How to keep a lid on your fruit and vegetable budget

Beatrice J. Doty

One of the challenges of heart-healthy eating can be the cost of fruit and vegetables, and as I’m sure you’ve noticed, it’s on the rise, along with food and goods in general.

Did you know, for example, that a medium apple, which provides about 95 calories, costs about a dollar today at my local store*? A package of cheese seems pricier, especially lately, but if we look at just an ounce of cheddar cheese, which provides similar food energy (114 calories), it’s about half the price, or $0.43!

Even more extreme: A half-cup of cooked white rice is also about 100 calories, but costs just $0.06, if you buy a giant bag of rice. That apple is starting to look like a pretty costly 100 calories.

But we know that having five or more servings a day of fruit and vegetables is important for heart health, and while I can’t fix the price of fruit and vegetables today, I can help you get the most out of your grocery budget.

General tips

If your food budget is tight, you likely know the fundamentals of saving at the grocery store – make a plan and a list, watch unit prices and specials, cook more from scratch, etc.

And for fruit and vegetables in particular, one of the most important considerations is food waste. If you end up having to throw out half of what you buy, the cost per meal is effectively doubled. So plan ahead, and be realistic.

frozen berries

If you like to shop just once a week, build in longer-lasting produce like apples and winter squash, as well as frozen and canned, which are less likely to go to waste, plus you can stock up when they go on sale.

My 30-Minute Heart Healthy Cookbook** features a number of recipes with frozen vegetables, and I wrote a blog post with some ideas, if you’re not sure what to do with them. They’re not so exciting all by themselves on the side of your plate, but in mixed dishes like soup, chili, and even pasta, they’re just fine.

You can also build in more flexible recipes so you can switch vegetables based on what’s in season, on sale, or in your fridge. Dishes like stir-fries, “bowls”, salads, and soups can accommodate different vegetables. If you like recipes, check out the Fridge Clean Out Recipes in this fantastic little free cookbook, Rock What You’ve Got.

And don’t be afraid to buy “imperfect” produce, especially if it’s going in baking or mixed dishes.

Don’t worry about buying organic. As wholesome as it sounds, we have no evidence that it benefits health outcomes.

Same thing with so-called “superfoods,” which often get that reputation due to a high concentration of certain nutrients. They’re fine, but no one food will make or break your health. The most “super” approach is plenty of a variety of produce. The more affordable options are also nutritious.

Finally, one more suggestion I have that goes against the conventional wisdom. Pre-cut or pre-washed fresh produce might actually make sense for you, if it means you’ll actually use it! It does usually cost a bit more, but depending on your employment situation, your time might be worth money too.

sliced watermelon

Produce Price Survey

I did a quick survey of fruit and vegetable prices in a local store (online) this past Tuesday. A few disclaimers:

  • I chose Save On Foods because they have the unit price displayed online for most produce, but it’s not necessarily the lowest cost store. Just one where I could get this information easily.
  • I used the lowest unit price I could find, which might be a bigger package size than you would realistically buy. But it should still give a good indication of the relative prices.
  • Prices will vary with the season. The asparagus, for example, was quite reasonable, but we’re right in season for that. Raspberries were awfully expensive, but they might be less in summer.

Cost of vegetables (by weight)

The first list is vegetables, sorted by price per 100 grams.

Product Package Price/100g
russet potatoes 10 lb bag $0.15
carrots 5 lb bag $0.22
green cabbage bulk $0.22
red cabbage bulk $0.33
sweet potatoes bulk $0.39
celery bunch, 675 g $0.39
butternut squash bulk $0.55
spaghetti squash bulk $0.55
asparagus bunch $0.66
zucchini bulk $0.66
broccoli 600 g bunch $0.77
green beans bulk $0.77
Mann’s – Vegetable Medley 907 g $0.77
tomatoes, on the vine bunch $0.77
mini-cucumbers 2 lb bag $0.77
bell peppers 2 lb bag $0.88
kale bunch $0.88
mushrooms (white or cremini) bulk $1.10
spinach bunch $1.11
romaine hearts pack of 3, 510 g $1.17
grape tomatoes 454 g tub $1.32
spinach, prewashed 227 g bag $1.54
Eat Smart Sweet Kale salad kit 340 g bag $1.76
Fresh Express Caesar Supreme salad kit 226 g bag $1.77
Earthbound Farms – Organic Vegetable Medley 255 g $1.96
broccolini 6 oz $2.17

No surprise, the low-cost winner was potato! Nutritionally it’s more of a starch than a vegetable, but it’s still a good source of vitamin C, potassium, fibre, and more.

