Pinching Food Pennies

There’s no denying it – we’re all feeling the pinch at the supermarket, as well as at the gas pump. Our hard-earned dollars are buying less milk, less bread and much to my dismay, less ice cream. (I’m annoyed, by the way, about the reduction in size of many ice cream cartons from 1/2 gallon to 1 3/4 or 1 1/2 quarts. Very sneaky – keep the price the same but reduce the package size.)

This past May, The Food Marketing Institute at their annual meeting released a report about grocery shopping trends. This year, unlike past years, economic concerns are compelling more of us to cook at home. In general, the report shows that we’re eating out less in restaurants and eating more leftovers.

I have to admit, I’ve developed a pretty steady routine for my grocery shopping. So, in response to rising food prices, I’ll share a few tips on how I save money at the grocery.

1. At least one day before I shop I make time to create a very complete menu that includes all the food our family will eat during the upcoming week: breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, bakes sales and if necessary, party food, special occasion meals, or food for a potluck at work. I glance through the weekly ad for my supermarket, and if pork tenderloin or chicken breasts are on sale I work those into my menu. I also take advantage of 10/$10 specials, but only buy 1 or 2 at $1.00/each.

2. Using my own preprinted shopping list, customized for my most frequently visited market, (a hold over from my personal chef days), I mark every food item I need to buy. If I’m preparing a new recipe, I include all ingredients for the recipe. I ask the family if there’s anything we need because invariably someone has emptied the peanut butter jar and I haven’t noticed. I make the menu as complete as possible because my success depends on its thoroughness. In my opinion saving money at the grocery is just like painting. It’s 3/5 preparation.

3. Next I survey the refrigerator (especially the produce bin), pantry and freezer to see what I might already have on hand. The freezer, pantry and produce drawer can become like a large black hole. Unless I’m vigilant, mine have a tendency to suck up ingredients that are bought, but never cooked. Food in the freezer dehydrates (or becomes freezer burnt) when stored for an excessive amount of time. Freezer burn does not jeopardize the safety of the food, but does negatively affect the quality. Food and ingredients in the pantry can go stale and may be prone to attract pests. Produce in the drawer, out of sight, wilts and spoils.

4. One of the most effect ways to save money (and control impulse shopping) is to limit my trips to the store. I pick a day and time and try to shop at that same day/time every week. Typically, I shop early on Thursday morning. You may prefer midnight on Tuesday, or late on Saturday afternoon, but no matter when you go, take your list and stock up! I recommend steering clear of any grocery store from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. during the week. You’ll see a lot of unhappy, hurried people there, in ultra-panic mode about their dinner.

5. I only use coupons for items I would buy without the coupon. For example, I don’t buy the new oatmeal cereal gummies just because I have a coupon. Those gummies, not matter how good they look, are not something I’d buy anyway so in actuality the coupon is luring me to spend more money even though I’m saving 50 cents. How many coupons do you see for broccoli, peaches, milk or brown rice? Not many I bet, and there’s a reason for that. Food marketers are trying to get us to leave the store’s perimeter, shop the aisles and reach for their hot new food item. But if you do see coupons for cleaning supplies, paper products, pet food, fresh vegetables, peaches, milk, or brown rice by all means us them. A coupon not used for to buy something you purchase regularly is like lost money.

6. Keep in mind that any food, drink or snack purchased in individual containers significantly increases the cost per serving. For example, fruit chunks or applesauce in little cups, cubes of cheese and lunchmeat in plastic lunch boxes, juice bags and boxes, baby carrots in tiny bags, 100 calorie cookie and snack cracker packages, and tuna and crackers in a cup, are all much more expensive per serving. To save money I grate my own cheese, pour juice into a cup for the kids to drink, portion chips and pretzels into a small bags, count out my own cookies, and peel and slice whole carrots. If you want to save money, take a hard look at the amount of packaging you buy (and throw away – most packaging wrecks havoc on the environment). Want to save money? Reduce the amount of food you buy individually pre-packaged.

7. Don’t be afraid to try and buy store brands. In many instances they are packed at the same food plant, are of equal quality, and cost much less than the name brand of the same item. I find this particularly true for canned beans, some coffee, old-fashioned oats, and milk, just to name a few.

8. Watch out for club stores. They’ll suck you in and if you’re not careful eat away at a large portion of your discretionary income. Oh sure, they may have good prices on items you regularly buy, but it’s the other stuff you throw in your cart as you make your way to the stuff you normally buy that shoots the budget. Years ago I belonged to Sam’s Club. I really don’t know what I needed to buy but I shopped, spent about $175.00 and all I remember was I came home with a bunch of toilet paper and a new sweat suit. It was at that moment that I realized how impulsive shopping in a club store could become so, for me and my family that was the end of that membership, plus the membership cost money. Go figure.

So, that in a grocery bag is how I save money at the supermarket. I make a plan, evaluate my inventory, make infrequent shopping trips, avoid the allure of useless coupons, watch the amount of packaging I buy, and utilize store brands as much as possible. All of this adds up the good feeling of a well-stocked kitchen, armed and ready (at least for one week) for any food event that life throws my way.

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