EVERYBODY STRETCH! PINCHING pennies in your food budget is looking more attractive all the time.
* The weakening economy. If you cut costs of grocery shopping, you can use the savings for other things, such as dining out or buying gasoline to feed your hungry vehicles. The first of the year is the traditional time for paying off holiday bills and preparing for local and federal taxes, so stretching your food dollar now makes extra sense -- and cents.
* Losing weight and healthier eating styles are New Year's resolutions for many people. Buying low-cost foods -- including those high in fiber and nutrition -- can help reach those goals. Many high-fat, high-salt and high-sugar foods are expensive. Inexpensive food is not synonymous with cheap food, and don't worry, you won't be relegated to making requests such as "Please pass the gruel."
The most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture report (issued for October) indicates that to satisfy nutritional requirements, a family of four (a couple with school-age children) would need to spend between $87 and $153 a week, assuming all meals and snacks are purchased at supermarkets and prepared at home.
Jan Grant, a Cooperative Extension agent, says the tradeoff for saving money in food budgets is spending more hours in the kitchen, something many consumers in today's hectic world have been reluctant to do on a regular basis.
"Twenty years ago, home cooks were talented at incorporating low-cost meats and meat substitutes into their lifestyles," Grant says. "Today's food preparers, generally speaking, do not have those skills. Now we focus on selecting prepared foods that are fairly high in nutrition, sticking with basic foods, preparing foods simply and planning to use the leftovers."
Grant says chicken is a beautiful example for the budgeter. One whole chicken can be served as a soup the first night, a chicken salad the second night and chicken crepes or creamed chicken over rice the third night.
Stop thinking of this versatile bird as leftovers the second or third time around. Instead, think deja vu, or the return of an old friend. Other options are serving roast chicken the first night, a chicken soup the second night and chicken with pasta the third night.
A typical family wastes eight to ten percent of the food they purchase because children or adults don't like it, the portions are too large or it spoils, Grant says.
Cutting the amount of animal protein served and replacing it with more grains, legumes, pasta and vegetables can be helpful in budgeting.
"We tend to feel that more expensive food is more nutritious, but it simply isn't true," Grant says. "The protein and iron in hamburger is of the same quality as in T-bone steak or roasts."
Fruits and vegetables that store the longest, such as carrots, cabbage, potatoes, onions, squash and apples, generally are less expensive. Dairy products that are low in fat generally are less expensive. And they're better for you.
"Generally speaking, from a nutritional standpoint at this time of year, frozen foods are best, canned foods are second, and fresh foods are third," Grant says. This is because fresh produce must travel farther in winter and is picked greener. "And usually canned foods are the cheapest now, followed by frozen, then fresh."
Other suggestions for stretching your food funds include:
* Organization. Make a shopping list and stick to it. Don't be tempted by that jar of imported kumquats marinated in cognac or by that box of fresh raspberries. When you make a substitution, do so because you find a fruit or vegetable that is better quality and less expensive than what's on your list.
* Clip those discount coupons from newspapers, magazines and direct mail promotions. Shoppers can save 10 to 15 percent on grocery bills by using these.
* Buy sugarless cereals, then add fruits, nuts and sweetening at home.
* Try tofu. Added to stir-fry meals and casseroles, it takes on the flavors of other ingredients, makes a good meat substitute and is low in saturated fat.
* Check your freezer, refrigerator, cupboards and pantry for foods that have been just sitting around waiting for some inventive cook to use them. Chances are you can put together a meal with only a few more items from the supermarket.
* Substitute. If a recipe calls for an expensive imported cheese, consider replacing that ingredient with a domestic cheese. Check your spice shelves, and if you don't have what the recipe calls for, consider using something else. For example, the following seasonings are compatible with pork: allspice, anise seed, basil, bay leaves, caraway seed, cloves, curry powder, dill weed, garlic, ginger, lemon peel, orange peel, marjoram, mustard, nutmeg, onion, oregano, poultry seasoning, rosemary, sage, savory, tarragon and thyme. This list from "Spices of the World Cookbook" by McCormick illustrates that if you don't have the ingredient in the recipe, it is not the end of the world. If you're out of tomato sauce, use some ketchup or chili sauce.
* Buy only the amounts you can use. If you need only a few vegetables, it may be less expensive to purchase them already prepared from the salad bar than to buy them in quantity and have to throw much of them away when they spoil.
* Don't shop on an empty stomach. Try not to visit grocery stores too often, reducing temptations to buy more than you need. Shop alone. Spouses, children and friends have a knack of breaking your concentration and encouraging you to buy foods you don't need.
* Remember that bigger is not always better. Check the unit pricing and choose items that are the better bargain.
* Consider whether you can make time to prepare a convenience food from scatch.
* Freeze foods purchased on special, and don't forget to use them.
* Prepare recipes that feature such lower-cost ingredients as ground beef, beans, lentils, rice, potatoes and eggs.