables. It takes less time than growing your own, of course, but you can still get better deals than at a grocery store. Plus, a trip to the farm or orchard makes a great regular outing with family or friends.

When to Buy Produce

5. Know the Season
Have you ever noticed that your favorite fruits and vegetables are considerably more expensive during different seasons? That’s because not all produce grows year-round. Getting fresh fruits and vegetables in their off-seasons requires expensive travel and shipping, and the stores pass the cost on to you as a customer. If you’re looking to save, stick to what’s in season, like apples and pears in the fall and strawberries and grapefruits in the spring.

6. Check the Date – and Time
If you know you’ll cook or eat your produce within a day of shopping, take your store or local grower up on a great deal. That way, you’ll get big discounts on fruits and vegetables that are on the brink of expiration. And at a farmer’s market, you have major bargaining power near the end of the day. If you don’t buy, growers have to transport the produce back, often to find it rotten or damaged. They’ll be happier to sell to you at a cut rate rather than take a complete loss. But never get the fruit just because you get a good deal – have a plan for it.

7. Watch for Sales
Check your store for weekly deals on certain items, and don’t stray from the sale items. Your grocer will change the fruits and vegetables on the sale list from week to week, so let their bargain buys set your fruit and vegetable menu for the week. Watch out for two traps of produce deals:

  • Sale items disappear quickly, so shop in the morning if you can
  • Deals are usually based on surplus, so chances are the items will expire soon – check the date and freshness before you buy

What Produce to Buy

8. Get It in Bulk
I don’t have kids, so when I shop I’m buying for two, which makes buying in bulk difficult, although not impossible. First, I try to find foods I can freeze as soon as I get home. Second, if I can’t freeze produce initially, I’ll cook all the vegetables, store them in separate containers, and then freeze them. The general rule of thumb when freezing produce is: The higher the water content, the less likely it is that it will freeze well. If freezing isn’t an option, find other ways to put your value pack to use. For example, you can add fruit to smoothies and desserts, or use vegetables in a soup, salad, or casserole.

9. Drink Your Juice
A glass of 100% fruit juice with your breakfast is an affordable and healthy way to kick-start the day, and it counts as one serving by itself. Don’t get tricked into unhealthy options, though. Make sure the fruit juice you buy is all natural, and check the labels so you can avoid juices with excessive sugar content.

10. Check the Freezer
Contrary to popular opinion, frozen food isn’t necessarily less nutritious than fresh produce. You can get the same benefits in a more convenient and more affordable form. Frozen vegetables tend to be cheaper than their fresh counterparts, and freezer bags make it easier for you to use only what you need when you need it. Try adding frozen vegetables to dishes like stews, casseroles, soups (e.g. Crock-Pot slow cooker recipes work great), and pasta-based recipes to make them less obvious. Canned produce is also cheaper than fresh fruit and vegetables and lasts much longer, so you don’t need to eat it right away.

Final Word

I would love to be able to grow my own fruit and vegetables, but my yard is very small and gets almost no sun, and the soil is less than rich. I try to go to a local farmer’s market at least once a week, but when I can’t, I hit up my friends who have gardens. They are usually more than willing to give me what I want, and they never charge me. The more I explore these tips and tricks, the easier it is for me to get my five servings and keep up with my savings.

How do you get your produce? How do you keep your spending down and make your purchases last? I’d love to get your insights on this topic, so please share in the comments below.

(photo credit: Shutterstock)

Matt Breed
You are looking at Matthew Breed. He is a 30 year old sports nerd who lives in North Florida with his fiancee, Sarah. Originally in school for a Business degree that did not work out due to capricious youth and irresponsibility, he is currently "getting past" his Peter Pan syndrome and attends classes for a degree in Information Technology while working full time. His care for personal finance stems from a modest upbringing with fiscally responsible parents who highly value education and frown upon frivolity.

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  • http://www.moneyinthe20s.com Dave

    Starting a garden (if you are able to) is definitely a great way to save on produce. It’s also fun! I started a garden for the first time about 4 years ago and have been hooked ever since. It saves a lot of money and is good exercise (tilling, weeding, watering, etc..).

