Bad economic news can be good news for your diet in the long run.
When the frills are gone, we go back to the basics. And this means by default we may be cutting the fat from our diets as well as from our budgets.
Lean times mean lean meals. This doesn't mean you have to have a whole week's menus filled with hearty soups, beans with rice and boiled potatoes with cabbage. But it does mean you need to learn how tobalance more expensive meals with some of these low-fat, low-cost meals. And you can't get balance without learning to shop with a battle plan worthy of Operation Desert Shield.
No matter what your grocery budget, you can learn to cut the fat out of your purchases with help from the suggestions the U.S. Department of Agriculture gives to low-income consumers, according to Wells Willis, national program leader for the USDA's Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program.
"We teach them how to plan ahead, how to cook with what they have on hand, how to choose lower-cost food items and how to do more preparation themselves rather than relying on more expensive convenience foods," she says.
One of the biggest money wasters for all of us is food that goes bad in the refrigerator and has to be thrown away. One of the best ways to avoid waste, she says, is to turn leftovers into "plannedovers" by making them a part of the original menu plan. For example, if you have chili one night, plan to make chili dogs within a day or two. Or plan to use leftovers from a roast chicken for lunches.
Connie Pergerson, registered dietitian and extension agent with the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service in Anne ArundelCounty, sees what she calls "preshopping" as the best way to save money in the supermarket.
"If you go with a shopping list you are prone to stick to the basics," she says. "But you have to be prepared to look for the best buys. If you go to the market and see an unadvertised special on beef, you should be prepared to switch and change your plan."
Here are the experts' suggestions on how to save money at the supermarket:
*Use manufacturers' cents off coupons and shop at supermarkets that double the value of the coupons. But buy only what you use. It's best to avoid the higher-priced convenience foods and stick with the basics. You should never have to pay regular price for coffee, cereals or laundry detergent. No time? Make this a family project. Clip and file coupons while watching TV.
*Put together a shopping list based on the groceryads and coupons for the week. Smart shoppers save money by buying what's on sale. Code each coupon item with a "C" on the list as a reminder.
*Know your prices. Electronic scanners at the majority of supermarket checkouts have virtually eliminated item pricing -- a hassle for the comparison shopper. Just because a store advertises something doesn't mean it's a sale price. If you really want to stock up on bargains, you have to know the original price. The next time you go to the store take a grease pencil and mark the price on your purchases or jot down their prices on your shopping list.
*Plan the week's menu with balance. Compensate for the more expensive pork chop and steak menus with a mostly vegetable stir-fry, a tuna noodle casserole and/or a meatless meal. Consider a chicken or a turkey breast that will stretch for more than one meal. Remember to include the forgotten foods -- beans, lamb shanks and underutilized species of fish, such as mackerel and skate.
At the supermarket
*Never go shopping on an empty stomach. When you are hungry, everything looks good
and you buy more.
*Go to the grocery store no more than once a week. The more you go, the more you spend.
*Go alone if possible. Children and husbands often make it impossible to stick to the shopping list and break your concentration.
*Bigger isn't always better. Check the unit pricing label on the shelf and buy the size that costs the least per unit.
*Stay away from the prepared foods counter. Often you can make lasagna for four for what the supermarket charges for one slice. Even a low-calorie, frozen diet lasagna is a better buy.
*Do it yourself and save. Cut up your own chickens. Make your own macaroni and cheese or hamburger mix rather than buying the convenience foods. Remember, you pay for convenience.
*Stock up on specials. Freeze chicken for later use. Store paper products.
Other shopping options:
*Shop for fruits and vegetables at farmers' markets. Prices are less expensive because you are cutting out the middleman and transportation costs. Some of Baltimore's city markets close in mid-November. But others are open until right before Christmas. The Baltimore Farmers' Market, located at Holliday and Saratoga streets, is open 8 a.m. to noon every Sunday through Dec. 23. The Howard Park Farmers' Market, located at 3500 Woodbine Ave., is open 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays through Dec. 22. And the Irvington Farmers' Market, located at 4021 Frederick Ave., is open 6 a.m. to noon Saturdays until Dec. 22.
*Don't forget the local ethnic food stores. Compare prices of items sold in bulk. Typically, you will find lower-than-supermarket prices on items such as rice and nuts.
"I think some of these skills come with time and some come when we are forced to make changes," says Ms. Pergerson. "People who haven't had hard times hit them may just not know what to do. But they can learn."