Best Buys in Fruits & Vegetables
When I started out on my own I didn’t understand how valuable fruits and vegetables were in a rock bottom budget. I compromised on the fruits and veggies I bought, so that I would have more money to buy meat. Produce was an afterthought. I used it to make my plate look pretty, or because I had learned about the 4-Food Groups in school and knew that one corner of my plate needed to be filled with something green. Instant mashed potatoes were probably the “vegetable” I ate most often; canned corn was probably next. That first winter that I was on my own I caught more colds, including a sinus infection, strep-throat and then the flu. I missed more school than I could afford to. I missed more work than I could afford to. Looking back, the lack of fruits and vegetables is what did me in. I was already stressed out, and not getting enough sleep, so my immune system wasn’t at peak efficiency. Then I made all of it worse by not getting enough fruit or vegetables in my diet. I certainly paid the price. I remember craving frozen broccoli like it was going out of style, and not having enough money to buy it.
Early that spring I discovered split peas and lentils so I didn’t buy any meat one month (except for bacon ends & pieces) and bought as many frozen vegetables as my freezer would hold. Then I bought fresh vegetables and fruits that keep well and 4-cans of frozen orange juice concentrate. I couldn’t believe my extravagance. I ate fruits and vegetables every single day and I felt better than I had in months.
For me it took a sad, long winter of barely making it to school or work, suffering every single day with exhaustion, sniffles, coughing that lasted almost 3-months, 4-rounds of antibiotics and a perpetually stuffy-head, for me to put 2 and 2 together. I realized that my body needs fruits and vegetables to keep going. Ever since then I’ve made fruits and vegetables a priority in my diet, and eventually my family’s diet too.
I am deadly serious when I say that we all need to eat fruits and vegetables every single day. There is no day off. There is no day that we can skate by. We really need them or we will get sick, and we will pay the price of neglecting our health.
Ideally we could all have at least 6 servings of fruits vegetables a day. When we’re rock bottom broke, that may not be a realistic goal. Under these circumstances I think it’s okay to compromise and say that as a minimum goal we should aim for 4-servings a day. This is a little less than the 5-a day that the USDA recommends. I’m trying to compromise between reality, economics and our health. This goal is really not that hard to reach in practice. In the morning have a glass of reconstituted orange juice with your breakfast. For lunch include a piece of fruit and at least one vegetable. Consider a packed lunch made up of an apple, a peanut butter sandwich, one raw carrot or 1/2-cup cooked vegetables and a thermos of milk. For dinner include at least one vegetable like broccoli or cabbage or canned greens. When you make soups or casseroles add vegetables like tomatoes, mixed veggies and peas. All 4-servings can be supplied for less than $1.25 per day. If you shop carefully you can even do it for well under $1 a day. These fruits and vegetables will keep you going when times are hardest. They’ll give your body the nutrition it needs to meet the many obligations you have every single day. The more we compromise on the number of fruits and veggies we eat, the harder it is to take care of all our responsibilities. We can make it just a little bit easier by making sure we get in our fruits and veggies.
In American supermarkets today, we have a wealth of low-cost fruits and vegetables available to us. They are available in many forms, such as fresh, frozen and canned. Some fruits and vegetables are even dried such as raisins and dehydrated potatoes. Our job, in the market, is to compare the prices of different vegetables such as cabbage and green beans, and also between different forms of those vegetables–such as canned, fresh and frozen green beans. This is no easy task, but it’s not as hard as algebra or geometry. I’ll even give you some hints and tips to help you through the process.
Keep in mind that a pound of frozen vegetables is equal to about 2 (14 or 15-ounce) cans. A (15-ounce) can of fruit is equal to about 12-ounces, or 3-pieces, of fresh fruit. A 15-ounce can holds about 1-1/2 cups of solid food.
Now we’ll start with fresh fruits and vegetables. Some of them are almost always affordable, even on the smallest budget.
When buying fruit like apples and oranges, or vegetables like carrots, potatoes and onions, look for the varieties packaged in bags. These are usually less per pound than the ones sold individually. For fruit especially, I look for bags of apples or oranges, or bunches of bananas, that have the smallest pieces of fruit. This gives me more servings per pound, and is more likely to fit my and my children’s smaller appetites. A giant orange, banana or apple is usually too much for one serving. When the only fruit I can find is all huge, I portion out half a piece as a serving. The other half can go into the fridge until I’m ready to use it up. Any brown spots, that happen because the cut fruit has been exposed to air, can be cut off before serving, or just eat the brown part. It won’t hurt you. If you really want to avoid brown spots then coat the cut portion of the apple or banana with orange juice or lemon juice or apple juice. The ascorbic acid in the juice will keep the fruit from turning brown as quickly.
