How To Stretch Your Food Budget And Buy The Best Produce For Your Health

produce department at grocery store

Stretching your food budget

Let’s face it, most of us only have so much money we can spend on groceries, so it makes sense to spend your money where you get the most value for your dollars. Now some of you may think that value translates to buying in bulk or on sale to stretch the food budget. True. But there is another way to think about value for your food dollars which translates to getting the best return on your ingestion (R.O.I.). This approach is less about dollars and cents, and more about how much health value you get from the food you buy. And by far, the biggest return on your food dollar investment is found in the produce department. So let’s head over there so I can show you which fruit and veggies to spend your money on, and more importantly, why.

Fresh Produce, Canned Produce or the Frozen Food Aisle?

Let’s get the fresh, canned or frozen question out of the way first, all of which are not conveniently located in the produce department (and definitely not at the farmers market)! I agree that a mixture of fresh, canned or frozen produce stretches the food dollar and meets the convenience factor. I also agree that when produce is picked and frozen or canned within a short time of harvest, the nutrient content can mirror or even exceed fresh. How so you cry?

frozen berries

Well, we have all seen wilted, flabby produce languishing in the grocery store, a sure sign that the nutrient best of fresh has retired from the plant forever. Depending on the time from harvest to store shelf, nutrients lose their potency, therefore frozen or canned can be a more nutrient-dense option. That being said, when we’re talking bioactives, those compounds that signal to our genes, high heat blanching or processing in production facilities can deplete them as well as water soluble vitamins. Processing also changes the texture of both vegetables and fruit meaning you’ll never get the crunch or bite you will from their fresh equivalents. This being the case, my advice is to use frozen and canned products in smoothies, dips or as an addition to slow cooker meals or casseroles, but save fresh for the salads and sides.

Prepackaged or Loose?

packaged vegetables at grocery store

When I encourage people to expand the variety of produce on their plates, I go for the lowest hanging “fruit.” For people who have never purchased a bunch of fresh kale, or a head of cauliflower, the whole fresh vegetable can be daunting and remains untouched on the shelf. If you are a produce skeptic, or get fearful around mounds of fruit and vegetables, then start with the pre-packaged salads, bags or cartons of leafy green mixes and even the pre-cut broccoli or cauliflower cartons. It is far easy to mix up a salad if the greens are pre-washed and pre-mixed for you. The same goes for steaming or roasting your broccoli, or dumping a bag of baby kale or assorted greens in a wok or skillet for a quick stir-fry. No objection from me. After all, this is why these items are sold this way! But once you gain food-confidence, then humor me a bit and graduate to the whole version of the plant, be it fruit or vegetable.

Priority Vegetables

All produce nourishes, but if you only have a fixed amount of dollars to spend, then these are your go to vegetables for your health.

Never Leave The Store Without A Crucifer


Why? Because when chopped, they release an enzyme called myrosinase that interacts with another compound in the crucifer to produce sulforaphane. This is what I call a nutritional diamond. Sulforaphane activates a a factor called Nrf2 that engages with genes whose products produce the best antioxidants your body will ever use. They act like a firehose in your body, extinguishing those troublesome free radicals that cause untold damage when left unattended. You can also think of sulforaphane like a power washer, basically engaging important processes that prevent damage by removing the culprits. Crucifers include cabbage, cauliflower, bok choy, kale, radishes, arugula, turnips and their greens, rutabaga, mustard greens and more. Here is a complete list of them. And here are some easy ways to get them on your plate.

Tip: Click here for 13 Ways To Work Raw Crucifers Into Your Food World

Put Alliums In Your Cart


Alliums include garlic, leeks, chives , scallions, shallots and onions. This family of veggies that can literally bring a tear to your eye, are a potent source of another bioactive called quercetin. And if you think the sulforaphane in crucifers is potent, then quercetin is at a whole different level. Yes, even more potent for those free radicals, and perhaps even better at extinguishing inflammation.

Some people don’t tolerate alliums very well. If this is you, then you can get the same benefit from quercetin by buying radishes. But be sure to look for radishes with their fresh, vibrant leaves still intact. The leaves have a much higher concentration of quercetin than the leaves. Just chop up the leaves and add to your salad, or your sandwich.

Try this delicious recipe that uses garlic and onions

Beets and Spinach Need To Go Home With You

I recommend beets and spinach because they are the highest source of a compound called betaine in the produce department. Why is betaine important you wonder? Well in this article, I talk about the cycles that make your body function. If you recall, some of us run into traffic jams which are caused by a lack of specific nutrients, or by nutrients just not being in the right form for the body to use.


One of the traffic jams or bottle necks for some of us occurs in the methylation cycle. When the cycle gets backed up, we can run into health issues that affect our mood, can cause anxiety or slow down our built-in detoxification process. Betaine helps the body work around traffic jams in the methylation cycle, akin to you taking the Frontage Road when the highway grinds to a halt. So grab your beets and spinach and help your body take a smoother ride!

Tip: buy beets with their leaves in tact and you get a fresher product and a larger return on your food dollar. You can use both the root and the leaf, just like the radishes I just talked about.

Try this flavorful slaw which you can make with orange beets!

Priority Fruit

Like vegetables, fruit provides the many nutrients and fiber our body needs. But once again, all fruit is not created equal when you consider their bioactives.

Olives are you best fruit friends followed by berries


If you want to get the best nutrient and bioactive return on your food dollar, put olives (yes they are a fruit) in your grocery cart- always. You want the fresh, brined ones (unstuffed), and not the canned ones.

Next head for fresh or frozen berries. Freezing berries does not require high heat treatment, so their bioactives are intact. Quercetin and catechins are the most prolific bioactives in berries, where elderberries (not usually sold in stores) have by far the highest quercetin concentration, while strawberries and blueberries have the most diverse bioactive profile. Now am I suggesting you avoid your apples and bananas, or better still, peaches in season? Not at all. But if you want to get the best R.O.I. on your produce dollars, put your money into the produce I suggest and spend the rest on what is fresh, local and in season.

And if you are really interested in understanding how to choose the best of fresh produce, I recommend this great and humorous book.