No coupons: Secrets to beat rising food costs

Published: Monday, March 26 2012 5:00 p.m. MDT

Tetreault plans her meals on Sunday because she shops on Mondays. She will use, for example, her crockpot to make beans on Monday, which will give something for dinner on Monday and Tuesday. That way she is only cooking one night. Wednesday night, could be a restaurant night and Thursday could be a simple meal at home.

Tetreault plans meals one week at a time — paying attention to how other events might affect when everybody could eat together. Some nights need a quick dinner. Other nights have more time for cooking. "I do a lot of preparation the night before," she said. "Last night I put everything together for a fruit smoothie that I served for breakfast."

The biggest advantage of meal planning, Tetreault said, is she is only buying food she knows her family is going to eat for that week. "I'm not buying food that sits around and possibly goes bad," she said. "Meal planning cuts down on food waste."

It isn't just about saving money. It is also about not wasting food. Money is saved at the purchase — but also by not throwing food out because it has gone bad or nobody will eat it. Meal planning includes planning to have and eat leftovers.

Start with sales

Andrea Woroch in California knows about frugal planning. Her family were immigrants from conflict-torn Ukraine. "We were raised to 'Finish everything on your plate — including that glob of ketchup you put on your plate — because who knows when you will eat again,'" she said. "We always had a frugal mentality growing up."

Woroch, who is a consumer savings expert who handles media relations for online coupon sites and discount shopping sites, thinks people don't realize how much money they are wasting.

She thinks the best way to plan meals is to begin with the items that a store has on sale for that week. Those sale items are in the newspapers and are also available online. "You can find free recipes online if the sale features a fruit, vegetable or meat you are not familiar with," she said.

McCoy also writes about this in "Miserly Moms." Before planning a week's worth of meals, McCoy recommends looking at the sale flyers from several local grocery stores. Use the items on the front and back of the flyers as the base items for the meals. McCoy says this could save up to 35 percent on groceries. If there isn't a lot of variety to choose from, that doesn't mean a variety of meals can't be made from one item. McCoy says chuck roast, for example, could become pot roast, beef stew, fajitas, chili, tacos, beef stroganoff and so forth.

Be careful though. Stores make up the losses they have on sale items by charging more on other items. Buy the things on sale at several stores and buy things that are not on sale at whatever store has the lowest overall prices. Also, be careful with warehouse club stores. Some things are cheaper — but not everything. McCoy says to know your prices.

Impulse power

There is nothing new about having a shopping list, but Woroch said countless surveys show people who shop with a list are more efficient, save time and make less impulse purchases. How much less?

Woroch said people spend an average of $20 on impulse every time they go to a store. If a person shops three times in one week, that is an extra $60. Cut that back to just one shopping trip, and that is $40 saved. "The less you shop, the more you prepare, the less you are going to buy on impulse," she said. "I do it too, so I try to stay out of the stores on an everyday basis."

And when in the store, Woroch says to pay close attention to the price per unit — even if something is on sale. The sale is not always the least expensive alternative. "Cheerios on sale isn't necessarily less expensive than a generic brand," she said.

In the last six months, stores have begun heavily promoting ten for ten deals — bulk discounts, Woroch said. Consumers see ten items for ten dollars as being a better value than one item for one dollar. But often the fine print says you could get the same discount for only a few items and don't need to buy in bulk.

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