Wednesday, May 07, 2008

How I'm Battling Supermarket Sticker Shock

A health-conscious eater learns to trim the fat from her budget
by Julie Upton, RD

I don't believe in skimping on good food, but my supermarket bill yesterday has forced me to confront my inner cheapskate.

My weekly shopping bill is usually just over $130, with a few odds and ends picked up midweek and the occasional meal out. This week, however, the tab was almost $165—a 27% increase. I rechecked to see if we had bought something pricey like steak or wine. No and no. The escalation of food costs has made news virtually daily, and according to the Consumer Price Index, food costs have increased more in the first quarter of 2008 than they have since 1990—and there's no sign of them heading south anytime soon.

Some of my big-ticket items were cage-free eggs ($5), organic milk ($3.50), imported cheese ($4.50), artisan seven-grain bread ($5.50), and New Zealand apples ($6). And I don't want to give most of them up.

So I researched some ways of putting my grocery shopping on a diet without ruining my healthy diet. I refuse to either spend Sundays clipping coupons or head to big-box retailers, where you can easily save 30% or more on food items, so here is what I'm doing to trim some of the fat from my weekly shopping budget.

Make a List
According food marketing specialist Phil Lempert: "Surveys of readers show that list makers spend 40% less when grocery shopping." Now I hope I can stick to only what's on the list.

Brown Bag It
Unlike my mother, who loves to cook and prefers cooking to eating out, I am not much of a cook. However, the best way to s-t-r-e-t-c-h my food budget is to eat in more often. My takeout lunch is around $10, but I can make a sandwich or have soup and salad at home for around $2.

Shop Full
I'm usually pretty disciplined when I go food shopping, but when I'm hungry I wind up with a cart filled with foods that curb my carb cravings: snack bars, pretzels, and more crackers than I know what do to with. These convenience foods are among the most expensive in the supermarket and add little nutritional value to my diet. So next time I go shopping, I'll avoid temptation and go on a full stomach.

Eating Green to Save Green
I'm going to stick to my vegetarian ways even more so now, because the foods that cost the most per serving are high-quality proteins (aka beef, poultry, and seafood). Consider this: Salmon costs about $.62/ounce and beans cost .$04/ounce, making the salmon 15 times more expensive than the beans. And, when I do eat meat, I'll make it go further financially by adding in a lot more vegetables to the dish.

Head to the Farmer's Market
I'm going to try to kick my daily New Zealand apple and South American banana habit. Living in California means that I have great locally grown berries available right now, as well as plenty of veggies. Eating in season can save you $2/pound on many fruits and vegetables. Right now, I can get fresh California-grown strawberries for less than $1/pound, whereas imported blueberries from Chile were $20/pound at the supermarket! Since berries deliver similar nutritional benefits, I'll take the strawberries, thank you.

Compare Prices
Using the unit pricing system (shelf tags), I can do my own price checks on comparable items to see which offers the best deal. Unit pricing provides the price per standard unit, often one ounce. For example, I found Tropicana orange juice costs $.09/ounce but the exotic pomegranate-blueberry juice next to it was .25/ounce—more than twice the price. In the cereal aisle, most big brands were around $.30/ounce but store brands were about $.15/ounce, or half the price.

Let me know if you're feeling my pain in the pocketbook, too—and what you're doing to save some green when shopping.

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