Marvin’s neighbor, Sharise, is so busy she often picks up dinner at a fast-food restaurant or the shopping mall. She only stops at the grocery for milk, bread, and snacks or to pick up a prepared meal. Sharise is not sure how to start shopping for healthy food choices and wonders about the cost. Some grocery stores have designed shelf tags or food labels that show which foods are healthier—for example, high fiber, low in sugar, low-fat, or whole grain. If the grocery store Sharise uses has such a program, it will be easier to find healthy foods.
Shopping for Food That’s Good for You
If you have a choice of where to get your groceries, pick a store that is clean and well supplied. If it is also busy, the stock is probably more likely to turn over quickly and items won’t be near their sell-by or use-by date. But don’t depend on that—always check the dates.
Many people say a successful trip to the grocery store starts with a shopping list. Throughout the week, try to keep a list of food and supplies you need. Keeping to a list helps you follow a budget because you will be less likely to buy on impulse. You can find a prepared grocery list that will help you choose healthy types of foods in Appendix 1.
When making your shopping list, check your staples. These include items like cereal; flour; sugar; cans of low-sodium soup, fruit, and tuna fish; bags of frozen vegetables or fruit; frozen or bottled 100% juice; powdered, dry milk or ultra-pasteurized milk in a shelf carton; pasta; and low-sodium spaghetti sauce in a jar. Staples are nice to have around if you can’t go grocery shopping.
Here’s a tip
If you live alone and still enjoy cooking, talk to a friend who might not enjoy cooking as much as you do. Offer to cook a meal or two if he or she will grocery shop for you.
Sharise stopped by her parents’ house recently and was surprised to see so little food in the fridge. When she was growing up, the fridge was always packed. Her parents explained they just hadn’t felt like going to the store.
A trip to the grocery store can be a chore for anyone, but as you get older, you might have some new reasons for not going. For example, getting around a big food store might be difficult. What can you do? Some stores have motorized carts, which you can use. Ask if there is an employee who can help you reach things or push your cart. If your store has a pharmacy department, you might find a seat there if you get tired. Plan to shop at a time of day when you are rested. And if it’s a busy store, try to pick a time when it might not be so crowded; that way you won’t have to stand in a long check-out line. Check with your local Area Agency on Aging to see if there are volunteers in your area who can help.
Some people think a grocery delivery service is helpful. You’ll want to ask about fees and other charges before deciding if this service would work for you. Many require access to a computer for ordering.
Shopping for healthy foods, especially fresh fruits and vegetables, might be hard where you live. People who live in rural areas or some city neighborhoods often have trouble finding larger supermarkets. Instead, they have to shop at convenience stores and small neighborhood markets. Sometimes smaller stores have limited selections of fresh foods. You might try talking to the managers or owners. Let them know that you and others are interested in buying more fresh fruits and vegetables, whole-grain products, and low-fat milk products.
Here’s a tip
The USDA Cooperative Extension Service has dollar-stretching recipes. You can find your local office at www.csrees.usda.gov/Extension  or by calling a local library or county government for the phone number.
Try to find a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) group. CSAs are membership or subscription groups that allow you to buy in-season fruits and vegetables directly from farmers. You agree to buy produce from a participating local farmer, and each week you receive a box, bag, or basket of a variety of the food being harvested at that time. Local Harvest is one organization that can help you find a CSA in your area. You can go to their website, www.localharvest.org , or call 1-831-475-8150.
If you can find a farmers’ market or vegetable stand nearby during the growing season, fruits and vegetables might cost less than in the grocery store. Local Harvest can also direct you to farmers’ markets in your area. Your local government might have a listing of farmers’ markets. Or you can search online at http://search.apps.ams.usda.govfarmersmarkets . You might also be able to get some help from the federal government to pay for vegetables and fruits from farmers’ markets through the Seniors Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program, www.fns.usda.gov/wic/SeniorFMNP/SFMNPmenu.htm . They provide coupons you can use at farmers’ markets and roadside stands.