    I completely agree that if you are new to gardening stick to some easy to grow crops such as tomatoes, beans, squash, and peas.

  • Kira Botkin

    Good point on the frozen vegetables! I have a friend who sticks peas in many of her dishes to add a veggie serving, such as pasta, since they don’t alter the taste much and picky eaters cannot get them all out. :)

  • http://doablefinance.com/ Doable Finance

    As far as frozen vegetables, you are right. They are no less nutritious. Most of the time, I buy frozen and stock up when they go on sale..

  • Run Lola Run

    Don’t forget that there are plenty of community gardens out there. One to two days a week of maintenance after the initial 1-3 hours of planting will give you amazing bounty out of a community garden. Plus they do all the watering for you! They are usually low cost ($10 or so) or free. Worth a try.

  • Sean

    I try and buy for recipes that I have planned or I risk forgetting about the produce in my drawer and it going bad. I also have read a few different articles about frozen vegetables, they are practically identical in nutrition to fresh food, and in some aspects such as Vit C… better!

    Just my two cents :)

  • Olivia

    I heard of someone putting a container garden on wheels and tracking the sun with it. That might work in your situation. We do raised beds in the one sunny area of our yard. Our soil is also quite poor. As the raised bed soil is now quite enriched and constantly being augmented (compost, natural fertilizers) , the plants can be placed closer together, thus increasing yields.

  • Matt Breed

    Thanks Olivia! That is a great idea that is definitely worth a shot.

  • Greg

    Not to be overly negative, but I’ve never seen a farmers market that didn’t charge at least 50% more than my local grocery store on almost every item they sold. And I’ve lived in six different cities, 4 of which were fairly rural. One thing that was always cheap when I lived in Iowa was corn, but that’s a given and little else was cheaper than in the super market.

    • Desiree

      Hi Greg,

      It’s true that sometimes the produce at farmer’s markets can be more expensive than what you can find in the grocery store on sale. I am a honey vendor at a farmer’s market and work 5-6 a week in three counties all summer, I can/freeze/dehydrate and cook from scratch all of our food for a family of four, and am always on the lookout for good prices, so I know of which I speak. If you’re looking at dollar alone, you can sometimes get better prices at a grocery store or bargain food outlet store, but you’ll almost always pay for it in quality and shelf life.

      I live in California where we grow crazy amounts of everything, and still, you’ll find lots of imported produce at the grocery store. The produce is picked before it’s ripe in order to withstand the rigors of shipping and the time it needs to sit in the store before it’s sold. This effects the quality and taste, and how long it’s going to last once it makes it to your crisper.

      If you’re not that concerned about taste, and to you a tomato is a tomato, AND you’re going to eat it right away, then the store is definetly the way to go. If, however, you want more taste bang for your buck and don’t want to waste money composting fruits and veggies in your crisper because they were on death’s door to begin with, you should spend a few cents more and go to a farmer’s market.

      • Providence2010

        I guess my point is, this is an article aimed at states like California (a.k.a. none of the states I’ve lived in). In Iowa it’s incredibly easy to grow almost anything that can survive the climate because of how incredibly fertile the soil was there. It just takes a little bit of time and effort in the back yard (which is probably huge enough to have a small farm). But no one bothers growing anything except soy and corn there, because it’s a waste of their time and money to do otherwise.

        Also, isn’t freezing and dehydrating another way of saying “processing”. I thought the whole point of buying organic is avoiding any sort of processing that would diminish the nutritional value of the food. When you do that to something you bought at a farmers market, you’re immediately undoing any health benefit you would’ve had over buying something cheaper.

        I am very picky about taste though, and I do recognize that farm fresh foods are way better. I tend to buy produce from the farmers market as a special reward, since it’s normally a pain to even get to the nearest one.

        I’m not sure what you mean by “If you’re looking at dollar alone, you can sometimes get better prices at a grocery store or bargain food outlet store”. I don’t know what a “bargain food outlet store” is. I actually tend to shop at nicer grocery stores because their produce is better. It’s still always cheaper than the farmers market.

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