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Making Food Dollars Stretch in Difficult Times

February 2009

Karen Ensle Ed.D., RD, FADA, CFCS
Family and Community Health Sciences Educator
Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Union County

Taking small steps in planning how your food dollars are being spent can make a major difference in feeding yourself and your family healthy, low-cost meals. The first important habit that needs to be addressed is food waste. Throwing away food may mean you are not planning meals and snacks very effectively. Make sure you shop for foods in amounts that you will use in a realistic amount of time. Don’t buy cheese in large blocks if you only are going to use a small amount once in a while.

On the other hand, if you buy dish detergent in a large container, it will last for months without any safety issues. Watch how much food you throw away at the end of a meal. If you cook more than you can eat at one meal, freeze the leftovers or use them in soups, stews, or casseroles. Remember, you shouldn’t refrigerate leftovers for more than 2-3 days, so use the leftovers as “planned-overs” for another meal or freeze them for a future meal.

Planning ahead each week is critical for making sure you have the ingredients in your home to prepare recipes that fit weekly menus. When planning meals a week in advance, check the foods on hand and then create a grocery list from the recipes you will be using. Check the newspaper and Internet for coupons and clip only those coupons of items you normally use. Make sure the coupon is saving you money, not getting you to purchase a more expensive product.

Don’t be afraid of purchasing store brand products as they usually are less expensive than name brands. By planning meals ahead, you can save money each week. Visit a supermarket only once a week, not every day. Planning ahead will help you to eliminate shopping at the last minute, which often results in impulse purchases. Research shows that the more you shop, the more you spend. Plan ahead and monitor your purchases and you will spend less.

Some other tips for saving money at the supermarket:

  • Decrease the number of salty and sweet convenience snack foods you buy.
  • Buy produce in season, use farm markets when available, and consume fruit and vegetables for snacks. Try vanilla yogurt with fresh fruit or baby carrots or broccoli pieces with some low-fat onion dip.
  • Buy whole grain crackers or graham crackers for snacks.
  • Limit pre-made meals and convenience foods as they cost more than preparing foods from scratch.
  • Drink plenty of water from a re-usable container filled with tap water rather than buying bottled water.
  • Avoid buying soda, energy drinks, and coffee shop drinks as all can add up at the end of the week and be costly.
Remember, the more meals and snacks you prepare from scratch, the more money you will save on your food for the week. Convenience foods cost more because someone else has done the work for you. Spend some time in your kitchen preparing nutritious foods and you will eat healthier and save money for other needed expenses.