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Posted August 19, 2009 | comments Leave a comment

Shop smart: Little changes can mean big savings in food costs

By Garren Shipley -- gshipley@nvdaily.com

Shirley Clark, of Winchester, checks the label on a container of iced tea at Aldi, south of Winchester. Photos by Rich Cooley/Daily

Richard Robichaud, right, of Winchester, pays cashier Amy Snyeder, of Augusta, W.Va., for his groceries at Aldi.

Lisa Espinoda, assistant manager of Aldi, stocks the shelves inside the no-frills grocery store.

WINCHESTER -- It's a common refrain at kitchen tables around the Northern Shenandoah Valley: "We've got to tighten the belt."

It might seem counterintuitive, but it's relatively easy to start cutting back on one of the most fundamental expenses -- food -- without going hungry.

The average family in the greater Washington metropolitan area spends more than $6,000 per year on food, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

A little planning and discipline can go a long way toward improving your bottom line, according to Karen Lynn Poff, a senior extension agent with the Virginia Cooperative Extension's Shenandoah County office.

That planning starts with grocery store sale papers.

"Not only planning a list, but planning your meals in advance," Poff said. " A lot of times you can look at the specials and plan your meals based on what meat is on sale that week."

If chicken is on sale, it might be a good week for grilled chicken, chicken casserole or chicken quesadillas. A good deal on beef calls for chili, hamburgers or sloppy joes.

Once the menu is planned, figure out what is needed to prepare it and add it to the list. Then figure out where you're going to buy it.

"If you take your ads and look and maybe the ground beef is cheapest at one place and chicken is cheapest at another place, it might be worth your while to go to both places," she said.

Driving from Mt. Jackson to Winchester to save a few cents on ground beef is probably a bad idea. But if the stores are close together, make the trip, Poff said.

Don't be scared of store brands or off-brands, she added.

"Usually the store brand is just as good a quality as the name brand for much less price," she said. "Don't buy store brands in quantity until you know you like it."

But once the family is on board with the generic alternative, it can save big money.

Using coupons can also save serious cash, provided it's done correctly, according to Stephanie Nelson, the founder of CouponMom.com.

"I've been saving at least $100 a week on groceries since my first son was born 15 years ago," Nelson says. "If you do the math that's almost $72,000. That could pay for a child to go to college and that's real money."

The trick is to carefully track prices and know how each store's coupon programs work.

Shopping on days when prices are lowest and hitting double-coupon days or buy one, get one free sales can take a huge chunk out of the bottom line.

Don't take it on faith that the lowest price in the weekend circular is the best deal, Poff added.

Keep a pricing book, a simple spiral notebook with a page set aside for each letter of the alphabet to write down how much each item costs.

"When I see what I think is a good price on something, I write it down in pencil on the corresponding page: A for apples, B for beef, etc.," she said.

"If I later see a better price for the same item, I erase it and write the better price," she said. "My notebook always has the best prices I have found on our frequently used items."

"I can refer to this when looking at the ads or when actually shopping in the store to be sure I am getting a good deal," she added.

Other ways to save money include:

* Buy larger, whole cuts of meat and cut them up yourself.

A whole pork loin is usually cheaper than a package of pork chops, and whole chickens are almost always much cheaper in the long run than pre-packaged pieces.

* Shop less frequently.

Keeping the stuff you don't need out of the cart is a challenge, Poff said. Fewer trips to the store make for fewer chances for things not on the list to wind up in the cart.

* Buy in bulk when practical.

Buying the biggest containers of cereal and other items can save money, but only if the food will be eaten before it goes bad.

Also, "if you have a small amount of space, buying in bulk isn't going to help you," Poff said.

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