Perryman nutrition column: Ten Tips to Ease the Bottom Line at the Grocery Store

Note to Editors: This column is by Shirley Perryman, a nutrition expert at Colorado State University. Perryman is an Extension specialist in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, part of the College of Applied Human Sciences.

It’s not just shock at the price of gas making headlines. Food costs at the grocery store are getting our attention as well.  On a recent trip to the store I left with four small bags of basic groceries for nearly $100! Reporters talk about the parallel rise in the cost of gas and milk in the same sentence.  

The Department of Agriculture is predicting a 4 to 5 percent rise in food prices this year. Now consumers are searching out bargains at the grocery store — certainly an about-face from the previous norm of relying on convenience foods. The search for a bargain may seem to force shoppers to look less at healthier choices and more at the bottom line in search of bargains.  

Check this list of tips for ideas to benefit your health and your pocketbook in your trips down the grocery store aisles:

– Make a list and stick to it. With a list, you are less likely to buy on impulse. You’ll also save by avoiding extra gas-guzzling trips back to the store when you’ve forgotten something you need. I keep a running list of what I need. I go over the weekly grocery ads when they come out, and with my running list, it’s quick and easy to finalize what I need.

– Shop the specials. Canned goods have a long shelf life.

–         Buy on sale and stock up. If you have room in your freezer to store extra food, over-wrap items to keep air out and extend the life and protect the quality of things you get at a deal.   

– Buy seasonal vegetables and fruits. Buy only what you’ll use — fresh produce has a short shelf life. Be creative with your produce if it’s nearing the end of its shelf life. If the bananas get too ripe, for example, make banana bread. We lose money when we have to toss food because it was left too long and ends up in the garbage.

– Avoid shopping when you’re hungry. You’ll likely wind up putting "extras" in your grocery cart and eventually on your waist line if you get a snack attack. If you aren’t sure you spend much on snacks, try keeping a tally of all the snack foods you buy in one week. It may surprise you how much you are spending.

– Shop alone. Leave the kids and other family members at home. Too many "gotta haves" can drive up the total grocery bill in a hurry.

– Use coupons for items you typically buy. You can find coupons in newspaper ads and online, too. I keep my list on the back of an envelope and tuck the coupons inside where they’re easy to retrieve at check out. If the grocery store you frequent has double or triple coupon days, take advantage of it.

– If you don’t already have a store discount card, sign up.

– Plan meals ahead and try planning your meals around sale items. Not only does this help with making the grocery list, but it also helps you plan leftovers for lunches, which saves money over going out to lunch. Leftovers also can be used for a quick dinner when your time is limited and you may want to grab fast food instead. Knowing in advance you can count on leftovers also keeps you from overbuying foods which have a limited shelf life. Remember to check expiration dates.

– Choose less processed food and cook from scratch more often. Cooking from scratch is better from both your health and budget. Processed food is often high in sodium, fat and calories. A recent study showed that more than half of consumers are buying fewer prepared meals and cooking more often from scratch.

As one example, look how much you can save per pound by buying raw potatoes over processed ones:

– Fresh russet potatoes, 3 cents

– Frozen French fries, 6 cents

– Frozen mashed potatoes, 13 cents

– Instant mashed potatoes, 21 cents

– Potato chips, 32 cents

– Buy food in bulk when it’s cost effective. You can do some simple math to determine the unit pricing, and some stores list unit prices on the shelf tag along with the overall item price. It’s cheaper to buy larger quantities of some foods. If you want smaller packages of food for convenience, repackage them at home in smaller bags. But check your prices carefully; sometimes the bigger size isn’t a bargain and the cost of several smaller bags or boxes may actually be less.   

– Consider store brands. Name brands are found at eye-level-prime real estate in the grocery aisle. Look high and low for store brands — on the lower and higher shelves –  often for less money.  

It sounds like sticker shock at the grocery store is going to be with us for some time. I’ve been making lists, clipping coupons, finding creative ways to use up wilted and over-ripe produce, and cooking the "old fashioned way"-from scratch-for many a year. However, now I’m in the "in" crowd. Feel free to join in.