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Harvard Commentaries
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Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

Food for Thought Food for Thought

Best Bargain Bites

August 28, 2012

By Susanne Wakerly, B.S., M.S.
Brigham and Women's Hospital

Have you ever considered food shopping as a place to trim spending? With a few small changes, you may find savings that brighten your day instead of lighten your wallet. Here's a look at some of the best bargain bites around.

Make Your Own

Many prepared meals are pricier because the work is done for you. But if you have a few extra minutes to prepare your own food at home, you'll gradually save a bundle. For example:

  • Buy fruits and vegetables whole instead of pre-cut.
  • Pack lunch in a reusable container. Whether it's peanut butter and jelly on whole wheat or last night's leftovers, it's likely to be less costly than a fast food combo meal or deluxe deli sandwich.
  • Brew your own coffee at home and carry it in a travel mug.
  • Be wary of "light" juices. Often, they are just half regular juice and half water. Instead, buy a bottle of regular juice and mix it with your own water. You'll end up with twice as much homemade light juice for the same price.
  • Create healthier, cheaper versions your fast-food favorites at home. A Russet or sweet potato can turn into delicious home-baked French fries for as little as $.75 per medium potato. Lightly drizzle fry-cut potato slices with canola oil and bake at 400°F for 15 minutes on each side.
  • Spend half as much on pizza and pasta sauce by picking up a can of plain tomato sauce and tossing in some Italian herbs and black pepper to taste.

Some of these ideas may require an initial investment, such as a coffee machine or cutting board. Choose what works for you. Keep in mind, often savings add up over time.

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Cash Savers

You don't have to change your entire lifestyle overnight. Take advantage of these small ways to save big:

  • Choose fruits and veggies that are in season, when they're cheaper. has an interactive tool to help you find out what's in season in your area.
  • Look into wholesale clubs, like BJ's or Costco, where you can buy healthy foods you eat often in bulk. Don't be tempted, though, to buy high-fat, high-sugar foods in bulk. Instead, savor those items as occasional treats.
  • Turn your coin stash into a grocery cash voucher by using a local Coinstar coin counting machine. Check your local grocery store for a Coinstar machine or locate one near you at
  • Splurging on a dinner out? Save half of your dinner for lunch the next day — your waistline and your wallet will thank you.
  • At the store, keep an eye on the unit price of different brands and products. The unit price is the other number on the price label. It shows how much you are paying per ounce, per pound, and so forth. For example, baby carrots are a convenient buy, but they cost $.60 more per pound than whole carrots.
  • Many supermarkets send out coupon booklets or promotion flyers in the mail. You can pick one up in the store if you don't get them at home.

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Smart Substitutions

Sometimes, a swap here and there is enough to save some cash without compromising on the flavors you crave. Try these smart substitutions:

  • Make friends with the store brands. They often taste just the same but cost less.
  • A few times a week, turn your favorite meat dish into a vegetarian one. A 1-pound can of beans is often less than a dollar and makes a hearty substitute for meat in tacos, curries, pasta and more.
  • Save money with your beverage choices. Before reaching for a bottle of water, consider this: While a daily $1.00 bottle of water adds up to $365.00 over a year, tap water is free!
  • Want to enjoy the variety of a restaurant menu without the hefty bills? Suggest monthly potlucks with a group of friends. Rotate locations so no one person is always stuck with clean-up.

These changes are just suggestions. Feel free to use the ones that work for you. Prioritize your purchases and decide what you can and cannot sacrifice. Does slicing a pineapple give you a headache? Grab the pre-sliced pineapple and save on store brand cereal instead. No matter what you choose, simple changes here and there can lighten the financial load in the long run.

Susanne Wakerly, B.S., M.S. is a dietetic intern at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, MA. She is a graduate of Cornell University's College of Engineering and completed her master's degree in Nutrition Communication at Tufts University.

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