The No. 3 family budget item -- food

February 25, 2009|By LYNN LITTLE

Do you know how much money you spend on food on a weekly or monthly basis? According the U.S. Department of Labor, food is our third-highest expense after housing and transportation.

With careful planning and some creativity it is possible to eat healthfully and stay on a budget.

The first way to save money on your grocery bill is to start with a plan. Make a menu for every day of the week, filling in main dishes and other foods for each meal. Use MyPyramid (at to plan nutritious meals and snacks. Use MyPyramid to come up with a personalized food plan. Include menu plans for using leftovers. They can be used in casseroles, soups, for snacks and in lunch boxes.

Plan your meals around specials and seasonal foods. Foods, especially fresh fruits and vegetables, are generally less expensive when they're in great supply.

Check newspaper ads for special sales. Be sure you know the regular price of items you usually buy. That way you'll recognize when an advertised special is really a bargain.


Is there food waste in your household? Ask yourself why. Do family members refuse food or leave it on their plates? Are servings too large? Is the food cooked properly? Consider food preferences as you plan menus. Collect economical, nutritious recipes that your family likes and use them often.

Once you have a weekly meal plan, make your grocery list. While making your list, check your refrigerator and cabinets for ingredients you already have on hand, making sure to only buy what you need. Your shopping list not only helps you save money, it will also help you save time. Extra trips to the store make it too tempting to pick up extras that you want but don't need.

Compare prices among stores to find where you can save the most on your entire shopping list. Be aware that specials and coupon offers invite you to buy impulsively, which can blow your budget. Compare national brands, store brands and generic products. If you don't require top quality or appearance, you can substitute generic foods. Use generic canned vegetables in soups, stews and casseroles

Clip coupons. You'll save money if you would normally buy the item and if it costs less than similar brands. Using coupons for coffee, prepared foods, cereals, flours and flour-mix products can save about 10 percent in most food budgets.

Take advantage of unit pricing. Use this to learn whether the 12-ounce can of creamed corn is a better buy than the 7-ounce can.

Read labels. Food labels list the ingredients and valuable nutritional information, which is helpful in judging the nutritional quality of a food item.

Pay attention at the checkout. Be sure the cashier or the scanner gets the right price.

Where should you shop? A once-a-month trip to a warehouse store can save you money on foods that store easily and on household supplies.

Compare your receipt with your budgeted food dollars. Review your purchases critically and carefully. Are they economical compared with other choices you might have made? Use this review to refine your shopping plan for the next week.

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

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