Meat, dairy, fruit: Canadian market prices are climbing across the board, pushing up grocery bills and forcing some households to find new ways to make ends meet.
Food prices rose 7.4 per cent in February from the same month a year earlier, the biggest jump in more than a decade. Beef increased a staggering 16.8 per cent, chicken was up 10.4 per cent and dairy products and eggs rose nearly seven per cent.
Soaring food prices have shone a light on rising food insecurity, prompting social justice advocates to call for stronger income supports and changes to food production and access to ensure all Canadians can afford to eat.
Yet even those with more disposable income are starting to feel the pinch from rising food costs. While some can afford higher prices, others may be struggling and looking for ways to cut costs.
Here are some tips from experts on how to save money on groceries:
Make a list: “The No. 1 way to save money is to go shopping with a list,” said Jennifer Ferguson, a registered dietitian based in Truro, N.S. “It keeps you focused and on budget,” since it minimizes impulse purchases or unnecessarily buying something you already have at home.
Cook at home: Eating out, ordering takeout or buying prepared foods adds up quickly. Experts say the best way to save money is to cook at home. It isn’t always easy: not everyone has the time, ability or space to prepare food.
“There’s a systemic change that needs to happen around food access and availability,” Ferguson said. “But I also see is a loss of food mentors and the skills to cook.” She said greater income support and education around food preparation is needed.
Meal plan: Planning ahead can help save money and reduce food waste. “People think that saving money on food starts when they walk into the grocery store,” Ferguson said. “It starts in your own house.”
Before going to the supermarket, check what food is already in your cupboard and come up with a meal plan for the week, she said.
Eat before you shop: Don’t go to the supermarket on an empty stomach. “Going into a grocery store hungry is never a good idea unless you have an iron willpower,” Ferguson said. “When you’re hungry, you will make impulse purchases.”
Consider online shopping: If you have trouble sticking to a list or tend to be an impulse shopper, experts say placing your grocery order online might be a good option.
Check the unit price: Grocery store price labels often include a unit price for the product. Food experts say it helps shoppers easily compare and contrast prices, regardless of the product size or how it’s packaged. A cereal price label, for example, includes a unit price for each 100 grams. This helps customers quickly compare the cost difference between brands.
Choose fewer processed foods: Processed foods are convenient but usually cost more than unprocessed foods, experts say. For example, a can of beans is more expensive than a bag of dried beans and shredded cheese is pricier than a block of cheese. Yet unprocessed foods require more time and know-how to prepare. “Dried beans may be cheaper but if they sit in your cupboard and you never use them, it’s a waste of money,” Ferguson said.
Increase plant-based protein: With the cost of meat on the rise, experts say one way to save money is to eat more plant-based protein like tofu, lentils and beans. “There are multiple benefits to increasing your plant protein — whether you mix it with animal protein or have it by itself,” Ferguson said. “There’s a cost savings but there’s also a health benefit to decreasing saturated fat and increasing fibre in your diet.”
Consider frozen or canned produce: With the cost of fresh fruits and vegetables on the rise, experts say shoppers should consider frozen or canned produce. Not only can it be more affordable, frozen and canned produce has a longer shelf life and thus helps prevent food waste. Still, local produce can also sometimes be less expensive when in season and helps support local farmers.
Choose generic brands: Name brands tend to cost more, and many companies are currently limiting promotions and sales due to inflation. Experts suggest now is a good time to “trade down” and try a store brand. “Some people tend to be very brand loyal, like they’ll only use Tide detergent,” said Lisa Thompson with Coupons.com. “This is a good time to try something new.”
Consider buying in bulk: Shopping at a wholesale or bulk-food store or buying larger-sized formats is one way to save money. But this usually comes with a higher upfront cost and requires more storage space. One idea is to team up with a friend, Thompson said.
“I have a friend I shop with at Costco and if we both need avocados this week we’ll split a bag,” she said. “It’s cheaper than buying them at the grocery store and also reduces food waste.”
Flyers, coupons, sales and apps: Checking weekly flyers, using coupons and keeping an eye out for sales and discounts are all good ways to save money at the grocery store. Also, apps like Flashfood allow shoppers to browse discounted groceries at nearby stores.
Reduce food waste: One of the best ways to save money on groceries is to reduce waste. Experts suggest monitoring household food waste to see what regularly gets tossed out. “We get into the habit of buying the same stuff all the time,” Thompson said. “Now is a good time to pay attention to what you throw out.”