Cabbage always looks great on price surveys, but of course that’s only if you eat the whole thing! Cabbage does keep well, but I often end up tossing part of a whole cabbage when we get tired of it. Still, you can add it to salads or stir-fries for a nice boost of vitamin C, potassium, and fibre.

Cost of fruit (by weight)

And for the fruit, the low-cost winners are…

Product Package Price/100g
bananas bunch $0.17
apples 3 lb bag (Gala) $0.37
pineapple bulk $0.44
navel oranges 4 lb bag $0.44
honeydew bulk $0.44
watermelon 1.4 kg, pre-sliced $0.44
mandarin oranges 3 lb bag $0.51
pears (Bartlett or Bosc) bulk $0.55
avocado bag of 5 $0.88
grapes 1 kg bag $0.99
strawberries 1 lb tub $1.10
mango 1 large $1.19
raspberries 1 pint $2.64

If you’re a real number cruncher like me, feel free to take a peek at my spreadsheet. There are a few remarks and explanations in there too.

Cost per 100 calories

While in some ways, “healthy” eating may mean fewer calories, and most vegetables and fruit help with that, the reality is that people need a certain number of calories every day to survive and thrive. When we’re thinking of the cost of food, for some, that’s a real consideration.

So I also estimated the cost of 100 calories worth of each of these foods. Most of the same foods end up being the low-cost winners, except higher calorie foods (like avocado) did better considering it this way. You can also see the cost per 100 calories of white rice, dry lentils, cheddar cheese, and lean ground beef, for comparison.

If you’re trying to feed an active, hungry family on a small budget, looking at those numbers might be helpful. (In the spreadsheet.) cost of food

Unconventional places to get food

My last tip for fruit and vegetables on a budget is to look beyond the regular grocery stores.

Calgary has a program called the Good Food Box, where you pay $25 for a box of 20-25lb of produce. (There are bigger boxes if needed.) That works out to about $0.25 per 100 grams, so definitely a great price, assuming you can use all of that!

Other cities have similar programs, so search around and see what you can find. Sometimes dialing 211 can connect you with services like that.

Another Calgary resource is the beautiful, friendly Alex Community Food Centre, on 17th Avenue, South East Calgary, where you can find an Affordable Produce Market and other great resources.

While farmers’ markets generally cost more, you may find bargains towards the end of the day, when vendors are packing up to leave. Can’t hurt to ask!

Shopping Savvy

So if the fruit and veggie budget is a concern for you, include a variety of those veggies and fruits at the low end of the cost scale above, while balancing with what you enjoy, of course!

Most grocery stores display the unit cost, so if you keep an eye out for those well below $1.00 per 100 grams, you’ll still have plenty of options. (Americans, you’re comparing price per pound, of course, but same principle applies.)

(By the way, some stores display cost per kilogram, which is simply the numbers above multiplied by ten. If you see something as $6.00/kg, it’s $0.60 per 100 grams.)

And if you buy raspberries, cherry tomatoes, or pre-washed greens, make sure they get eaten!

cherry tomatoes

Next week

Is this helpful? Let me know. If so, I can talk about budget-friendlier whole grains and healthy fat foods. I did some research into that also.

What other strategies do you use to stretch your heart-healthy food dollar? Join us in the Facebook group to discuss.


Full disclosure

* Prices are from Save On Foods online, April 5, 2022, in Calgary, Canada. Specifically the apple I’m referencing was a single ambrosia apple at $0.91. Buying by the bag would cut the unit cost.

** That’s an affiliate link for my book which means if you buy from Amazon, I get a fraction of the purchase price, at no additional cost to you. But it’s tiny, so if you can support a local retailer, do it. Or reserve at the library. It’s there too!

And as always, I have no relationship with the food industry! Just sharing what I know to help you.

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