Getting control of your food dollars takes planning.
"The more time you spend in the grocery store, the more money you will spend," says Jeanne-Marie Holly, a home economist for the University of Maryland cooperative extension service in Baltimore County.
Organizing your shopping list around at least one week's worth of menus, and preferably two, is the best way to stay within your budget and out of the store.
Once you've established a framework, you can compare prices, shop for specials and substitute cheaper items, Ms. Holly says. Planning will also let you know, for example, if you'll have enough leftovers for lunches or if you'll need to buy additional foods.
A menu plan will also help you eliminate waste, says Gwendolyn B. Jackson, a home economist for the Baltimore city cooperative extension service. "Wasted food is money down the drain, something a lot of people don't think about," she says.
Buying in bulk, for example, won't save you money if you can't store the food properly. Also, don't assume economy sizes are always cheapest, she says.
One-stop supermarket shopping can be convenient but also expensive. Up to 40 percent of a grocery bill may go for such
non-food items as film processing, cosmetics and cleaning materials, says Ms. Holly. These items are almost always cheaper at a non-food, discount store, she says. Paper towels are one of the biggest money wasters, she says. "Food money should only be spent on food items; keep non-food items separate," Ms. Jacksonsays.
Always compare price per serving not price per pound, says Ms. Jackson. And look for recipes that stretch meat or other expensive ingredients with potatoes, rice, pasta, vegetables or other thrifty foods, she says.
One of Ms. Holly's favorite thrifty tips is to add 1/3 cup uncooked old-fashioned oatmeal to 1 6 1/8 -ounce can of tuna when making tuna salad. Instead of just getting three or four sandwiches, you can now get four or five, and no one will know the difference, she says.
This one-dish recipe is a favorite "stretch" of Ms. Jackson. She says she sometimes serves the entree rolled in flour tortillas instead of over rice. To do this, substitute strips or chunks of chicken for the whole bird. Boneless, skinless chicken breasts -- work well; 4 large ones could be stretched to feed up to 8 people.
Curry chicken with potatoes
1 2- to 2 1/2 -pound chicken, cut into 8 pieces and skinned
juice of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
4 scallions, chopped
3 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped fine
1/4 cup curry powder
3 sprigs parsley, chopped fine
2 sprigs thyme
6 medium potatoes, peeled and diced
pinch of allspice
3 cups cooked rice
hot sauce to taste, if desired
Toss chicken pieces in lemon juice until well coated. Heat oil in heavy casserole over moderate heat. Add chicken pieces to casserole and cook for 5 minutes, turning frequently to seal meat. Stir in scallions, garlic, curry powder, parsley, thyme and cloves so chicken is coated with mixture. Add vegetables and 1 1/2 cups water, stirring gently. Bring mixture to simmer, cover and cook for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Season to taste with salt, pepper and allspice. Serve over rice. Add hot sauce to taste, if desired.