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TCP Kitchen

Have a Plan Before You Go to the Store

Stretching your food budget

Stretching your food budget takes time, planning and work, but if your goal is saving money, the effort will be well spent. Even if you are not concerned about saving a bunch, you can shave a buck or five off your grocery bill by following a few simple tips.

Advice abounds on the subject of supermarket savings, including a library full of books containing tips, recipes and advice.

Buying the cheapest ingredients just because they are cheap might not always serve you or your family in the best way. The biggest factor to consider in putting your food money to work in the most efficient way is nutrition per dollar.

Think fresh fruits and vegetables in season. Think foodstuffs you can buy in large quantities—volume results in more savings per serving—and store without spoilage. Think loss leaders, those advertised items that grocery stores discount heavily to get you in the door—but stick only to those things on sale.

Consider banding together with friends and neighbors and join a warehouse club or food cooperative. That way, you can buy in bulk and split up the food.

One of the most recent in a large crop of meal savings books comes from author Jennifer Maughan, a mother of three whose book 100 Meals for $5 or Less (Gibbs Smith, 2009) shares her strategies for shopping, cooking and efficient use of every morsel of food.

The first move you should make in your grocery-store battle plan, she advises, is to think. Before you go to the store, plan a week’s worth of meals. Then make a list of everything you will need. You can plan meals at that time based on the best sale prices.

If you get a newspaper, the grocery store circulars inside are a valuable source of intelligence. In addition, Sunday papers can pay for themselves in coupon savings alone. But you have to be careful with coupons. What might look like a great deal on paper doesn’t always translate into real savings at the dinner table.

Many coupons are for prepackaged foods. Although these can seem cheap, remember that premade foods include the price of the labor and energy it took to make them. Plus, many prepared foods are loaded with sodium, fat and calories. That can negate your savings at the store with money spent later at the doctor’s office.

Maughan’s book advocates doing even more homework, which could be a pain at first, but practices such as keeping a price list will net you the best savings whenever you go grocery shopping. She advises keeping track of what the different stores in your area charge for different grocery items, because sometimes stores run “sales” that seem good, but are not really values if you crunch the numbers.

Take a spiral notebook and pen along whenever you go shopping. Put column headings for date, store, item, price, unit price and sale price. The date is important, because it will help you keep track of price cycles at different stores. You should be specific about brand names, sizes and price per ounce. Whenever a store has a sale on an item, write that down. That way, if its sale improves later in the year, you’ll know that it’s really a great bargain.

Maughan also provides strategies for preparing food, storing leftovers and using them in creative ways and not allowing food to go to waste.

One intriguing dish from the book is a cool delight that can be made most cheaply in the late summer when melons abound.

Melon Boats

In late summer, when the stores and farmers markets are overflowing with melons, try different combinations of melon, fruit and gelatin.

1 large melon (such as cantaloupe or honeydew)
2 (3-ounce) packages flavored gelatin
1 cup boiling water
1/2 cup applesauce
1 cup sliced fresh fruit

Cut melon in half lengthwise and scoop out seeds. Cut a thin slice off the bottom of the melon so the half will sit firm and level. In a bowl, dissolve gelatin in boiling water, then stir in applesauce and fresh fruit. Pour gelatin mixture into the scooped-out center of the melon halves. Cover melons with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. Just before serving, slice each melon half into three wedges.

Serving size: 1 wedge. Per serving: 217 calories, 3.6 g protein, 0.3 g fat, 53.8 g carbohydrates, 171 mg sodium, trace mg cholesterol

August 2009 Recipe Contest