Grocery Shopping at Whole Foods (without breaking the bank)

October 19, 2013


Once upon a time, not all that long ago, I used to go into Whole Foods strictly to browse or pick up a specialty item for a recipe I was making. I would look at all the people doing their weekly grocery shopping, carts piled high, and wondering how on earth they could afford to shop exclusively at Whole Foods. I wondered what types of jobs they had that afforded them the luxury of shopping at the mecca of natural and organic items, sure that people on a budget, like me, could never swing such a thing.

Until one week, I decided to treat myself and give shopping at Whole Foods a try, just for a week and nothing more. I didn’t go crazy and still paid attention to value, but I was totally shocked when my purchases only ended up being a little bit more than my weekly trip to Target. If, without even trying, I could only spend about $20 dollars more, I figured that with a little bit of planning, I could shop at Whole Foods every week and still stick within our grocery and food budget for the month.

For the past month and a half, Joe and I have been (almost) exclusively shopping at Whole Foods for our groceries each week, and sticking to a budget all the while. I’ve always thought that eating as much organic and non GMO produce is important, but recently I felt the pull to put my money where my mouth was. Don’t get me wrong, we aren’t sticklers about it by any means, but when possible, I like the idea of making small changes for better health and long term wellness, and I think trying to eat more organic is one of those steps.

This week I documented the grocery shopping process to show you what works for us, and how we stay on budget. Typically we spend $100/week on groceries. We typically eat out once during the week (usually Friday night or Saturday night) and we pack all of our lunches and eat breakfast at home every morning. I also try to limit my trips to Starbucks and use gift cards most of the time. In light of that, I think $100/week is pretty reasonable. I should also note that Joe’s parents have always supplied us with all the free beef we could ever want or need, so that makes it easy for us to stay on budget as well as entertain.

So how have we managed to stay on budget? Here’s a look:

1. Menu Plan: Similar to my friend Clara, I like to take inventory of what I already have in the pantry (usually we have plenty of pasta, grains, broth, rice, tortillas, etc.) before I plan out my meals for the week so I can utilize what we already have. After I look at what is in the pantry, I start browsing magazines and cookbooks for recipes to try. I don’t cook from a recipe every day of the week, but I’ve been aiming lately to cook two recipes that are new to me, just to make sure I don’t get into a rut. This week, I selected a recipe for black bean and roasted pepper soup from Bon Appetit and tea-poached salmon with broccoli from the Sprouted Kitchen Cookbook, one of the most used books in my house. Here’s this week’s menu:

Saturday: Dinner with Joe’s family
Sunday: Spaghetti with Meatballs and Roasted Kale
Monday: Homemade Pizza and Romaine Salad with Chopped Peppers
Tuesday: Black Bean Soup (from Bon Appetit)
Wednesday: Channa Masala over Rice
Thursday: Tea Poached Salmon with Broccoli
Friday: Dinner at Chipotle

2. Make a List (and stick to it!): I am the first to tell you that Whole Foods sucks me in with all their fun specialty items. For this reason, I make a list and stick to it. Before making my list, I look at their website and see what is on special that week. In this case, salmon was on sale for $8.99/lb (!!) and the coffee pictured below was buy one get one free, so I made a point to find a recipe for salmon this week instead of something with chicken and stocked up on coffee.Ā I know that if I make a good list, I don’t need to add extra items to my cart along the way since I already have everything I need accounted for.

3. Don’t Get Too Attached: When I go shopping, I’m not attached to any one brand. Although I love certain brands of Greek yogurt, and Joe has his favorites, too, I am willing to switch to a different brand in favor of saving money. The Brown Cow brand of Greek yogurt isn’t the type Joe usually eats, but it was on sale for $1/each this week, so I made the switch. It’s also pretty fun to try new brands I might not otherwise be inclined to try.

3. Make the Whole Foods 365 Brand Your Friend: It’s not news that generic brands are a good value, but this holds true for Whole Foods as well. Their 365 brand is fantastic and almost always cheaper than the brand name items in the store. Almost everything on my grocery list has a 365 equivalent, including canned tomatoes, beans, condiments, pastas and sauces. Plus, the items are organic!

