By Chris Woolston, M.S.
Food is probably your second biggest expense, right after housing. With the economy on the downturn and food prices on the rise, many families and individuals are taking a thriftier approach to mealtime. You may be stuck with set mortgage payments or rent, but you can likely trim some real fat from your food budget.
A family of four with two school age children could easily spend $1,100 or more at the grocery store each month, according to an October 2008 estimate from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). That doesn't even include restaurant meals, a major expense for some families. But with a few simple changes in buying habits, a family could chop $300 or even $500 from that bill every month without sacrificing nutrition, also according to the USDA. That's a potential $6,000 in savings in just one year.
How does the USDA account for the savings? By reducing waste (eating food before it goes bad), getting whole grains from bread and pasta rather than pricey cereals, buying cheaper vegetables like potatoes and carrots, and using less expensive meats (chicken as opposed to pork or veal) and other forms of protein, for starters. Whether you save thousands of dollars using these tips, the message is still the same: Smart shopping -- and smart eating -- could be your own economic stimulus program.
Healthy foods, low prices
If you skip the pre-packaged meals and fancy cuts of meat, you can find all sorts of nutritious foods that cost less than one dollar per serving. For example, eggs, tofu, or boneless, skinless chicken breasts (purchased frozen in a large bag) are all inexpensive sources of protein. Loaves of bread, oats, brown rice, and other grains almost never cost more than $1 per serving. Milk and bulk cheeses can cover your dairy needs, and you'll have no shortage of fruits and vegetables to choose from. According to the American Dietetic Association, you could easily get your full allotment of fruits and vegetables for just $2.50 each day. For one dramatic example, you could buy four pounds (16 servings) of fresh red potatoes for the price of a single 9-ounce bag of potato chips. Don't forget beans -- they're nutritious and easy on the wallet, too.
Grocery store savings
Here are some more simple ways to save money at the grocery store:
- Cut back on waste. Are you throwing away a small fortune in wilted vegetables and expired yogurt? When shopping for foods that can spoil, don't buy more than you will actually eat before the expiration date.
- Shop at home first. Before you go to the grocery store, check your shelves and freezer for forgotten canned food and bags of frozen vegetables. With a little creativity, you can turn them into a meal. You can even search online for recipes that use specific ingredients if you're stumped. (Just check the expiration dates on cans before you use them, and don't eat food from any cans that are dented or damaged.)
- Beware of instant gratification. Instant rice and oatmeal cost more than the slow-cooking varieties, and they also tend to be higher in sugar and calories. Microwave dinners and other prepared foods will generally be more expensive than meals you put together yourself.
- Chop it and mix it yourself. Pre-cut fruits and vegetables and prepared salad mixes can be a time-saver, but you'll save money by buying whole fruits, vegetables, and heads of lettuce. You'll also use less packaging.
- Consider canned or frozen fruits and vegetables. Contrary to common belief, canned or frozen produce can be just as nutritious as fresh produce -- sometimes even more so. It can be less expensive, too, and more cost effective because it's less likely to spoil.
- Buy meat in bulk. Ounce for ounce, large packages of meat and poultry tend to cost much less than small packages. If you find a good meat special, buy an extra package or two. Cook what you need, and put the rest in the freezer for later. For dishes like chili that use ground beef, use a fattier -- and cheaper -- grade of ground beef. Reduce the fat after browning by blotting the meat, rinsing under hot water, and draining well.
- When possible, buy locally grown foods. It takes a lot of money and fuel to ship lamb from Australia or asparagus from Chile, and those costs are passed along to consumers. Whether you shop at a grocery store or, better yet, a farmer's market, you may find the best bargains from local producers. Local food is likely to be fresher, too.
- Check out ultra-pasteurized milk. It has a longer expiration date and won't spoil as fast, so you can buy it in bigger sizes that cost less.
- Plan ahead. Impulse buys can really jack up your grocery bill. (That's one reason it's better to shop without the kids, who can be counted on to make impromptu requests.) Make a list before you go to the grocery store and stick to it, unless you discover an unexpected bargain on something you will actually eat. Planning ahead can also mean fewer trips to the grocery store -- and that can save you money. According to a study by the Marketing Science Institute published by Kiplinger magazine, people who make quick trips to the store wind up buying 54 percent more than they had intended.
- Check out store circulars and coupons. In these competitive times, grocery stores try to attract shoppers with eye-catching specials. Use coupons regularly, and even small savings can add up.
- Get creative with leftovers. Not enough pot roast left for a second night's dinner? Use it for sandwiches, or combine it with leftover vegetables to make a hearty soup. And if leftovers don't seem very glamorous, just think of it as another way to recycle!
- Watch out for "sales" that aren't. Read the prices and cost per item labels carefully. Often you'll find that something marked with a sale price isn't any cheaper -- and may be more expensive -- than a similar product further down the aisle. One online blogger wrote that she found pears on sale for $2.00 a pound at the entrance to her store's produce section, but further in found similar pears that were regularly priced at $1.50 per pound. And watch the register when the clerk rings up your items to be sure you are charged the correct price.
Americans of moderate means are eating fewer meals in restaurants, which is a smart move in tough economic times. According to a December 2008 Gallup Poll, only 47 percent of lower middle-income people reported eating out in the previous week, compared with 61 percent in 2005.
If you're looking to trim your food budget, remember that cooking at home is almost always cheaper than eating out. When you eat at a restaurant, you're paying for the salaries of employees, rent for the building, and maybe some franchise fees in addition to the actual food. That restaurant meal may be tasty and convenient, but it's not going to be a bargain.
Even the drive-thru lane is no money saver. Consider: Four McDonald's Extra Value Meals -- that's four medium drinks, four sandwiches, and four medium fries -- can easily add up to $25 or $30 and more. Cooking at home, you could serve a near-gourmet meal of four 6-oz sirloin steaks, four servings of roasted potatoes, four large salad servings, and four large glasses of milk or juice for less money. Go for a cheaper cut of meat or buy your steaks on special, and your steak dinner would be significantly cheaper than McDonald's. A slightly more mundane meal of spaghetti and meat sauce with salad could easily cost less than $15 -- hamburger, pasta, tomato sauce, garlic, oregano, greens, dressing, drinks, and all. And you just might be able to reheat some leftovers for tomorrow's lunch. Try doing that with a burger and fries.
U.S. Department of Agriculture. Eat right when the money's tight. 2008.
U.S. Department of Agriculture. The low-cost, moderate-cost, and liberal food plans, 2007.
U.S. Department of Agriculture. Official USDA food plans: Cost of food at home at four levels, U.S. average, October 2008.
American Dietetic Association. American Dietetic Association offers tips for eating healthy on a budget. 2008.
Save Money on Food. Kiplinger.com.
Family Finance: How to Save Money on Groceries. Alanna Kellogg.
Rickman JC, Barrett DM, Bruhn CM. Review: nutritional comparison of fresh, frozen and canned fruits and vegetables. Part 1. Vitamins C and B and phenolic compounds. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture. 87:930-944, 2007.
University of Wisconsin-Madison. Food Safety and Health. Reducing fat levels in ground beef.