Best Buys Among Fresh Fruits & Vegetables.
- Apples (3 or 5-pound bags)
- Carrots (2 or 5-pound bags)
- Greens (the variety that is cheapest varies by season)
- Iceberg Lettuce
- Onions (3-pound bags)
- Potatoes (5, 10 or 15-pound bags)
Cabbage, carrots, celery, and turnips keep very well in the fridge. Garlic, onions and potatoes will keep in the pantry if you store them in a cool place. This is an advantage because you don’t have work so hard to use them up before they deteriorate. Greens can keep for a week to 10 days if you store them carefully. Iceberg lettuce will keep well in a plastic bowl or zipper bag if you are careful to only touch it with clean hands. Break off the leaves starting from the outside and working your way down to the center. If your lettuce, especially the outer leaves, is not as crisp as you like then add a spoonful of water to the bowl or bag you keep it in. After a couple of hours in the fridge it will be crisp and ready to use.
Some fresh fruits and vegetables are affordable 3-seasons out of the year, and are very affordable during those times. For instance oranges are dirt cheap in the fall and winter. In summer though, they cost far too much for anyone on a budget. The following list includes items that are often bargains, but not always.
- Bok Choy
- Fresh Ginger
- Grapefruit (5, 8 or 10-pound bags)
- Oranges (5, 8 or 10-pound bags)
- Fresh Parsley or Cilantro
- Green Bell Peppers
- Sweet Potatoes
- Roma or Plum Tomatoes
Bok Choy, Jicama, Radishes, Rutabagas, Sweet Potatoes and Roma Tomatoes are all surprisingly good keepers. They will stay fresh and usable for at least a couple of weeks after you bring them home. Cucumbers do not keep well. Plan to use them shortly after buying them. Green peppers will keep for a week, perhaps 10 days, but they are so useful that they seldom last that long at my house. Parsley or Cilantro should be placed in a jar of water, like flowers in a vase, and kept in the refrigerator. This will extend their keeping qualities. Another idea is to chop them up and then place them on a cookie sheet in the freezer. Freeze overnight and then gather up all the pieces into a zipper bag. Keep in the freezer and use as needed in cooking.
Other fresh fruits and vegetables are affordable in their seasons. During this time they can be cheaper than even cabbage, carrots and onions. When fruits and vegetables are in season they will be advertised in the weekly fliers that most supermarkets put out. Go over the ads and plan to buy whatever produce is in season and on sale. This gives us a steady variety of fresh fruits and vegetables so we can be sure to get plenty of the vitamins and minerals we need to stay healthy and strong. Even when we are rock bottom broke, we can usually afford cabbage, carrots, celery and onions.
Frozen vegetables have a few advantages over fresh. For one, they are already prepared. That is, any peeling, stringing, shelling, pitting and chopping has already been done for us. We only pay for edible food when we buy frozen vegetables. It’s like having a prep-chef in our kitchens, to do all of the work for us. If you need time-savers in your kitchen, then frozen vegetables are one of the most convenient and the most affordable.
Frozen vegetables are just as nutritious as fresh vegetables. Sometimes more so. Most of the fresh vegetables we buy from the market are already several days old. They spend time in transport before they come to our market and then to our table. Nutrients diminish each day after the one they were picked. Frozen vegetables are often harvested, processed and frozen on the same day. They retain more nutrients this way.
It’s important that we only buy frozen vegetables that are unseasoned and plain. Vegetables that are frozen in sauces or with rice or pasta are not a good deal. It is much cheaper to mix our own vegetables with a homemade sauce or with your own leftover rice or pasta than to buy them frozen. Another advantage of frozen vegetables is that they don’t go bad if we don’t use them up in a timely manner. Frozen vegetables will keep in the freezer for many months before they get freezer burn. Even then they can be used in spicy stews or soups, where the flavor of freezer burn can be diminished with spices.