4. Shop the Bulk Bins: We go through a lot of oatmeal and oat bran throughout the week. Joe eats oatmeal for breakfast every morning and I have a bowl of oat bran, so buying these items in the bulk section at Whole Foods saves us a lot of money. It’s actually cheaper than traditional grocery store brands. I just transfer them to plastic storage containers when I get home for ease and freshness. Additionally, I like to buy items like nuts, seeds and specialty flours (like this almond flour) in small quantities.


5. Be Willing to Pay a Little More: This sounds a little contrary to everything I’ve been talking about, but when you are shopping at Whole Foods, you have to accept that produce which is organic and oftentimes non GMO is going to be a little bit pricier. This is where planning out meals comes in handy. I can spend a little extra on organic broccoli knowing that it’s not going to get tossed at the end of the week because it went bad and we didn’t have time to eat it. Also, be aware of the items it doesn’t make sense to buy organic. Items like bananas and oranges, where the peel is removed and discarded, don’t make a lot of sense to buy organic. In that case, buy conventional and save some money.

What’s your grocery shopping strategy? Anything I missed in this list that you think readers need to know?

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  • Reply Shanna October 19, 2013 at 4:00 pm

    Good strategies! I think the tension between wanting quality and wanting affordability is one to which everyone in America can relate. Sometimes it feels like either/or, but it doesn’t have to be, at least not if you’re willing to work at it. Your budget is very similar to ours, and we shop pretty exclusively at WF/Trader Joe’s/our farmer, with the once-in-a-while quick grab at any of the other chains nearby. To some people, this budget is a little high, and I feel super blessed to be able to spend it. We also feel personally that spending more on groceries is an investment in our health, much like health insurance or gym memberships or other things people pay for to better their bodies. Anyway, all that to say, high five! Right there with you.

    • Reply MadisonMayberry October 21, 2013 at 5:45 pm

      Oh goodness, isn’t that the truth?! I feel like it’s always on my mind, trying to stay on budget while also trying to nourish our bodies in a way that feels right. I still shop at Target once in a while for items like whole wheat sandwich bread for Joe’s lunches or buns for burgers. I just can’t stomach paying a lot of extra money for those types of foods. But you’re right, I feel incredibly thankful to be able to spend that much, realizing that not everyone can.

  • Reply Meagan Moughamian October 19, 2013 at 6:23 pm

    Love this post! As someone who buys a few items at WF like you used to I wondered how anyone could afford to get all their groceries there too. Before reading this if someone told me they had $100 weekly budget and got everything from WF I wouldn’t have believed them!
    Our WF is about 20 minutes from our house so going there once a week for 2-3 items always feels wrong, maybe I will try your strategies!

    • Reply MadisonMayberry October 21, 2013 at 5:42 pm

      I wouldn’t have believed it myself until we gave it a try! Some weeks I go a little over, but those are usually the weeks when I fail to meal plan in advance!

  • Reply Casey October 20, 2013 at 2:17 pm

    awesome post, I often do the majority of my shopping at whole foods as its the closest store to us and I get veggies from csa and my garden which cuts down costs

    • Reply MadisonMayberry October 21, 2013 at 4:30 pm

      We used a CSA this summer/early fall and loved it! It was incredibly affordable for the amount of produce we got, and the quality was amazing. I’ll be doing it again next year for sure!

