Budget Bites

Older adults prioritize healthy eating on a budget, as they adjust to inflation reality

Inflation has soared in recent months, hovering around 9.1%. And grocery prices specifically have gone even higher, especially for staples such as dairy, meat, and fresh fruits and vegetables.

While the government reports that inflation for groceries is about 12% — the highest increase since the 1970s — many individuals say they’ve racked up drastically higher grocery bills, about 50% to 100% over last year’s totals. After years of low inflation, this rise in prices brings a difficult reality to older Americans, many of whom are managing their finances on a fixed income.

Yet, people have to keep eating, and nutrition is crucial for older adults. To help ease the financial burden, Illinois canceled its 1% state tax on groceries for the current fiscal year, from July 2022 through June 2023. That makes everyone’s food budget stretch a bit further, but it doesn’t come close to covering the rise in costs.

Joan Waxman, 77, lifelong learning program manager at the North Shore Senior Center, says she has noticed prices going up significantly. Yet, because she only shops for herself and still has a steady income from her job, she has more leeway in her budget than many.

The biggest change for Waxman is when she dines out with her friends. She says they now pick the restaurant carefully, often choosing one with large portion sizes. “We’re looking for value. We’re also looking for portions, because very often I take food home, and then I know I’ll have another dinner or a lunch to bring to work,” Waxman says. “That does affect your bottom line.”

Judi Jordan works with seniors at Weiss Hospital’s Weiss Initiative Supporting Elders program (WISE). She says she hears many people talk about how difficult it is to manage their food budget with inflation. But there are resources.

“A lot of seniors have taken pride in working all their lives, and don’t realize they qualify for food stamps,” she says. Jordan encourages all seniors to contact the state to see if they meet the requirements or find more information online about state food assistance.

Jordan also tells people about Chicago’s Golden Diners Program, offered through the city’s Family and Support Services. People age 60 and over can receive a hot lunch at any of the nearly 60 community sites each weekday, and they can enjoy others’ company while they eat. The sites also offer exercise classes, health education, and trips.

“Sign up, go to any location, and get a cooked meal for $1 or $1.50,” Jordan says. “And it’s not a mandatory donation.”

Here are seven more money-saving ideas to stretch your food budget during inflation.

1. Plan meals.

Do this at the beginning of the week, before you shop. Planning will lessen impulse buys, help you cook more meals at home, and encourage you to use foods you already have. Make a list of all the food groups to make sure you incorporate them in your menus.

If you’re not sure where to start, brushing up on nutritional information and basic cooking techniques can help. The National Institute on Aging offers cost-effective meal tips, and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) also offers tips to shop every section of the supermarket in a healthy and lower-cost way, such as skipping the soda aisle entirely and investing in a reusable water bottle.

2. Buy in bulk.

Or compare unit prices. This number, listed near the price of the item for sale, tells you the cost per quantity sold, i.e. per pound or ounce. If you buy large packages of food on sale, you can then freeze them in small portions.

“I would recommend buying a value pack of meat or fish. Leave out enough for that week, and freeze the rest in portion sizes so you have it for the future,” says Kim Blum, who works with many seniors on their diets as a registered dietitian at FEED Nutrition Consulting.

3. Shop in season — or buy frozen.

Buying fresh fruits and vegetables in season tends to cost less, and you’re consuming the produce at its tastiest. However, frozen, canned, and dried fruits and veggies offer another way to save money while ensuring your nutrition.

4. Opt for store brands.

Many of them are virtually identical to name brand items in all ways except the packaging and the price.

5. Vary your protein.

Not all protein has to come from meat and seafood, which tend to be pricey. Tofu and beans are often less expensive than meat, but still pack a protein punch. You can go meatless for a few meals, or add plant-based proteins to stretch a meal further, such as mixing lentils in with ground beef.

“Making modifications for proteins is a great option. Canned beans, lentils, and peas last a long time, are typically lower in cost, and can be very versatile,” Blum says.

6. Watch for sales.

Cut coupons, flip through flyers, and reap rewards points. A dollar here and 50 cents there may seem small in the moment, but all of these approaches combined can save you big in the long run.

7. Shop the dollar stores.

Many of them carry large selections of staples — think: spices, beans, and broths — for reasonable prices. And though they’re not dollar stores, some smaller grocery stores (such as Trader Joe’s and ALDI) sell items for less than the big box stores.

“Due to increased costs, several have stopped shopping at chain grocery stores and opted to purchase at the Dollar Store,” Jordan says of the seniors who utilize the WISE Senior Center.

The good news is that most of these ideas are steps we should all be taking, regardless of inflation. Adopting them will serve us now, while inflation is raging, and in the future, once it comes back down from the stratosphere.