Food costs straining family budgets

October 14, 2008

CORVALLIS, Ore. – With the higher cost of food these days, many families are finding it more difficult to eat healthy.

A wealth of information on eating well on a budget is available online from the Oregon State University Extension Family and Community Development program, according to Anne Hoisington, nutrition specialist and faculty member with the program.

The OSU Extension Service is helping families stretch their food budgets while maintaining a healthy diet. Extension specialists have compiled a series of frequently asked question that can help make your money go further at the grocery store.

More details are available on the OSU Extension Web site, "Eat Well for Less." (Available in English and Spanish)

Q. I need to stretch my food dollars, but how do I start?
A. Plan a food budget—an important first step in saving money. Keep track of all the money you spend in one week on food; be sure to write down everything. Then multiply that number by four to tell you what it costs to feed your family for a month.

List the staples you need each month. Staples will not "go bad" and include peanut butter, flour, corn meal, sugar, dry milk, dry or canned beans, canned tuna, rice and many others. Estimate how much you need to spend on staples, and subtract that amount from your monthly food budget. Divide the remaining amount of money by four. This is the amount of money you have left each week for perishables, such as vegetables, fruit, meat, eggs and milk.

Q. Is it important to know what I already have?
A. Yes. Before shopping, look in your cupboards, freezer and refrigerator. Keep plenty of staples on hand—they store well and stretch meals. Examples: canned tomatoes, tomato sauce, spaghetti sauce, canned green beans and corn, raisins, canned fruit and dry beans. Taking inventory will keep you from buying food you don't need.

Q. Should I check grocery ads?
A. Check the ads for sales and ideas about what you'd like to cook. Certain items cost less when "in season." Try shopping at your farmers' market to find fresh, local produce at a good price.

Q. What can I cook that fits my budget?
A. Consider what you would like to cook and what your family needs for good health. Look through magazines, cookbooks and the newspaper to get ideas for meals. You'll find recipes for healthy, low-cost meals on the OSU Extension Service's "Healthy Recipes" Web site. (Available in English and Spanish).

Q. I've never planned meals in advance. Does it help save money?
A. Good planning is an important part of stretching food dollars. Think about how much you can spend, what you have on hand, what is on sale and what sounds good. Find a balance that you can afford. Make enough a couple of days a week so that you have leftovers. They come in handy for lunches or a quick dinner.

Q. How effective is a shopping list?
A. Your shopping list is your "plan" for the week—and your job is to stick to your plan. It's easy to come home with foods that aren't in your food budget. Grocery stores work hard to get you to buy more than you planned.

Q. What should I do at the grocery store to save money?
A. Check the store brand or generic brand, which almost always cost less and usually taste the same. They often use the same ingredients. Also, check the "unit price" of a food: the price per pound or per ounce. To compare the cost of two sizes of the same food or two brands that are of different weights, look at the tag on the shelf, which will give the total price and the unit price. Buy larger sizes of staple foods if you have the storage space and money in your food budget.

Q. What should I avoid at the grocery store?
A. Watch the time; the more time you spend in the store, the more money you spend. Foods at eye-level are more expensive; intended for your children's eyes also. It's fun to eat samples, but often they are expensive convenience foods. Avoid "ready-to-eat" foods. Making it yourself will save money and be healthier for your family.

Q. Should I save coupons?
A. Clipping coupons can save you money, but they usually are for name brands. The generic brand often costs less, even with a coupon.

Q. How important is reading labels?
A. By looking at the "Nutrition Facts" label, you can watch your intake of fats and sugar and compare amounts of nutrients like fiber, iron and calcium. The ingredients are listed from "most" to "least." If sugar is the first ingredient, you know that the food is mostly sugar. Whole foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes usually have no added fat or added sugar.

A few more tips: Shop alone if you can, and be sure that you aren't hungry when you go shopping. Hungry shoppers find it hard to stick to the list.

And finally, be flexible. If you see an unadvertised special that is too good to pass up, change your plan and add the food to your list. Sometimes grocers need to make room in a hurry and mark staple items down for quick sale. However, marked-down perishable foods should be used quickly.

Author: Judy Scott
Source: Anne Hoisington