  • Reply PollyS October 21, 2013 at 2:27 am

    Check these out for organic/natural savings

  • Reply Clara October 21, 2013 at 12:39 pm

    Love this! I’m obsessed with their bulk bins- it’s truly so much cheaper especially when buying expensive nuts for granola or baking, expensive dried fruits like cherries. We spend about $125 per week- part of that is NYC, and part of is that we do spend more on meat. We’ve cut back on our meat eating a lot, but I’ll actually go to our local butcher to buy meat (the quality is amazing)- but that causes it to be even more expensive. I’ll buy a bunch of meat at once- freeze it- and then just use it sparingly across the month so I don’t overspend. A friend of mine was also encouraging me to buy whole fish last week. I’m a little squeamish about that but they said they’ll gut and clean the fish for you for free, and the per pound cost is SO much cheaper. We’ll see… but I do love the idea of getting really good food while paying less. Love your tips, M! Really hope we can meet some time! xx

    • Reply MadisonMayberry October 21, 2013 at 4:20 pm

      I LOVE the bulk bins! Plus, if I’m experimenting with a new flour (like coconut flour, etc.) and don’t want to buy a whole package, it’s nice to get just what I need. Much more affordable that way. I love the idea of buying a whole fish! I can’t say that I’ve heard of many people around here doing it, but I’ll have to check into it. We love to eat fish, but it’s so darn expensive, especially when we’re trying to buy the sustainable types.

      And yes, we need to meet in person sometime! Hopefully sooner rather than later. I have a feeling we would have a lot in common. šŸ™‚

  • Reply Rachel October 21, 2013 at 3:34 pm

    I LOVE LOVE LOVE this post! So great that you figured out how to be able to shop at Whole Foods and still stay on budget. My boyfriend and I spend about the same on groceries each week, and I would like to start eating healthier (And I agree on the organic side!) Great tips and advice, I WOULD love to see more posts like this!!!!!!!!

    • Reply MadisonMayberry October 21, 2013 at 4:17 pm

      Thanks for the feedback, Rachel! Even though it takes a little more effort, it certainly feels like its worth it to us! Plus, maybe it sounds silly but I treasure my time at Whole Foods. It’s so much fun! And more relaxing and enjoyable than a trip to Target, where I have to fight the masses. And I love knowing that what we are eating is better for us.

      • Reply Rachel October 21, 2013 at 4:49 pm

        Doesn’t sound silly at all! I actually LOVE grocery shopping when it isn’t busy, it is just some nice time to get away from home and take your time making decisions šŸ™‚ And seriously, thanks again for this post. I think there is just such a perception of Whole Foods being super expensive, which is partially true, but it was so nice that someone who has a similar budget went to find out if you could shop there exclusively! Plus I try to plan out our meals, it helps save money and reduce waste šŸ™‚

  • Reply Cindy @ theflippingcouple October 21, 2013 at 5:54 pm

    I wish there was a Whole Foods closer to us!! We’ve been becoming more and more interested in the quality and responsible sourcing of our food, even if it means paying a little more. Right now I do the vast majority of our grocery shopping at Costco, which probably sounds odd for two people, but we tend to be very repetitive eaters so it works. Plus, they have a lot of organic produce, which has been great for us.

    Anyway, thanks for posting this! I need to spend some time in Whole Foods and explore a little. It’s so encouraging to see other people who have chosen to invest in their health with a larger grocery budget. We have a lot of friends who have chosen to slash their grocery budgets and eat as cheaply as possible. And while I completely support them in their decisions, it’s just nice to know other people are making the choice that we are.

    That was a rather long comment to say thanks, I loved this post!

  • Reply Kara Knaack October 22, 2013 at 7:00 pm

    Can you tell me more about your roasted kale? I have a bunch of WF kale withering away as we speak …

  • Reply Hole Grocer News | Whole Grocer Reviews October 29, 2013 at 3:06 am

    […] Grocery Shopping at Whole Foods (without breaking the bank … http://espressoandcream.com/Once upon a time, not all that long ago, I used to go into Whole Foods strictly to browse or pick up a specialty item for a recipe I was making. I would look at all the people doing their weekly grocery shopping, carts piled high,Ā … […]

  • Reply Laura November 5, 2013 at 3:13 am

    Thank you for sharing this. I, too, have always treated Whole Foods like an unattainable heaven, — and exacerbated that fact by buying only unnecessary treats there. But lately I’d started to take a closer look at prices, especially since it’s now the closest grocery to my apartment. I’ll be honest, your post was timed so perfectly, I felt like I was getting permission from the universe to do some regular shopping there. And I didn’t break the bank!

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