When to Splurge—and When to Save—at the Grocery Store
According to a registered dietitian, throwing a few extra dollars at these foods will buy you better quality (plus, a few products that aren't worth the higher price tag).
We've all been there: You're standing in the supermarket, staring at a seemingly endless array of nut butters (or breakfast cereals, bottles of olive oil, or chocolate bars—you get it), all of which come at very different price points. The temptation to splurge on ~the good stuff~ takes hold, right until you realize that you can buy three bottles of the store brand's olive oil for half the price of the fresher, fancier one. If I settle for the more affordable option, does that mean it'll be filled with funky additives or taste like tire fluid?
Here to conquer your purchasing decision parallax is Samantha Cassetty, MS, RD. These are the foods she says are worth spending extra on—flavor, sustainability, and heath-wise—and those you don't ever need to shell out for.
4 Splurge-Worthy Foods
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
According to Cassetty, a quality extra virgin olive oil is worth the splurge because it hasn’t undergone extensive processing. “This means it has all of the properties that make olive oil special, like anti-inflammatory and polyphenol compounds,” she says. “These are antioxidants that reduce the risk of health problems by repairing free radical cell damage. They also get broken down into food for the beneficial bacteria in your gut. Extra virgin olive oil is packed with these healthy compounds, so they’re still present and beneficial even when diminished through cooking.” Another benefit is that a quality extra virgin olive oil has a distinct flavor, so using a good oil makes other healthy food, like veggies, taste even better. Be sure to look for 'extra virgin' on the label, which distinguishes the healthier oil from more processed olive oil.
Name Brand Plant-Based Milk
If you’re opting for plant-based milk options, always compare labels. “When I’ve looked at labels for store-brand plant-based milks, they often lack the amount of calcium and other important nutrients that the name brand varieties supply,” Cassetty explains. “Most people don’t get the calcium needed to optimize bone health, so in this case, the price savings isn’t a worthy trade-off.”
It’s definitely worth it to spend money for the quality, taste, and nutritional benefits you get when choosing grass-fed and pasture-raised beef and lamb. “I always look for New Zealand grass-fed beef and lamb because it is humanely raised and the animals graze freely on open pastures 365 days a year, ensuring the healthiest and most naturally flavorful meat you can find.” From a nutritional standpoint, Cassetty points out that grass-fed red meat also has a higher vitamin A and E content and a more favorable fat profile compared to other red meats. “It’s lower in total fat and has more omega-3s and a healthier omega-3 to omega-6 ratio than grain-fed meat. When your omegas are unfavorably balanced, it can result in inflammation that’s tied to heart disease, diabetes, and other health problems. Quality red meat has other nutrients as well, including iron, zinc, protein, and vitamin B12, which are all key factors when it comes to overall immunity, energy levels, focus and performance.” Spending more money on the best quality grass-fed beef and lamb—and eating meat as part of a flexitarian lifestyle that also includes lots of plant foods—benefits your health, which saves you money in the long run.
According to Cassetty, when you splurge on organic milk, you’re getting a better nutritional package with more antioxidants and beneficial omega-3 fatty acids. Plus, the farming practices utilized in organic milk production restrict the use of antibiotics that contribute to public health problems. “One study that sampled both conventional and organic milks bought at retail stores found that 60 percent of conventional milk contained antibiotic residues. Pesticide residues were found in 59 percent of the conventional milk samples, yet the organic milk didn’t contain either. I feel better splurging on organic milk, knowing it’s an easy way to avoid these contaminants,” she says.
4 Foods to Save On
Studies show that walnut-eaters have more nutritious diets, with higher levels of calcium, magnesium, and omega-3 fatty acids. To manage your budget, buy them in bulk and then store a month's worth in your fridge and the rest in your freezer for later use. This is a much more cost-effective way to eat walnuts compared to buying smaller packages that tend to be pricier.
Frozen and Canned Seafood
“The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend eating at least two servings of seafood each week for the omega-3 fatty acids it supplies,” Cassetty says. “If fresh seafood feels like a budget stretch, canned and frozen versions are lower-cost options that still deliver the nutritional value.” Plus, the reality is that much of the seafood you see at the fish counter has been pre-frozen and thawed, so frozen fish is the way to go if you’re looking to save. In either case, buy sustainable seafood from a well-managed fishery, which you can do on a budget using these tactics.
Store Brand Pantry Staples
Another way to go for saving money is buying the store brand for staple products like canned beans, oats, and other grains. “You’re getting the same nutrition, but at a savings, so there’s really no downside!”
Organic Frozen Produce
Trade out pricier pre-washed and cut produce for organic frozen fruits and veggies. The cost difference between organic frozen fruits and veggies and conventional ones is usually minimal, so even when spending more for organic, you’re still in a budget-friendly zone. Plus, according to Cassetty, there’s no nutritional trade off. “I stock up on frozen organic broccoli, green beans, cherries, blueberries, spinach, and riced cauliflower. They’re just as convenient and you can use them in many of the same ways. I regularly roast frozen broccoli and I use frozen fruit in my yogurt,” Cassetty says.