Frozen vegetables in bags are more convenient for small families and singles than vegetables frozen in boxes. With a bag of vegetables you can simply pour out the amount you need, then close the open bag with a twist-tie and return it to the freezer. Large bags of frozen vegetables usually cost less per pound than smaller bags. Since there’s no waste, they can be a good buy even for small families. Some stores offer a value brand or generic version of certain common vegetables. It’s usually the best buy. Otherwise look for store brands. Check unit prices to be sure.
Frozen fruits are delicious, but they are usually not as affordable as fresh fruit in season. If you need strawberries in winter though, large bags of frozen strawberries can be almost as cheap as fresh strawberries in season. There are also large bags of frozen berries and mixed fruits. These are usually not as economical as strawberries, but if you have extra money to spend, they can be a reasonable choice.
The best buy among frozen fruits is frozen concentrated fruit juice. It’s a convenience food of the highest order, saving us the trouble of juicing oranges or apples ourselves. Granted it doesn’t taste as good as fresh squeezed, but it certainly saves a great deal of work. Frozen juice concentrate is almost always cheaper than bottled or refrigerated juice. Most bottled and refrigerated juice is made from concentrate. Just read the label on your favorites. At the market, be sure to read the label on frozen fruit juice concentrate. Sometimes they are not made of 100% fruit juice. If you see words like “drink” or “cocktail” then you are not buying 100% juice. Since you’re shelling out the cash for it either way, you might as well actually get what you’re paying for. Look for 100% juice on the label.
Best Buys Among Frozen Fruits & Vegetables.
- Green Beans
- Mixed Vegetables
- Apple Juice Concentrate
- Grape Juice Concentrate
- Grapefruit Juice Concentrate
- Orange Juice Concentrate
Other frozen vegetables are affordable in some stores, but not in others. The following list is of items that might be affordable in your area, but it’s not guaranteed.
- Brussels Sprouts
- Corn on the Cob
- Green Peppers
- Greens (Collards, Kale etc)
- Peas & Carrots
- Stir-Fry Veggies
Next we’re going to look at canned fruits and vegetables. The main advantages of canned vegetables is that they are affordable, don’t take much time to prepare and they keep on the pantry shelf for at least a couple of years. Canned vegetables do not taste as good as fresh or frozen vegetables. If you don’t like vegetables there is a high likelihood that it’s because you’ve only eaten canned vegetables. If they are the only vegetables you ever eat then you’re probably not enjoying them as much as you could. On the plus side, the process of canning fruits and vegetables rids them of up to 95% of any pesticide residue. Nutritionally speaking they are sometimes a little less nutritious than fresh, but sometimes more nutritious. Some canned vegetables such as canned pumpkin, corn and tomatoes have antioxidants that are easier for our bodies to access because of the heating process. Other nutrients like vitamin C and folate can be reduced by the canning process. (See article at EatingWell.com.) Most experts agree that canned foods are wholesome and nutritious. Since they are also quite affordable it’s practical to include them in a rock bottom broke budget.
When buying canned fruits and vegetables, it’s best to look for items that do not have any added salt or sugar. At one of my local markets the store brand version of most vegetables is available in either a salted, or unsalted variety. I always choose the unsalted if I have the option. Fruits can be found canned in their own juice, without any sugar, or in light syrup or heavy syrup. Syrup means sugar. Fruits canned in water or juice without any added sugar are best. Fruit canned in light syrup is better than fruit canned in heavy syrup. Fruit canned in heavy syrup is better than no fruit at all.
The canning liquid in fruits and vegetables if full of nutrients. It may be consumed with the fruit itself, or drained off and saved in the fridge. Vegetable juices can be added to soups and sauces. If you make your own chicken broth, then add the canning liquid to the chicken while you boil it. It will add flavor and nutrients. Fruit canning liquid can be added to iced tea or fruit juice or other drinks. I often use the juice from a can of fruit to simply flavor a pitcher of water. It makes the water taste good and makes sure that we don’t waste any of the good nutrients in the juice. The juice from canned fruit can also be used in baking, especially sweet foods such as muffins, cake or even frosting
Best Buys Among Canned Fruits And Vegetables
- Applesauce, unsweetened, large jar
- Fruit Cocktail
- Bottled Lemon Juice
- Creamed Corn
- Green Beans
- Greens (Collards, Mustard, Turnip etc.)
