June 11, 2013 at 1:25 PM ET
When it comes to shopping at Whole Foods, what's a must and what's a bust? Follow our expert tips on how to make your grocery budget go further, and find out whether those gorgeous piles of produce and virtuous vittles are worth the splurge!
BUY: Some Organic Produce
It's no surprise that verdant mounds of fruits and veggies greet you when you first walk in the door. "The colorful, perfectly organized organic produce at Whole Foods catches your eye," CouponCabin.com president Jackie Warrick. Still, not all organics are worth the extra cost. Stick to apples, spinach and other Dirty Dozen items, she says. "A good rule of thumb is if it's covered with a peel or husk, there's no need to buy it organic."
SKIP: Conventional Produce
Whole Foods' produce aisles are loaded with conventional produce as well as organic. But supermarkets' regular prices on conventionally grown produce are usually cheaper, says Teri Gault, Founder and CEO of The Grocery Game. Plus, the sales are typically much better. So unless it's on sale, skip the conventional stuff.
SKIP: Pre-Cut Produce
"Precut produce at Whole Foods is like a piece of art and oh-so-tempting as a time-saver, especially the way it's neatly arranged," says Warrick, and while there are definitely times you may want to splurge, try to resist the lure of perfectly cut peppers—they're way overpriced. "The markup is typically 40 percent or more," she says. Instead, grab your cutting board and knife and get chopping.
BUY: Meat and Sustainable Seafood
Whole Foods' prices and standards are high—but arguably worth it. "I purchase my organic meats at Whole Foods, even though I know I am paying a little bit more, because I know they are very strict with their policies regarding meats," says Kelly Hancock, author of Saving Savvy: Smart and Easy Ways to Cut Your Spending in Half, and Raise Your Standard of Living … and Giving!. The best way to buy meat there and still save money is to pay attention to sales. But if you care about your health and the health of the planet, buying high quality meat is the way to go.
SKIP: Organic Eggs
Whole Foods' organic eggs are fine—but you can usually do better pricewise. According to Gault, warehouse clubs generally have the best deals on eggs, organic or otherwise. So if you're really into your omelets, stock up elsewhere.
BUY: Whole Foods' House Brand
"A good rule of smart shopping is to buy store generics. And not all generics are as well made and wholesome as Whole Food exclusive in house line," says Gault. The market's 365 Everyday Value line ranges from oatmeal and OJ to hair conditioner and gummy vitamins—the one constant is high quality at a fair price. Just be aware that are not all 365 items are actually organic, says Gault, so buy carefully.
BUY: Vegan and Gluten-Free Foods
Life is hard enough without having to forgo real cheese and fresh baked bread. This least you can do is treat yourself to the best substitutes on the market. "If you're looking for vegan cheese, mayo, or specialty diet items, you'll pay the same price at Whole Foods as you will at a regular grocery store," says Food Network star Melissa d'Arabian. "The difference? Selection! You will have so many more options to you at Whole Foods."
BUY: Good Carbs
Specialty grains and flours like quinoa and sorghum are a must-buy at Whole Foods, says Gault. Shopping the bulk bins lets you get exactly the amount you need, when you need it, without creating a shipping and packaging carbon footprint. She also gives a shout out to specialty pastas like spelt.
BUY: Go Nuts for Nuts
"You can't miss with almonds, pecans and other nuts from the well-stocked bulk aisle. It's a great place to scope out sales and stock up," says d’Arabian. She suggests buying whole nuts here, transferring them to a large mason jar and keeping them the fridge (or pop into a freezer bag and keep in the freezer). "These will be cheaper than any nuts you'll buy in the baking aisle of your regular grocery store." Honestly, you can't miss with bulk bin items in general—you can buy only as much as you need, so you'll save money in the long run.
SKIP: Nut Butters and Oils
With the exception of peanut butter, there are no real bargains on exotic nut butters like almond and cashew, nor steals on the magical healthy fat du jour, coconut oil. "I get mine at warehouse stores like Costco," says d’Arabian. "Larger jars, for less money."
BUY: Frozen Treats
Go on, scream for ice cream. Along with eco-faves like Stonyfield and Ben & Jerry's, the store carries seemingly every soy, almond and coconut milk-based frozen treat on the market (unlike most markets which carry a limited array of vegan and lactose-free options, at best). You'll also find luscious gelatos and ice creams picks from local purveyors. And if you're really lucky, your local Whole Foods also doles out gelato by the scoop.
BUY: Vitamins and Supplements
Searching for the finest fish oil? Deciding between CoQ10 and Resveratrol? Whatever supplement, you seek, you're almost guaranteed to find a solid selection at reasonably fair prices. "The supplements aisle at Whole Foods is a treasure trove of different minerals to help you feel your best," says Warrick. "Even better, there's usually someone on staff that is very knowledgeable about the products."
BUY: Natural Beauty
You can definitely buy natural and eco-friendly makeup and skincare online -- perhaps even cheaper than at Whole Foods. But you'll end up saving money by being able to actually test said products, which Whole Foods lets you do for coveted natural collections from Dr. Hauschka, Juice Beauty, Pangea Organics and Mineral Fusion, among others.
SKIP: Household Items
Convenience will cost you. "It's way easier to pick up items like light bulbs, garbage bags or toilet paper when you're already at the store, but you'll pay the price at Whole Foods," says Warrick. "Shoppers have to weigh the pros and cons of saving money by going to another store or the convenience factor of being able to pick it up in one spot." The only caveat: Whole Foods does offer a ton of great sustainable and environmentally friendly home goods, so if eco trumps economics, you may find the extra money well worth spending.
BUY: Catered Holiday Dinners
Don't slave over your stove (unless you like to!) for holiday dinners. Whole Foods' holiday catering isn't nearly as cost prohibitive as you might expect—especially when you factor in the value of your time, effort and cost of ingredients. This past Thanksgiving, my family served an incredible Whole Foods turkey dinner for 12, including all the fixings, for around $200. Not exactly, budget, of course, but the pre-cooked bird required little "cooking ability" (which everyone appreciated), and we were able to add healthy, non-traditional options, like salads and veggie sides.
SKIP: Organic Pantry Staples
A box of crackers is a box of crackers. Same goes for cereal bars, fruit leathers, peanut butter and eco-cookie and brownie mixes. "Skip the organic baking items at Whole Foods because they are much cheaper to order online at Amazon and Vitacost," says Hancock. The former offers amazing deals on multiples, while the latter stocks an impressive selection of organic, gluten-free, vegan and vegetarian everyday items from condiments to candy.
A version of this story originally appeared on iVillage.