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University of Illinois Extension

How to Cut Your Food Costs

September 12, 2012

With gas prices hovering near or above $4.00 per gallon across the state of Illinois, many people are wondering how to cut back on spending. Unfortunately, the rise in gas prices often means a rise in many other goods and services. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) says that food prices will rise 3 to 4 percent this year. Jenna Hogan, University of Illinois Extension nutrition and wellness educator, says, "It is imperative that consumers practice smart shopping when buying groceries for the family."

The USDA reports that consumers will see the biggest price increase for meat, poultry, and fish, with beef and pork climbing almost 8 percent. If your taste buds are demanding meat, Hogan recommends buying the least expensive cuts of meat, such as beef brisket, chuck steak, or round steak. While these cuts are tougher, they handle well to slow cooking techniques, such as braising or stewing. Bone-in meats are generally less expensive than boneless so buying a whole chicken is often cheaper than buying its parts separately. Buying in bulk may also save money. For instance, a 3-pound package of ground beef usually costs less per pound than a 1-pound package. Simply divide the meat, wrap what you are not going to use immediately in heavy duty aluminum foil, place in a plastic freezer bag or airtight container, and freeze up to four months for best quality.

Hogan recommends looking for other protein sources that are less costly than meat. The new 2010 Dietary Guidelines suggest eating one and one-half cups of beans per week. Beans offer a great value when it comes to cheap nutrition. A typical, 16-ounce bag of dried beans sells for approximately $1.69 and will yield 10 quarter-cup servings (about 17 cents per serving). Even canned beans can be a bargain, but it takes about three, 15-ounce cans of beans to yield the same amount as a 16-ounce bag of dried beans.

When comparing prices, look at unit pricing, which is usually in smaller print just underneath the overall price. The unit price is the package price divided by the number of units, generally shown in price per ounce. For example, a 16-ounce can of soup that costs $1.39 has a unit price of 9.0 cents per ounce. Meanwhile, the same soup in a larger can (19-ounces) costs $1.49 and has a unit price of 8.0 cents per ounce. Therefore, the larger can of soup would be the better bargain because it has a lower unit price.

Hogan also suggests taking a close look at grocery store ads, which are generally available online or in the grocery store. Many grocers will now match prices that their competitors offer. So it can pay to save those ads, and take them with you to your grocery store. Do not forget to search for coupons in newspaper ads, magazines, in the store, on packages, and online. Organize them by putting them in a small folder that you can take to the store, but do not spend money just because you have a coupon! If it is not something you would normally buy, chances are you will not use it, and it will be money wasted. Do not drown in the rise in food prices; fight back with smart shopping!

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