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Stretch That Grocery List in Lean Times

Tips to serve your family healthy meals for less

MONDAY, July 21, 2008 (HealthDay News) -- With the exception of housing, and maybe gassing up your car, groceries are likely the next biggest expense in your family's budget. And increasingly, food is gobbling up more and more of the average Americans income.

During all of 2007, food prices rose almost 5 percent. Then, in just the first five months of 2008, food prices jumped 6.3 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

So, does this mean your family has to forgo meat and fresh produce, or head to the drive-thru to get a less-healthful but possibly less expensive meal?

Definitely not, said nutritionist Holly Scherer, from the University of Michigan Health System.

"If you're buying the basic ingredients to make a well-balanced meal, it's much less expensive to make it at home than to go to a fast food restaurant," said Scherer.

For example, in the New York metropolitan-area, a fast food meal for four, including two adult-sized specialty hamburger meals and two kid-sized hamburger meals with fries and sodas totals around $18. At the grocery store, the ingredients for similar meals, with leftovers, would cost about $14. If meat were on sale, the cost would be even less.

But, does saving money on food mean you have to sacrifice time? Not always, said Scherer. Buying a store brand instead of a name brand can save money, as can buying certain products when they're on sale and freezing them. Scherer said that's an ideal strategy for saving money on meat, which can be one of the most expensive items in your food budget. Buy meat in bulk when it's on sale and separate it into freezer bags and freeze it to use at a later date, she advised.

And having a meatless meal -- using beans or eggs instead of meat -- once or twice a week can also shave dollars off your food budget without draining your time.

The National Institutes of Health also suggests signing up for your local grocery store's frequent shopper card so you can qualify for additional savings. And, the NIH said, shopping without the kids will likely save you money by cutting down on those impulse purchases.

Don't always automatically reach for the largest container either; it's not always the best buy. Instead, compare the unit prices for each size, and buy the size with the lowest per ounce or per pound price.

Another big area where families can save is on beverages. Use tap water instead of bottled water, Scherer said. If you don't like the taste of your local water, buy a filtered pitcher or a filter for your faucet. Even with the cost of the filters, you'll save money over bottled water, she said.

Another big savings idea is to buy large sizes of snacks and create your own 100-calories packs at home. A bag of chips can easily break down into a dozen or more servings, while just five or six single serving snack packs cost the same amount, giving you twice as much food for the same price.

For those a little more ambitious and dedicated to saving money, growing your own fruits and vegetables is a great way to save money, Scherer said. Plants cost only a few dollars and can grow many times that amount in fresh produce.

The most important factor in saving money on food, said Scherer, is planning. "Look at sales; make a list; a little planning really can make a big difference in how much you spend at the grocery store."

More information

The University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension program offers more advice on stretching your food dollars.

Shop-Smart Supermarket Tips

Here are some more frugal food shopping hints from University of Michigan Health System nutritionist Holly Scherer:

  • Look for the generic or store brand.
  • Stock up on non-perishables when they go on sale.
  • Avoid the temptation of the cookie aisle and the chip aisle. Spend more time in the perimeter of the store, where the fresh products are, and really focus on the fruits and the vegetables and the lean meats and the low-fat dairy, Scherer says.
  • Use coupons, but only for things that you normally would buy, not a lot of high-fat, high-sugar foods.
  • Cook at home instead of going out to eat.
  • When you do eat out and you know that a restaurant serves large portions, have them bag half the meal right when they serve it and eat the leftovers for lunch the next day.
SOURCES: Holly Scherer, R.D., health educator, MFit, University of Michigan Health System, Ann Arbor, Mich.; National Institutes of Health, We Can! program
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