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K-State Today

May 23, 2013

Food pro offers tips to save on groceries

By Nancy B. Peterson

While some express concern about rising food prices, others are unaware of how much they spend on food.

Either way, there is room to save, said Mary Meck Higgins, Kansas State University associate professor of human nutrition, who suggested three cost-cutting ideas to eat well for less.

To begin, Higgins, a K-State Research and Extension nutrition specialist and a registered dietitian, recommended keeping receipts for grocery purchases and restaurant meals for one month to assess actual food costs.

She also recommended carrying a notepad or card in a purse or wallet to jot down the cost of foods purchased from occasional sources. A vending machine at work, coffee shop and event concession stand are examples.  

Spending as little as $5 a week on such purchases can add up to more than $250 a year, she said.

According to Higgins, people often are surprised to learn how much they are spending.

Making a decision to spend less on food can yield a savings and lead to better health, more time with family and friends, and pleasurable meals, she said.

Her first suggestion is to eat more meals at home, because "eating at home is typically less expensive than eating out, where others are paid to prepare your food."

Higgins reported that eating at home will save time as well as money.  

Doing so also can be healthier, said Higgins, who noted that restaurant meals can be higher in calories, saturated fat and sodium that can contribute to heart disease, stroke, diabetes, some cancers, osteoarthritis and other diseases.

At home, she said you’ll know what you are eating, how food has been prepared, and be more able to measure portions that will contribute to health.

To begin the transition, she suggested reserving restaurant meals for special occasions, and transferring the expense to an entertainment, rather than food, budget.

Higgins suggested brushing up on cooking skills with family and friends, and noted: "A simple meal can be satisfying and take less time to prepare than it takes to drive to a restaurant."

Simplify meal planning

If not in the habit of cooking, focus on gradual change and skill-building recipes, said Higgins, who has successfully managed the challenges in planning, timing and cooking healthy meals to please an active family.

In the process, she’s fine-tuned her shopping skills, and shared the following time- and money-saving ideas:

* Plan weekly or monthly menus, and rotate them.

* Plan snacks (not necessarily pre-packaged snack foods) to provide the energy needed between meals. Health-promoting foods, including fruits, vegetables, unsalted nuts, whole grain crackers and popcorn can work well as snacks.  

* Plan to cook when time is available; double or triple a recipe to wrap and freeze for future meals when less time is available. In doing so, cool and refrigerate if to be used in a day or two or label, date and freeze the extras for future meals.

* Cook once, and eat two or three times with what Higgins likes to call 'planned overs.' For example: Choose a beef pot roast on Sunday that also will provide enough cooked beef to freeze for a hearty vegetable soup or stew later, and use what is left for quick barbecued beef sandwiches for a meal after a busy work day.

Roasting a whole chicken or turkey can be a favorite with families, yet also provide 'planned overs' for subsequent meals that might include chicken salad, a hot turkey sandwich, or chicken or turkey casserole.

"Just be sure to refrigerate it promptly and use it within three days or less, or to freeze it for use in future meals," she cautioned.

* Tight on time, with an hour or less between work and a scheduled family activity? Take advantage of leftovers, 'planned overs,' or choose a meal featuring cold sandwiches or an easy "breakfast" menu, such as a glass of low-fat milk with scrambled eggs, carrot sticks, whole grain toast and fruit salad.

Keep a running grocery list and don’t leave home without it.

Higgins advises keeping frequently used ingredients on hand, and a running grocery list posted where others in the family or household can add to the list if or when they use the last of the peanut butter, cereal, etc.

Running out of a needed item can require extra trips to the store that 1) take time, and 2) add expense, as we rarely pick up just one or two items, the shopping pro said.

She also advised consumers to re-think how they fill their grocery carts.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010 recommend 2.5 cups of fruits and vegetables a day for adults. When multiplied by seven, the total is 17.5 cups a week; for a couple, 35 cups a week, and for a family with two teenagers, 70 cups per week.

The recommended health-promoting fruits and vegetables purchased will likely be a combination of fresh, frozen, dried and canned, said Higgins, who noted that making a commitment to eat more meals at home will require buying more food.

In making the decision to eat more meals at home, Higgins also advised consumers to expect an increase in their grocery bills. The benefit will be that these increased costs are offset by markedly reduced expenses in eating out, and can be further reduced as individuals become more savvy shoppers. To save time and money, her suggestions include:

* Format your list by category, and list categories in the order that follows the store’s layout, so that you can save time, steps and money (by reducing impulse purchases during extra trips up and down the aisles).

* Do major shopping just once a week, at a time when specials are advertised, but preferably when the store is less crowded, which often is early in the morning, later in the evening, and on weekdays, rather than a weekend.

* If necessary, make a second trip during the week to replenish perishable foods such as milk and fresh produce for a growing family.

* Shop the perimeter, or the outer walls, of the store for fresh and less processed food items. Examples include produce, nuts, dairy products, eggs, meats, poultry and fish, and whole grain breads.  

* Make a trip down the interior aisles to pick up dried or canned legumes, such as red and black beans, and whole grains, such as brown rice, rolled oats and popcorn seeds. However, be aware that processed foods make up the bulk of what is found in interior aisles.

* More costly items often are within easy reach; look high and low for more moderately priced versions, such as a store brand or generic version of the same item.

* Buy what you need, and use what you have to reduce waste and make the most of food dollars.

* Keep your grocery purchases safe by promptly placing refrigerated items in the refrigerator, frozen items in the freezer, etc.

When is a sale a sale?

Shoppers can be fooled by displays, including the end-of-the aisle displays that suggest a sale, but may not be a bargain, said Higgins, who prefers to shop with a "personal price guide" to be able to spot when a sale is a sale.

It takes time to compile a personal price guide, and Higgins said "it’s well worth it."

She recommended compiling the list gradually, and suggested using a three-ring notebook with a coupon pouch. Higgins also suggested identifying food categories and noting the prices on 10 frequently purchased items initially.

To start, she uses those receipts she collected for a month and lists the package size and most recent price or sale price, and store, if shopping more than one market, for each item.

"Take the price guide notebook to the store with you," said Higgins, who added that once in the habit of comparing prices and taking advantage of sales that are sales, shoppers can add additional items — and increase savings.

More information about grocery shopping and managing meals successfully is available at K-State Research and Extension offices and online: www.ksre.ksu.edu/HumanNutrition; Select Nutrition Topics and "Eating Well on a Budget."

Additional links for more information:

Dining on a Dime newsletter

United States Department of Agriculture site