Tips for taming rising grocery prices

Wed May 7, 2008 2:44pm EDT

(Linda Stern is a freelance writer. Any opinions in the column are solely those of Ms. Stern. You can e-mail her at

lindastern@aol.com.)

By Linda Stern

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Gasoline isn't the only necessity of life that has gotten painfully expensive. Prices are rising sharply on eggs, rice, poultry, milk and bread -- all of the dietary staples.

Families with stagnant salaries who have been barely affording the rising cost of health care, driving and home heating and cooling now also have to figure out how to squeeze in eating.

And it could get worse before it gets better.

Some say prices of meat, pork and poultry have been held artificially low in recent years. The conversion of fields previously used for soy and feed grain into corn for ethanol will continue to have an impact. Corn, which finds its way into many food items -- as corn syrup for one -- has more than doubled in price the last two years.

But put that all in perspective: Food prices have actually been fairly stable for more than a decade. According to the latest Department of Agriculture figures (from 2006), American households spend less than 6 percent of their income on food -- that's less than in any other country.

Fortunately, there are almost as many ways to save on food as there are to eat. Frugal eating often dovetails with nutritious eating -- the most expensive foods often are the least healthy. Here's how to eat well and still have some money left for dessert.

-- Use the best advice from folks who have already done it. The blogosphere is full of frustrated home economics teachers who are more than happy to share their best frugal tips and recipes. A few places to start are:

here;

www.frugalfamilykitchen.com;

www.mommysavers.com; and

www.cheapcooking.com.

-- Coupon carefully. If you're willing to put in the time and effort, you can buy a basket of groceries for pennies on the dollar. It involves using coupons, shopping sales, finding stores that double coupons and putting it all together carefully. One site to check for more information is www.hotcouponworld.com.

You can find coupons to match items on sale at your local grocer at www.thegrocerygame.com. Beware: Unless you're using good coupons on products you would buy anyway, this can be a spending trap instead of a money-saving deal.

-- Buy some good containers. Roughly 13 cents of every food dollar goes to packaging and advertising, and you'll spend a lot more than that if you are always buying 100-calorie snack packs and tiny bags of chips to send to school with your kids. Buy some reusable containers, buy your favorite products in bulk and make your own individual packages.

-- Use meat for flavor, not bulk. A mixture of meat and beans over pasta or rice will satisfy those who love the taste of meat and poultry, but cut costs significantly than eating large cuts of meat.

-- Make your dollar buy more nutrition. Instead of buying sugar-coated cereals, white bread and chips, buy items like whole-grain bread and oatmeal. Instead of candy, buy fruit. Popcorn that you pop yourself has been heralded for generations for being cheap, fun, nutritious and tasty.

-- Buy frozen fish. Almost all of the "fresh" fish you buy has been frozen and thawed. Fish from the freezer section has often been frozen on the boat, so it's equally fresh -- and cheaper.

-- Do your own work, as a family. You're spending more on labor than on food when you buy lots of presliced, prewashed, preseasoned foods. Yet all the experts seem to agree that family mealtime is an important ritual. Extend the ritual by getting the whole family in on the slicing, dicing, cutting and stirring that dinner requires, even if it's just a once-a-week cooking session. You'll save money and maybe bond a little.

-- Eat out judiciously. Last year restaurant prices actually rose less than grocery prices, but it still costs a lot more to eat out than to cook at home. Americans typically spend about half of their food budget eating out, according to the Agriculture Department. Cut the cost without cutting the fun by mixing it up: Have appetizers and drinks at home before going to the restaurant, or have dessert at home. Or buy a precooked, carry-out chicken, but fix your own side salad.

-- Stock up on sales. You know you're always going to use pasta, lightbulbs and toothpaste, so buy a bunch on sale. Sure, this is inflation mentality, but double-digit price increases on food means we're in an inflationary environment, food wise. Furthermore, if you already have easy, good food in the pantry, you won't have to run out at the last minute and buy over-priced convenience items just to throw together dinner.

-- Grow your own. Oh sure, anyone who's gardened has thrown too much money at their tomato plants. But some crops are more worth growing than others. Basil and other herbs, hot peppers, eggplant and lettuce are some items that are very easy to grow and are never cheap at the grocer or farm stand, even when they are in season.

-- Make it fun. Save with a goal in mind so it becomes a game and not just drudgery. Shave $10 a week off of your food bill (that's less than 10 percent for the typical household), and you can all do something special, like go see a movie at the end of every month -- Of course you'll bring your own snacks.

(Editing by Maureen Bavdek)

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