A little careful planning and a discerning eye can help you stock your kitchen with healthful real food without giving you cause to declare bankruptcy.
I'll admit it: I love Whole Foods. The stores are clean and pleasant to shop in, the salespeople are knowledgeable and helpful, the produce is beautiful and always fresh, and the meat and seafood departments are impeccable. Yes, Whole Foods is notorious for being expensive (California stores got into big trouble for overcharging recently), but I have found that with a little bit of planning and insight, it is indeed possible to complete a Whole Foods shop without bankrupting yourself. Read on for my tips and tricks for getting out of Whole Paycheck with most of yours still in the bank.
Shop on the outside aisles. The outside aisles contain the bulk section, the produce section, the meat and seafood counters, and the dairy and egg refrigerator cases. These are the best things to shop for at Whole Foods. Not only do they tend to be the healthiest items in the store, but Whole Foods also has a great selection in (and often very good sales on) these departments. The prepared, processed, and packaged foods tend to be where the highest-ticket items are. If you want affordable cookies, crackers, bread, and shampoo, head to Trader Joe's. They're not worth buying at Whole Foods.
At the meat and seafood departments, go with the cheapest items: Whole Foods has very high standards for all their products, so even their least expensive cuts of meat and seafood are very high quality. Opt for chicken thighs and drumsticks over breasts, and sirloin, flank, and skirt steaks over ribeye. Get the sole over the wild salmon. And while you're in the meat and seafood department...
Ask the butchers and fishmongers to help you out. In addition to being knowledgeable about the products they sell, the people behind the meat and seafood counters are the ones who clean, de-bone, skin, filet, grind, and trim the proteins they sell. As such, don't be shy about asking them to do some of the prep work for you. If whole fish are on sale, buy them (they're much cheaper per pound than skinned, pre-cut fish filets or steaks), and have the fish monger clean, skin, and filet them for you, free of charge.
Buy in-season produce for the best prices. There’s a simple reason why a locally grown tomato in July costs less than a flown-in-from-Chile tomato in January: airfare. When we buy fruits and vegetables grown near where we live (which is only possible when they’re in season), they cost less because the produce doesn’t have to travel as far. Whole Foods generally has most of their produce available year-round (often flown in), but they also work with many local farms to bring in the best of the best when it's in season. Though my preference is to buy as much produce as possible at my local farmer's market, the on-sale, seasonal stuff available at Whole Foods is also very good.
Learn to love the bulk section. Some of the best deals at Whole Foods can be found in the bins of the bulk section. When you buy in bulk, you are paying only for the food itself, not packaging, so the pricing is significantly lower than pre-packaged goods. It's great for when you need a lot of something, but it's also wonderful for when you need only a little (why buy a twenty-four-ounce package of walnuts when you only need a quarter cup of them for a recipe?). It’s worth the annoying twelve-seconds it takes to wrap a twist-tie around a plastic bag and write the product code on it. Invest in a pack of cheap jumbo-size mason jars to store things like flour, sugar, rice, beans, pasta, oats, nuts, and dried fruit from the bulk section. Keeping them in an airtight container like a mason jar will keep them fresh for longer.
Shop like a European. I know this isn't possible for everyone. When you have a nine-to-five job and children and errands, it can be hard to regularly practice the classic European way of shopping, which is to keep a pantry stocked with basic non-perishables, and then augment a few times a week with small quantities of fresh items: a piece of meat or fish, here, some cheese and eggs there, and whichever fruits and vegetables are gorgeous and seasonal. It means more frequent stops at the store, but when you can, this is one of the most cost-effective ways to shop. Since it requires you to grocery shop on an as-needed basis (as opposed to the more traditional American style of filling a cart with enough food for two weeks), you are far more likely to actually use all of what you buy (how many times has the lettuce you optimistically bought a week ago been left to turn to mush in your crisper because you never got around to eating it?). Nothing is sadder than a compost bin full of never-used produce gone bad.
Remember, these principles can be applied to other supermarkets and health food stores too. Whole Foods is obviously the most ubiquitious whole food grocer in the United States, but, if you're lucky, there are other good options available where you live as well. Remember: just because a store is generally expensive doesn't mean it has to be off-limits. A little careful planning and a discerning eye can help you stock your kitchen with healthful real food without giving you cause to declare bankruptcy. And whatever you do, don't forget your reusable bags!