Help with Food Costs
Even when you know which foods you should choose for your health, being able to pay for those foods might be hard, especially if you are on a fixed income. Start by deciding how much you can afford to spend on food. There are websites that can help you plan a food budget. For example, the USDA supports such a website through Iowa State University, www.extension.iastate.edu/foodsavings/plan/foodspendingplan . This website also has inexpensive recipes based on the Dietary Guidelines. If you don’t have access to the Internet, you can call the Iowa State University Extension offices at 1-515-296-5883. Their staff will help you develop a food budget.
Once you have a budget, read the store ads in the newspaper to see what is on sale. Try to plan some meals around featured items, and pick up some extra canned goods or staples that are on sale. But, stocking up on sale items only makes good sense if they are foods you would buy anyway. And check the expiration or use-by date. A product might be on sale because it is almost out of date. Choose items with dates farthest in the future.
Some ways to save money when grocery shopping are:
- Ask your local grocery stores if they have a senior discount or a loyalty or discount card. Besides getting items at a lower price, you may also get store coupons.
- Use coupons to help you save money. Remember that coupons only help if they are for things you would buy anyway. Sometimes, another brand costs less even after you use the coupon.
- Consider store brands—they usually cost less. These products are made under a special label, sometimes with the store name. You might have to look on shelves that are higher or lower than eye level to find them.
- Be aware that convenience costs more. You can often save money if you are willing to do a little work. For example, buy whole chickens and cut them into parts; shred or grate your own cheese; make your own yogurt smoothie; and avoid instant rice or instant oatmeal. Bagged salad mixes cost more and might not stay fresh as long as a head of lettuce.
- Look at unit prices. Those small stickers on the shelves tell you the price but also the unit price—how much the item costs per ounce, per pound, or for a standard number. Compare unit prices to see which brand is the best value.
- Try to buy in bulk, but only buy a size you can use before it goes bad. If you buy meat in bulk, decide what you need to use that day and freeze the rest in portion-sized packages right away.
- Focus on economical fruits and vegetables like bananas, apples, oranges, cabbage, sweet potatoes, dark-green leafy vegetables, green peppers, and regular carrots.
- Think about the foods you throw away. For less waste, buy or cook only what you need.
- Resist temptations at the check-out. Those snack foods and candy are put there for impulse buying. Save money and empty calories!
- Choose less red meat, processed foods, baked goods, and snacks. You’ll save money and make smart food choices too.
No matter how careful you are, the cost of food can still eat up a big part of your budget. There may be additional help. Here are some federal government programs:
SNAP, www.fns.usda.gov/snap . Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (the program in your state may have a different name), 1-800-221-5689. This used to be called Food Stamps. A special debit card can be used to buy most types of food, as well as seeds and plants to grow food.
Child and Adult Care Food Program, www.fns.usda.gov/cnd/care . Provides meals and snacks to eligible older adults taking part in adult day care programs.
Commodity Supplemental Food Program, www.fns.usda.gov/fdd/programs/csfp . Provides some vegetables, fruits, grain products, dry beans, and canned meats to eligible older people to supplement their own food.
Emergency Food Assistance Program, www.fns.usda.gov/fdd/programs/tefap . Provides food needed by low-income older adults who might not have enough to eat.
There are also private groups working with older people to help them get enough food:
Feeding America, www.feedingamerica.org . 1-800-771-2303. Runs food pantries, soup kitchens, and community kitchens.
Food Bank Locator, www.feedingamerica.org/foodbank-results.aspx .
National Hunger Hotline, www.whyhunger.org . 1-866-348-6479. The Hotline can help people in need find emergency food supplies and government assistance programs.
While some older people have trouble finding enough money to buy food, others need help preparing meals. There are a variety of groups around the country that deliver meals to people who have trouble getting out of their homes. These groups usually offer one hot meal a day. One of the largest is the Meals on Wheels Association of America.
National Resources for Locating Help with Food Costs
There are several ways to learn more about programs that offer help with meals or food costs. You could contact each program listed above separately, or you could use one of these services: