Tips for saving money at the checkout counter

About $100 a week could feed a family of four, with care

July 24, 2002|By Deborah Geering | Deborah Geering,COX NEWS SERVICE

So many choices, so little cash.

American grocery stores are wondrous, bountiful places, but they are also evil tempters: shelf after shelf of pricey convenience foods trying to lure you off your budget, as well as your diet.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says a thrifty family of four can eat for a week on $93.10 to $107.70.

Doable? You bet -- even without clipping coupons, buying in bulk or eating Spam twice a day. But to get a week's worth of interesting, healthful meals at that price, your family may have to change a few habits, say nutrition experts.

"One of the most difficult areas is lunch time," says Trudy Alexander, a registered, licensed dietitian in Atlanta. At dinner, she says, a family can cook in volume and eat the same foods, but at lunch, everyone's off in different directions. Even when someone's making sandwiches, deli-style meats are far more expensive than dinner cuts.

"Bologna sandwiches are cheap, but I wouldn't want my family to be eating bologna because of the fat and salt content," Alexander says.

Her solution? "At dinner, double the portion. Then you can have lunch or at least another meal out of it."

Packing leftovers is also simpler than preparing sandwiches for the whole family, making it more likely that everyone will be sent off with a brown bag instead of lunch money. That one change can save more than $15 a day.

Another health-promoting, cost-cutting step is to keep your kids out of the breakfast-cereal aisle -- or at least train them to look beyond the lowest shelves, where the super-sugar zingers lurk. "Those are usually the most popular and least nutritious" brands, Alexander says. Instead, she suggests buying the out-of-reach house brand.

"That saves a lot of money -- I mean a lot. Cereal is one of the most expensive items that you put in your cart. And kids go through that stuff."

Before you place any food in your basket, consider how much nutritional value it packs for the buck.

"Beans are one of nature's best foods," says Cindy Kanarek Culver, a registered and licensed dietitian. "They're a good source of protein and iron, high in fiber, low cost, great taste."

Keep cans of kidney, pinto, black and garbanzo beans on hand to toss into soups, stews or vegetable side dishes. Use them to extend a pasta sauce instead of meat, says Alexander.

"We don't need as much meat as a lot of people think," she says. "What we need to focus on is the fruits and vegetables."

Fresh produce is wonderful, but it can be expensive. On our sample shopping list, for instance, fresh vegetables and fruit accounted for roughly 40 percent of the total bill. To maximize nutritional value while keeping costs down, says Culver, select in-season produce in a variety of colors. The more colors on your plate, the wider the nutritional spectrum, she says.

Fresh corn, lettuce, squash and green beans are at good prices right now. So are tomatoes, melons, peaches, mangoes and bananas.

Because produce is highly perishable, however, it also presents the risk of waste. One way to reduce that risk while saving money, says Alexander, is to buy frozen. That way "you use what you need and put the rest in the freezer."

"Ideally, it would be fresh, all the way, but it's not going to happen. You can't always be a purist when it comes to time constraints."

Finally, suggests Culver, watch your portions.

Big meals can be a double whammy, striking your wallet as well as your waistline. If you tend to reason that supersizing is worth a few more pennies, Culver says, consider the potential long-term costs to your body: obesity, heart disease, diabetes. "You're going to end up going to the doctor, when you could have just saved your 25 cents, and your health."

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