As prices rise, keep food costs down

May 07, 2008|By LYNN LITTLE

The rising cost of gas, diesel fuel and other forms of energy are affecting the price of many foods, from milk and bread to coffee and sugar. It can be a real challenge to keep family food costs manageable in today's economy.

To get the most from your food dollars:

Create a food budget. Take the time to figure out how much money your budget allows for food each month, then divide your monthly food budget by how many times you shop each month. Get cash for the budgeted amount and take only that amount to the grocery store. This will assure that you spend only what you budget.

Plan meals before you go to the grocery store. Write up a menu of the meals and snacks you plan to prepare for the week, while making sure they are affordable and fit your food budget. Consider using the food you might already have at home on your menu, which will save you money and help clean out the pantry. To help reduce food costs, plan a meatless meal at least once each week. Plan menus that incorporate rice, pasta and beans. These items are less expensive and more healthful.


Make a list of the food you will need to prepare your meals. After checking the cupboards, review your menus and make a list to take to the grocery store. Choose the grocery store that will give you the most value for your money. You usually have to pay higher prices in convenience stores. Supermarkets will nearly always have lower prices than small stores, because large stores can buy their stock in larger quantities. Review your list to see if you can reduce your use of processed food items, which are more expensive. Select foods that are less processed, less costly and more healthful.

Shop the grocery store ads and look for coupons. Remember to use the coupons only on items you actually use, and avoid buying items just because you have a coupon. Make sure the item with the coupon is really the best buy. Sometimes less expensive store brands are cheaper than highly advertised brands. Store brands often are the same quality as the name brands and almost always save you money.

Don't shop on an empty stomach. If you go to the store hungry, you are likely to buy more food, including unnecessary and expensive items. Instead, have a small snack before you go grocery shopping. If you shop with children along, before going into the store, give them specific tasks and set limits on any treats you'll buy for them.

Beware the end caps. Food on aisle end caps is attractively displayed to entice shoppers to make additional purchases. However, these displays do not always feature sale items or bargains.

Compare prices by comparing the cost per unit of foods you're buying. The unit price usually is listed on the grocery shelf. The unit price is the cost of the item per ounce, quart, gallon, pound or other unit of measure. Also compare forms of food. Buy a lower-cost form of the food if it will do as well. For example buy frozen green beans if fresh are too expensive. Watching for sales on items in the fresh produce aisle is a good habit to get into, but also be sure to look for fruits and vegetables in the canned goods section. Canned fruits and vegetables are often your cheapest option, especially the store brands. They have a long shelf-life, so buying in bulk when they're on sale makes sense.

Follow these tips regularly, and you will likely start to see a reduction in your food expenditures. Food costs can add up quickly for most families. You can't control the cost of fuel or even food, but you can manage your food dollars wisely, and will likely have more money in your wallet in the end.

You can find information on meal planning and grocery shopping on the Web site For more ideas, consult the new MyPyramid Menu Planner, available at It's a great tool to help families plan a well-rounded menu and make sure they incorporate all of the food groups.

If you don't have a computer at home, you can use a public-access computer at the nearest public library. You'll need to set up a password (librarians can help), and then you can return regularly to your personal menu planner page.

Lynn Little is a family and consumer sciences educator with University of Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County.

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