Now, why would I go to the markets? Apart from it being a nice way to spend my morning, I was on a little bit of a ‘mission’ to reduce my grocery bill – and word has it that the markets are a great place to find some bargains.

Value for money aside, there are a range of reasons to swap your supermarket shopping for a trip to the markets.

The vibe

The vibe, energy and the feeling of excitement in the markets is contagious. The smell of different foods, the loud chatter, and even some price bantering between customers and merchants is what it’s all about. With all of this going on, there is always a busy feel, a feeling that people are there to ‘get things done’. Not to mention, the diverse culture of the merchants, the food and the languages.

You can also always bet on finding some sort of different vegetable that you’ve never seen before (but would be delicious when used in Asian cooking). There are also often displays of cheeses, olives and cured meats that scream Mediterranean cuisine. It gets me excited thinking about all the different meals that could be created.

Which is saying something because, if you’re anything like me, sometimes between work and studying there isn’t even time to cook – let alone time to get excited about cooking! Unlike a supermarket, it’s enjoyable to just walk around and take in the atmosphere. Compared to the dreary aisles of the local supermarket, that’s a huge bonus.

The variety

Food wise there’s a diverse range of seasonal produce among the different stalls, allowing you to easily compare the prices. With a bit of detective work you can find where each item on your shopping list is cheapest. Yes, the supermarket is convenient, but it’s not necessarily the cheapest (or the most exciting) place to source your meals.

The bulk-buys

Another great advantage of shopping at the markets is the ability to buy in bulk. At the markets, there are often deals where you get a number of items for a lower price, such as 5 for $2 offers or large trays for a small price. Certain cuts of meats can also be cheaper, so if you have the freezer space, it can be a good idea to buy here and portion your groceries up in the freezer.

Other items, (such as canned goods and dried products) are also available by the box, and can last for ages. While it might feel strange taking home a box of canned chickpeas, this type of bulk buy is great to keep in the pantry. If you get creative, they can be used in so many different ways.

While buying in bulk is great for cost, there are some difficulties. Having that amount of money to set out in the one purchase can be a challenge (not to mention the large chunk it takes out of your weekly budget). Being able to transport large amounts of food home and then being able to store it can also be an issue. However, I’ve learned that with some careful planning (deciding which items you can afford to bulk buy each week, how you can store it, and transport it), you can save some serious dough. 

So, was it worth it?

If you are thinking ‘is the extra work worth it’ then check out this little experiment that I did. The other day, I went to the supermarket and did my shopping. Today? I went to Queen Victoria Market and had a good walk around to try and find the bargains. One thing that I was surprised to find was mince meat for $7 a kilo, and this was the lean mince, whereas at the supermarket you're more likely to spend $12 a kilo on the good stuff.

Similarly, red capsicums were $3 less per kilo than the supermarket, and green beans were half the price of the ones I bought at Woolies the other day. True story.

Other items that I picked up this morning that were significantly cheaper include; pumpkin, baby spinach leaves, zucchini and mushrooms.

Passion fruits have always been a favourite of mine, but I rarely buy them because at the supermarket you’re likely to spend up to $1.50 per piece, which I find to be a bit expensive. At the markets? I was able to buy 4 for $2! I also treated myself to a punnet of blueberries for only $2.50. Winner.

The key is to remember that a lot of the staple produce such as potatoes, onion, and carrots will always be at a fairly similar, low price to what you will find at the supermarket. But other items, especially those that are in season, will often be significantly cheaper.

If the market’s not for you...

If you're not a market-lover, don’t stress. There are a few other options for cheap eats beyond the checkout.

Have you ever heard of The Community Grocer? It’s an organisation that holds market stalls in selected locations across Melbourne. The Community Grocer aims to provide the community with fresh seasonal produce at a reduced price. There are several Grocers across Melbourne in certain suburbs, and each operates for a period of time on a selected day of the week. I actually used to volunteer at a Community Grocer and I used to wait until Wednesday mornings to do my groceries as I knew I would get really fresh and delicious produce for less than I would spend at the supermarket. I highly recommend Community Grocers. You can find one close to you here.

Another option for cheap eats is Lentil As Anything – a donation-based eatery. The deal here is that you pay for your meal in the way that you can. Some people volunteer their time to work at the restaurant, others leave contributions in donation boxes.

‘Lentil’, as it is lovingly known, is welcoming to everyone – and looks beyond financial and social borders. As we all know, having the money (and time) for socialising whilst at uni can be a challenge, so next time you’re planning to go out for dinner with friends, Lentil As Anything might be a place that you could suggest. I’m sure your friends will thank you for it. There are three Lentil locations across Melbourne for you to visit. You can find them here.

We all have our own different ways to save money when food shopping, but sometimes looking past the most convenient place to shop is the way to go. So if you’re keen for a new experience (and up for a bit of an adventure) head down to your local market, or check out the other options I’ve listed. 

Not sure where to start? Visit your local council’s website and you’ll be able to find some in your local area. Just be wary of Farmers Markets, as these tend to be more expensive. If you’re in Melbourne, I encourage you to take a trip into the city to Queen Victoria Markets at least once  – as the experience is just as good as the money that you’ll save. And that’s something to smile about.

Hot tip

Doing one shop at the beginning of the week can also be a great way to spend less. If, at the start of each week, you sit down and plan what meals you’re going to have, and then write a list before going shopping, you’ll be less likely to purchase things that you don't need. Not to mention, you’ll also avoid heading to the supermarket every second day. This is another common reason people overspend (I know I do!).

If you have any tips for sourcing food (that doesn’t involve Woolies or Coles!), don’t keep them to yourself! Reach out with your go-to markets, eateries and stalls at healthpromotion@swinburne.edu.au.

Further support

Written by Nicole Missen, Master of Dietetics student, in collaboration with Robyn Delbridge, Dietitian (AdvAPD) and Lecturer, Master of Dietetics, Swinburne

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