Food on the Cheap

NEWPORT, VT - When you're trying to make your food dollars go further, a few tips can help. An online search will come up with the following list or parts of this list, but experience is the key factor. To learn how to shop smart, you have to take the time to educate yourself on budgets, nutrition, food costs and cooking. Overall, the more you purchase local, unprocessed foods and cook them at home, the healthier and cheaper your meals will be.Fast foods, candy and sweets, sodas and "treat" foods may be great once in awhile, but if they become the staple of the day and the primary food source, you could be spending four times as much for food in a month as you need to be. For a family of four spending around $200 a week, that figure becomes $2400 a month. That's a lot of money to spend on food.Often, we don't pay attention to how much we are spending. A bag of potato chips here, some ice cream there, a stop at the local fast food place for lunch, dinner out - we don't keep track. Keeping track of how much we spend for what we eat, even if it's only for pre-packaged or pre-processed foods that are not prepared at home, is a surprising exercise.Shop around. A gallon of milk is $3 at one store and $5 at another. Check specials. Consider store brands. Check coupons. One store may give you a good deal with coupons and sales, but another store may have consistently lower prices. And when you shop, consider what it costs you in gas to get to and from the store. This applies to non-food items as well. A lot of people will go to Littleton, NH, to get a better deal than they can get locally, for instance, but by the time they spend the $40 or so in gas and another $40 or so eating out, did they really save any money?Check volume! Package A of cereal may cost $.50 less than Package B, but Package B may contain 50 percent more product. If you look at the price labels at the store, usually found on the edge of the shelves below the foods, they should tell you not only the price of the package you are buying but also the "unit price," that is, the cost per pound, per ounce, etc. Sometimes buying for less isn't buying cheaper. Can't find a per unit cost? You can do one of two things: Ask or take a calculator with you.Actually, taking a calculator with you when you shop is a good idea anyway, for when you decide you REALLY want that extra item and need to see if it will fit into your budget.Eat out less. Now, I'm one who loves to eat out. My favorite meals are take out from the buffet at Montgomery's Cafe, the burgers at Big Joe's, and Hoagie's vegetarian lasagna. But the fact is, the more you eat out, the more you spend. I know some people who grab a donut and coffee on their way to work, then eat at a fast food place for lunch, and on their way home either pick up take-out or a pre-made meal from the grocery store, effectively spending two to four times for food per day than they would if they made a grocery list every week, planned out their meals, packed their lunches and cooked their suppers.Plan your meals. What costs less: A prime rib dinner? Or a beef stew? Both come with potatoes, vegetables and red meat, but obviously making the beef stew at home (preferably in a slow cooker if you like your meat tender) will cost a lot less money. That doesn't mean you should give up the prime rib, but it has to be calculated into your food budget. Plan out the budget, find the menus and meal plans to match, then shop according to the grocery list. (A big hint is to NEVER grocery shop while hungry. In fact, have a nice meal before you go to the store.) If an item is not on your list, don't buy it. That's the hard part.Shop the perimeter of the store. If you walk around the grocery store, you will see it's divided into sections. The perimeter, or edges, of the store have the raw vegetables and fruits, meats, dairy products, cheeses, breads, etc. In other words, the staples. The closer you get to the center, the more you run into the chips, candies, cookies, etc. Less "junk" food makes for a smaller food bill.Learn how to cook. Cooking is a disappearing art, and yet with a little patience, a good cookbook, and maybe some tips from a friend or relative, you can make interesting, tasty and fun meals at a much lower cost than depending on others to make them for you. In addition to saving money, cooking is just plain fun. You can get a lot of pride out of your first "real" apple pie or homemade muffins or family meal. Yes, you'll make mistakes. Things will spoil, burn, fall on the floor and generally drive you into serious frustration, but perseverance and a good sense of humor will pay off in the long run. Cooking also allows you to experiment with foods you might not have tried before: avacados, eggplant, portabella mushrooms, etc.Make creative use of leftovers. Obviously, any food left laying around long enough, even in the refrigerator, poses a serious health risk. But a fresh fish dinner on a Friday night can turn into fish chowder on Saturday afternoon. Pork chops on Tuesday can become part of a casserole on Wednesday. Of course, to make sure you HAVE leftovers, watch portions when meals are served. If someone is hungry, they can always take seconds, but overloading a plate just to throw the remainder of the food away is a waste of food and money.Protein. Protein is one of the most important parts of a meal but it does not have to come out of red meat, or out of any meat, actually. While most people enjoy the flavor of meat, consider beans, eggs, tofu and similar items as alternatives to meat but at a much lower cost. And don't forget poultry. Chicken costs a lot less than steak.For more information on how to shop and cook smart, look for programs offered by the University of Vermont's Extension Program.