Monday, January 21, 2013

Hard times call for trimming the fat on our grocery bills

Sunny skies are nice for picnics but the scarcity of rainfall last summer is one of the reasons we are paying more at the more at the grocery stores.

The record-breaking heat waves we experienced in 2012, scorched crops in many of the nation’s grain-producing regions resulting in poor fall harvests. That in turn created higher prices on everything from boxes of cereal to bottles of pop, and from bacon to burgers.

Even worse is the fact that the World Bank is predicting that high and volatile food prices may be the new normal.

It’s for this reason I am looking to change the way I shop for groceries.

Like instead of buying a lot of processed packaged fruit snacks or roasted and salted peanuts in a can, for example, I’m going to make a serious effort to visit more of our local fruit markets this spring and summer. “Less processing equals greater value,” said Kara Newman, author of “The Secret Financial Life of Food: From Commodities Markets to Supermarkets.”

To explain further Newman cited a United States Department of Agriculture study that focused on price inputs for a typical box of corn flakes. “When you buy packaged food, only 15 to 20 cents of every dollar does toward the raw commodities used in that product,” explained Newman.  In a box of cornflakes, for example, 15 to 20 percent of the price goes toward the raw corn. The rest goes toward processing, transportation and fuel, advertising, and other expenses related to getting a box on a retail shelf. “In the end, you pay more for the packaging than you do for the corn in your corn flakes,” Newman said.

Another tip from Newman, that will not only save us money on groceries but put us one step closer to a healthier lifestyle. And that is to try out meatless Mondays or Fridays or Tuesdays. “Consider preparing vegetarian meals at least once a week. In 2012,” Newman said.  “’The steepest food price increases were among beef and veal, and poultry products,’ according to the USDA figures -- and those products are expected to trend higher still in 2013. By comparison, fresh vegetables were the only category that saw a decline in prices last year.”

I love vegetables but I still have fussy eaters living at home. Since they’re not keen on vegetables Newman suggests subbing eggs, dairy and fish for beef and poultry - which are all products that have had slightly gentler price increases. For example: On meatless Friday go with fish and chips, homemade macaroni and cheese or do something fun like designating it Breakfast Friday. French toast and waffles are always a favorite in my household. Another recipe for Breakfast Friday is quiche or some kind of breakfast casserole. Incredibleegg.org is an incredible source if you need recipes.

Never shop when you’re hungry, plain and simple.

Another idea is to consider discount stores that cut the frills in order to be able to provide lower prices on food. By frills I mean plastic bags, free carts, restrooms, concession stands, stock displays and decorative shelving.

Make a menu for the week first, then a list of items you need. 

If you’ve spent any time around farmers you know one of the best ways to save money on your food is to cut out the middleman. In western Canada - where I spent a great deal of my summers as a youth and most of my time as a journalism student - people buy their food directly from the neighbors. “One of the secrets nobody tells you is that you can opt out of buying commodity products if you want,” Newman said. “(But you can by shopping) at greenmarkets where you can buy direct from farmers and other food products.”

Steaks, roasts, hamburger, eggs, milk, cream and even items such as sausages, cheese, jam and bread - and then supplemented their stock with a monthly visit to the grocery store (40 miles away).  Among the items that we would buy “just in case” was powdered milk. It sounds gross. I know. But if you get into the habit of making it the night before - and keep it chilled - you’ll get used to the taste (sweeter than regular milk) and texture (like skim milk).

As times get harder more and more people will be looking for new ways to be frugal - and we’ll be looking to share those ideas with readers. Let us know if you’ve discovered a greenmarket in your area. Email: gina.joseph@macombdaily.com.

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