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Stretch the bottom line at the grocery store

July 16, 2008|By LYNN LITTLE

The price per gallon for gasoline makes the headlines daily. Food costs at the grocery store are getting attention as well, with reporters talking about the parallel rise in the cost of gas and milk in the same sentence.

The Department of Agriculture is predicting a 4- to 5-percent rise in food prices this year. Now consumers are searching out bargains at the grocery store, an about-face from the previous norm of relying on convenience foods.

Despite rising prices, you can trim food costs and still eat well. Here are some tried and true tips that maximize the family food budget.

· Make a list and stick to it. With a list, you are less likely to buy on impulse. You'll also save by avoiding extra gas-guzzling trips back to the store when you've forgotten something you need. Keep a running list of what you need, adding items as you use the last one in your pantry. Go over the weekly grocery ads when they come out and, with your running list, it's quick and easy to finalize your grocery list.

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· Make a shopping list that follows the general layout of your favorite grocery store can help reduce the amount of time you spend in the grocery store, helping you from retracing your steps. Sticking to your list will help reduce the temptation to pick up extra items along the way.

· Shop the specials. Canned goods have a long shelf life. Buy on sale and stock up. If you have room in your freezer to store extra food, make use of that. Over-wrap items to keep air out and extend its freezer storage life, and protect the quality of things you get at a deal.

· Buy seasonal vegetables and fruits. These items are offered at lower prices when supplies are abundant. Buy only what you'll use - fresh produce has a short shelf life. Be creative with your produce if it's nearing overripeness. If the bananas get too ripe, for example, make banana bread. You lose money when you have to toss food because it was left too long and ends up in the garbage.

· Shop at local farmers' markets for locally grown foods that are fresh and comparable in price to grocery store produce. Often, farmers' markets are less expensive than store-bought produce. But buy realistic quantities so as not to waste food, time and money.

· Avoid shopping when you're hungry. If you walk into a grocery store when you're hungry, you'll likely wind up putting extra food, probably snack-type foods, in your grocery cart. If you don't think you spend much on snacks, try keeping a tally of all the snack foods you buy in one week. It might surprise you how much you are spending.

· Shop alone. Leave the kids and other family members at home. Too many "I want" and "can I have" requests will drive up the total grocery bill in a hurry.

· Use coupons for items you typically buy. You can find coupons in newspaper ads and online, too. If the grocery store you frequent has double or triple coupon days, take advantage of them. If you don't already have a store discount card, sign up.

· Plan meals ahead and try to plan your meals around sale items. Not only does this help with making the grocery list, but it also helps you plan leftovers for lunches, which saves money over going out to lunch. Leftovers or "planned-overs" - such as baked chicken or cooked rice - also can be used for a quick dinner when your time is limited and you might otherwise be inclined to grab fast food instead. Knowing in advance you can count on leftovers also keeps you from overbuying foods that have a limited shelf life.

Remember to check use-by dates before buying items to ensure fresh products and flavor.

Choose less processed food and cook from scratch more often. Packaging and processing add to food costs. You will realize a savings if you are willing to do some of the processing yourself. For example, the cost of a block of cheese is typically less than the cost of the same amount of grated cheese.

Look how much you can save per pound by buying raw potatoes over processed ones:

· Fresh russet potatoes,3 cents

· Frozen french fries, 6 cents

· Frozen mashed potatoes, 13 cents

· Instant mashed potatoes, 21 cents

· Potato chips, 32 cents

Cooking from scratch is better from both your health and budget. Processed food is often high in sodium, fat and calories. A recent Colorado State University study showed that more than half of consumers are buying fewer prepared meals and cooking more often from scratch.

· Buy food in bulk when it's cost effective. You can do some simple math to determine the unit pricing, and some stores list unit prices on the shelf tag along with the overall item price. It's cheaper to buy larger quantities of some foods. If you want smaller packages of food for convenience, repackage them at home in smaller bags. But check your prices carefully; sometimes the bigger size isn't a bargain and the cost of several smaller bags or boxes might actually be less.

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