Remember the days when you didn't wince at the cost of milk? When buying a box of blueberry waffles didn't feel like a splurge? When you could plunk down $50 and walk away with more than a single bag of groceries? With today's supersize food prices, filling your cart without busting your budget has never been trickier.
So when Parents asked me to try to feed my family for a week on less than $100, I didn't exactly jump at the challenge. As a professional dietitian and a busy mom of two boys, a 4-year-old and a 5-month-old, I'm committed to preparing meals that are not only healthy and nutritious, but that are super-easy too. Doing all that on such a tight budget seemed tough, especially when I learned that the average American family of four spends as much as $164 a week on food. But my editor persisted ("Oh, come on, you'll learn a thing or two!"), so I ultimately agreed to give it a shot.
My first step was to devise a game plan. I mapped out a week's worth of meals using the sales flyers (not my whims or a cookbook) as my guide. On the advice of Stephanie Nelson, founder of CouponMom.com, a Web site for bargain hunters, I scanned the front page to find "loss leaders" -- that's retail-speak for items priced too low to resist in the hope that you'll also buy other stuff once you're in the store. My supermarket had a great deal on boneless, skinless chicken breasts, so I blocked out two nights for poultry. At another store, eggs were rock-bottom cheap, so I planned breakfast for dinner one night -- my older son loves it because it's silly, and I love it because it's fast and healthy. Though market hopping isn't usually efficient (it costs you gas and time), the store was on my way home. I also penciled in a fish meal and an easy, inexpensive pasta dinner.
Once I had a list of everything I would need for the week (check out The Shopping List to see what I bought), I reviewed it carefully. No time-wasting return trips were allowed. I knew that would be tough: I'm famous for running in for an onion and coming out with a cartload of groceries. Missing an essential ingredient also might tempt me to give up on cooking and order takeout instead, warned Kim Danger, founder of Mommysavers.com, a Web site for moms who are trying to pinch pennies.
Then I cut coupons. Real frugalistas are diehard coupon fans, and with good reason: Research shows that 10 minutes of coupon clipping saves the average family about $7 a week, or $364 a year. Teri Gault, author of Shop Smart, Save More, told me the best ones still come in the Sunday paper, but you can also find them on literally dozens of sites online.
Finally, I was ready to hit the store. Between scrutinizing nutrition labels and comparing prices, I spent an unprecedented two hours buying groceries. But by the time I was done, my trunk was full -- and so was my wallet. My total grocery bill was only $71.23 -- low enough that I didn't feel too guilty about ordering a late-week pizza, the only food I didn't cook myself. And, just as my editor had predicted, I made some surprising shopping discoveries.
Sure, food in its simplest and purest form is usually cheaper and often healthier, but "convenience food" is called that for a reason. Dried beans were less expensive than canned, but I knew I would forget to soak them overnight, so I nixed that idea. A bag of brown rice was half the price per ounce of the boxed instant, but the thought of having to cook it for an hour made me pick the instant variety.
Still, I tried to go the do-it-yourself route when I could. A large container of plain yogurt was significantly cheaper than the single-serving flavored yogurt cups I usually buy -- and it tasted just as good when we used it in smoothies and parfaits. Buying a pound of fresh green beans instead of the ready-to-go, bagged kind was a no-brainer. And I discovered I actually prefer whole carrots: The kind sold by the bunch cost a lot less than baby ones, taste much sweeter, and are easier to chop into soup and covertly grate into spaghetti sauce and salads.
My family happily ate the no-name oatmeal, graham crackers, and peanut butter. The nutritional content was nearly identical to that of the name brands, and I saved almost $6 with these three items alone. I discovered a store-brand version of wheat bread for about half the price of the loaf I usually buy. It tasted just as good!
For a quick lunch, my son and I both love an organic brand of mac 'n' cheese. It's pricey, but because it's whole wheat, you don't have to eat as much to feel full. I'm also fussy about meat, so I decided to stick with the all-natural, hormone-free ground beef I usually buy. To save money, I stretched the one-pound package over two meals: I put it into bean burritos one night and pasta sauce the next. I also chose to spend a little more for fish that was breaded by the store.
There were times during the week when I wanted something I hadn't purchased. But instead of racing to the market as I normally would, I stuck to my plan. When our fruit supply ran low, I got out some canned pineapple that had been sitting in the cupboard for months. When I was preparing an egg scramble one night, I jazzed it up by adding in leftover potatoes. Trying to stretch my food dollar made me realize how much food we normally throw out. And I'm not the only guilty one: One study conducted for the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that every American wastes, on average, more than a pound of food a day. That's pretty unsettling, considering the serious shortages in many parts of the world -- not to mention all that landfill being created.
So what did I learn from my week of shopping frugally? For one thing, I saw proof of the old adage that time is money. If I'd hunted down more coupons, I could have slashed an additional $5 to $7 from my bill, experts say. If I'd been willing to forgo convenience foods completely, I would have cut costs even more. But it's all about trade-offs, and for now at least, my time is in pretty short supply. Another issue: My family weighed in with a few complaints. My husband missed the "fun stuff" like the snack crackers and Popsicles I usually buy. And my 4-year-old asked why I hadn't gotten his favorite treats: miniature boxes of raisins and Lego-shaped frozen waffles. I promised they'd be in the cart next week.
I did, however, pick up a few strategies I'm determined to stick with. Trying store brands, forgoing single-serving containers, and clipping coupons will now be part of my repertoire. Planning meals around sales prices is not only manageable but takes a lot of stress out of dinner preparation. And using up every scrap of food, instead of wasting it, isn't just economical, it's socially responsible. The result? Healthy, affordable meals that are satisfying -- in every sense of the word.
I filled my cart with these wholesome foods for only $71.23. Woo-hoo!
Believe it or not, you can blame it on corn!
Other small ways to save big on your groceries:
Make a list of 10 to 20 nonperishable items that you buy regularly, and keep tabs on their prices for a few weeks so you'll really know when you find a good deal. Stock up on these essentials when prices hit rock bottom.
Scour Bargain Racks
Marked-down meat is fine if you eat or freeze it the same day. Ditto for fruits and veggies. Get good deals on baked goods at wholesale outlets. Buy soaps and paper goods at discount stores.
Watch for Shrinkage
Manufacturers are dealing with rising costs by downsizing packages: 12 ounces of coffee instead of a pound; 20 cans in a case, not 24. Know exactly what you're getting before you consider it a bargain.
Hunt High and Low
Wholesalers pay extra to have brands shelved at eye level in big supermarkets, and that cost gets passed on to the customer. To find the most economical deals, look on the top and bottom shelves.
Buy what's on sale, and don't pass up store brands: The same companies that make name brands often manufacture store brands, so you may be paying a premium for that well-known label.
Beware of Overcharges
Watch closely as the cashier rings up your items -- or go over the receipt once you get home. If you spot an error, call the service desk immediately to say you'll be stopping by for a refund next time you shop.
Originally published in the January 2009 issue of Parents magazine.