- Spaghetti Sauce
- Sweet Potatoes
- Tomato Paste
- Tomato Sauce
The following items are sometimes a good buy and sometimes not. They add variety to your diet, but may not be worth the extra cost to you.Compare prices to determine where they belong in your budget. If you’re pinching every penny, they may not be an option.
- Mandarin Oranges
- Mixed Tropical Fruit
- Mushrooms Stems & Pieces
- Green Chili Peppers
- Chipotle Peppers in Adobo Sauce
- Tomatoes with Green Chiles
Canned vegetables are often part of food packages from food banks and church donations. Always accept them, even if it’s something you’re not familiar with. Look up how to prepare it on the internet and give it a try. You just may find a new favorite. If there are certain canned vegetables you don’t like, don’t write them off completely. Try the same vegetable in other forms, such as fresh or frozen. For instance, I am not especially fond of canned peas, but frozen peas are a big favorite of mine. You may find that fresh or frozen versions of your nemesis turn out to be delicious.
Dried fruits and vegetables are the last items on our list. Dried fruits are generally more common in most markets than dried vegetables. The only dried vegetable I know of that is consistently less per serving than fresh is Instant Mashed Potatoes. I consider it more of a starch than a vegetable, but some may argue that point with me. Among dried fruits there are only a few that are consistently reasonable.
Best Buys In Dried Fruits & Vegetables
- Instant Mashed Potatoes
- Dried Onions
These next items are sometimes a good buy, but you really have to compare prices and make your own choices.
- Scalloped or Au Gratin Potatoes
- Dried Apples
- Dry Cranberries (Craisins)
- Dried Bananas
No matter which fruits and vegetables you choose, you’ll get better deals if you remember to compare prices between fresh, frozen, and canned options. Nutritionists remind us to try to get a serving of tomatoes or citrus fruit every day. In addition we should emphasize dark green and leafy vegetables such as broccoli, spinach and greens; and also orange vegetables such as carrots, pumpkin and sweet potatoes. Other vegetables are good too. If you have a choice though, make sure you get orange and dark green ones whenever you can. They’re filled with vitamins and minerals which we sometimes don’t get enough of, especially when we’re eating on the cheap.
For more information see the goverment’s website Fruits & Veggies More Matters.
Thanks – some really good, useful information here.
Thanks, 🙂 That’s exactly what I was hoping for 🙂
Thanks for another great post! We actually eat tons of fresh fruit & veggies (mostly veggies) 3 seasons a year because I find it’s among the best bang for our buck. A bag of apples will have 10 or more apples in it – 10 snacks. It costs the same as 2 or 3 bags of chips. I’m not getting 10 filling servings of chips from those bags!
I find people often complain about the high cost of fruit and veggies, but I actually find it’s one of the least expensive categories on my weekly list. When I’m down to my last $20, we buy bread, PB & veggies (because we usually have staples like dried beans, rice & pasta already in the pantry)! It’s the processed food and animal products (meat, dairy, etc) that kills us.
The trick, like you say, is to buy in season – I’m not paying 3.99/lb for mushy grapes from Chile in January, no matter how much my kids beg! They can gorge on them in the summer when they’re a fraction of that price, and they appreciate it more because they become a treat. Salad greens are expensive and yucky in February, but coleslaw from cabbage will usually fit the raw veg craving, as will sliced carrots, etc. We also sprout stuff though the winter, and it helps tremendously fill that fresh veg void.
I could not agree more CJ. I buy lots of fruits and veggies these days, more than I used to when the boys were young, and we eat a lot better because of it. Like you, I have learned that the processed foods and animal products cost a lot more than they’re worth, at least on a tight budget. Right now I spend about $150 a week, and the only reason my bill is so high is because I buy meat for my hubby and youngest son. They love to have meat every day, and it makes our grocery bill a lot higher than it would be otherwise. If it were up to me we’d have fish a couple of times a week and then go meatless the rest of the time.
Love your tip about winter salads too. One of these days I hope to write an article just about winter salads because they are so affordable and taste so good when all the salad greens in the market are poor quality and overpriced.
Also, Doh! I forgot sprouts. I may go back and write it in. I make sprouts from late fall to early spring and we eat them almost every day. They make a huge difference in the grocery bill and I don’t know what it is about them, but they always make me feel like I’ve had a spring tonic, they’re just bursting with vitamins!