Do you frequently head to the supermarket for "just a few items"—but end up leaving with the better part of your paycheck spent?
It doesn't have to be this way.
Since spring is traditionally prime time for deep cleaning and decluttering at home, why not also do some spring cleaning when it comes to your grocery shopping habits?
The goal: Buy only what you need — no filling your pantry with items that will just collect dust, or your fridge with foods that will spoil before you eat them — and save some significant green in the process.
To help you with this seasonal mission, we rounded up food experts across the country to divulge their top tips for cleaning up your grocery-buying act.
Tip #1: Skip scouring the circular.
Those "buy two, get two free" and "10 for $10" deals can certainly be enticing, but they're only a steal if you really need what's on sale.
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"Using a circular will very likely lead you to buy things you wouldn't otherwise buy, and possibly more than you would otherwise buy," says Aner Tal, Ph.D., a researcher at Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab.
This is particularly problematic if you're not good at managing a stock of supplies — and actually using them at some point in the not-too-distant future. Otherwise, you could end up with a lot of waste.
Tal's better habit advice: Stick to your list. "Use it to bind yourself to the mast, like Ulysses," he says. "If you really stick to the list, all those temptations won’t make a difference — like 'losing out' on the sale."
Tip #2: Grab a cart, not a basket.
Yes, a cart is bigger, which means you'll probably buy more items in a given trip — but over time, you'll spend less.
Research published in the Journal of Marketing Research found that the act of flexing your arm to hold a basket makes you more likely to purchase unnecessary extras because they seem convenient — things like candy and other "vice" items that are strategically placed near the cashier.
Because you're so eager to put that basket down and get out of the store, you're more apt to focus on instant gratification than long-term goals. As a result, you make more repeat trips to the store to get what you need — and end up spending more moola in the process.
Tip #3: Recalibrate your coupon strategy.
Think coupons are available only for packaged items? It turns out that several produce companies are now offering them as well.
"You can find coupons for fresh fruits and vegetables on some major produce company websites or in their e-mails and e-newsletters," says Jackie Newgent, R.D.N., a chef, nutritionist and author of "The With or Without Meat Cookbook."
Tip #4: Stock up on plenty of "C" veggies.
Carrots, cabbage and collard greens are some of the least expensive fresh vegetables — and they're also some of the most nutritious, says Keith-Thomas Ayoob, Ed.D., R.D., a registered dietitian and associate clinical professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
"Carrots can be prepared in tons of ways — just roast them and throw different herbs on them each time," he says.
And while your family might claim not to like cabbage, says Ayoob, it can be a crowd-pleaser when used as a main ingredient in moo shu chicken and pork, so shred it very thin and flavor it with garlic, soy sauce and plum sauce.
As for collard greens, they're easy to prepare — you can steam them and toss with lemon juice, garlic and olive oil — and many stores carry them year-round.
Tip #5: Skip shopping while hungry — or sleepy.
Research published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that people who shop while hungry are more apt to splurge on impulse purchases — and this behavior isn't just limited to food items.
Meanwhile, a study from JAMA Internal Medicine proves what you already suspected, which is that junk food looks all the more appealing when your tummy is rumbling.
Research led by Tal found that people who shopped between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. (read: hungry before dinner) bought more high-calorie items than those who hit the store earlier in the afternoon, when they were likely to be full from lunch.
Tal also cautions against shopping while tired, so don't hit the store during the late-night hours or during your afternoon slump. "You'll have less cognitive resources," Tal says, "and be more susceptible to impulse shopping."
"Consider buying citrus fruit, sweet potatoes and squash during football season, and berries and tomatoes during baseball season."
Tip #6: Shop seasonally.
Whether you're in the grocery store's produce section or heading to a farmer's market, you'll find the best deals on what's currently in season.
"Consider buying citrus fruit, sweet potatoes and squash during football season, and berries and tomatoes during baseball season," says Sonya Angelone, R.D.N., a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
If you like to frequent farmers markets, it may also help to visit toward the end of the day, when the sellers are more eager to part with their goods, adds Newgent.
Another idea: Try hitting up a few different markets in your area — Newgent says you'll likely find better deals in less expensive neighborhoods.
Tip #7: Scan your eyes up and down.
"Beware of eye-level shopping," Newgent says, because stores frequently put the priciest foods where you can easily spot them. (And why wouldn't they?)
Better values of similar products can often be found on higher or lower shelves, so be sure to do a proper visual sweep for the item you're looking to buy.
Tip #8: Scrap the "shop the perimeter" rule.
You may have heard that the store's perimeter is where all the healthy stuff is, since that's typically where the fresh food is located. But there are plenty of foods that are good for you (and your wallet!) to be found within the depths of the store.
"Some of the best healthy bargains — such as canned or dried beans, whole wheat pasta, quinoa, brown rice and whole wheat couscous — live in the inner aisles," says nutritionist Karen Ansel, R.D.N.
She also recommends a stop in the frozen foods aisle, since many frozen veggies are cheaper than their fresh counterparts — and can be even more nutritious.
Check the unit price per pound, but you can generally expect out-of-season produce — such as Brussels sprouts in the summer, and berries in the winter — to be more affordable in the frozen aisle.
"They're frozen right after they're harvested, so they retain more of their nutrients," explains Ansel. Plus, they rarely go bad, so there's less waste.