With food costs at an all-time high, it is as important as ever to discover budget-friendly strategies to eat high quality food. While this is a relevant topic for everyone, athletes are especially in a place to benefit from such tips when we consider their overall increase in nutrient needs.
Let’s first discuss three main problems:
Food Costs: inflation rates have reached a 40-year high, and prices for groceries have risen by 13.5%, which is also a 40-year high. It's absurd; I feel like I cannot go to the grocery store without spending over hundred bucks. Furthermore, food prices have gone up disproportionately compared to all consumer goods.
Food Insecurity: this remains a big issue in the United States. Rates of food insecurity in this country are approximately 11%; and with food insufficiency, it’s about 20%. When it comes to college students and college athletes, those numbers can get up to 40%! Now I know it's very unrealistic to try to come up with solutions to fix food insecurity; I just want to bring this up because it remains a big barrier for many, and it should be factor to consider.
Lack of Nutrition Knowledge: how many of you have heard that healthy food is expensive? I personally think that is ridiculous. I think we need to redefine “healthy food”. It doesn't mean buying all these specialized products from specialized stores… it comes down to just eating a variety of whole, fresh, minimally processed foods (in the right amounts). Additionally, athletes underestimate their nutrient needs; as research consistently shows that athletes simply do not adequately fuel themselves — often due to factors related to not knowing what to do. There’s a lack of understanding of both how much to eat (quantity), and what to eat (quality).
When you combine these three problems (high food costs, food insecurity, and lack of knowledge), it can lead to: increased stress and energy deficiency; both of which can then lead to poor health and performance.
Part 1: Budget Strategies When Buying Food
Before The Store: before you even head out to get groceries, one of the biggest tips I can give you is to ask yourself, “do I even have to go to the store?” Take inventory at your home (in your fridge, freezer, and pantries), and be creative with what you already have!
Check The Sales: sounds obvious, but not enough people do this! Grocery stores are constantly putting on daily, weekly, and monthly sales. Check out the flyers as soon as you walk in the store or look at their websites for online coupons.
Download Some Apps: you can also look at some great apps to save you money. I really like these two: Ibotta, which allows you to truly get money back for simply shopping at certain stores; and Flipp, which actually determines where the best sales are based on your local area.
Multi-Purpose Ingredients: when planning your meals for the week, consider buying similar ingredients that will be used for a variety of meals.
Choose Energy-Dense Foods: as an athlete who expends a lot of calories, it is important to choose energy-dense (high calorie) foods to get the most bang for your buck. Not all calories are created equal of course, so some good examples of high-quality energy-dense foods include: avocados, nuts, seeds, whole grains, coconuts, and dairy products.
Only Buy What You’ll Eat: it is helpful to be realistic by only buying foods you know you're going to eat. I know it can be exciting to start something new, but you don’t need to go all in right away and buy a bunch of food that will just rot in the fridge.
Stick To A List: when you take 20 minutes to plan for your meals for the week, be old school and write down all the main ingredients you need and stick to it in order to limit “impulse buying.” Check out the list below for a sample grocery list for athletes. If you are getting a couple teams from each category each time you go to the store, you’re doing well.
Part 2: Grocery Game Plan to Save
Let’s dive into each grocery store section and talk about some specific ways you can same some dollars.
Shop for in-season fruits and veggies: they taste better and are almost always cheaper
Look for the sale stands: stores often have a surplus of produce that’s on sale
Avoid pre-cut produce: save a few bucks and chop those peppers yourself!
Meat, Poultry, & Seafood
Poultry is typically the most affordable: go for the chicken and turkey!
Consider store-bought rotisserie: it’s around $5.00 and will last for multiple meals
Try tough cuts of meat: cuts like chuck roast are cheap and super tasty when braised
Buy wholesale meat: research local places to buy wholesale meat; its much cheaper
Freeze sliced bread: grocery stores put nearly-expired bread on sale… but it and freeze it!
Bake your own bread: yes, this is quite the project, but it’s rewarding and more affordable
Avoid single-serving containers: buy large tubs of yogurt and cottage cheese
No need for specialty health food stores: milk should not cost you more than $5/gallon
Buy blocks of cheese: pre-shredded cheese is lower in quality and more expensive
Consider soy milk: it’s cheaper than dairy milk and may be the plant-based substitute
Fruits and vegetables: it’s the way to go for out-of-season produce
Burgers: plant-based, salmon, or beef burgers in the frozen section can be cost-effective
Choose a water filter pitcher: you better not be buying plastic water bottles still!
Sports drink powder: a cheaper alternative to bottles
Make your own coffee & tea: that trip to the coffee shop adds up!
Consider infusing water instead of canned sparkling water
Bulk Food Section
If you want to save money, you should get to know the bulk section of your local store
Shop for: grains, beans, lentils granola, nuts, seeds, flour, bran, and dried fruit
Convenient Food Aisles
Generic brands are just as good: they are often on the bottom shelf
Look at the ingredients: don’t be fooled by fancy packages or ambitious claims
Canned beans, tomatoes, & tuna: these are some healthy staples to always keep on hand
DIY stock, condiments, and sauces: it’s healthier and cheaper to make these yourself
Grocery shopping these days can be quite stressful when you look at all these record-breaking price tags. However, if you know where to look, plan carefully, and use a few of these helpful resources; there is no reason you can’t shave off $100 a month on food.
Jack O’Connor, MS, RD
Lead Performance Dietitian, Inc Nutrition
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