How to Make Ingredients Count: Get Your Money's Worth for Your Groceries

For most Americans, food is second only to housing on their list of expenses. Many Americans spend much more than they need to on groceries. Just making a commitment to cooking will save you a bundle versus eating out and relying on expensive packaged prepared foods like frozen meals and pizza.

One of the most expensive components of most grocery bills isn't even edible; it's the packaging. If you replace glass spice jars every time you run out of oregano or parsley and purchase a new colorfully rustic sack every time you pick up basmati rice you're wasting your money.

Overbuying and throwing out spoiled, unconsumed food is clearly wasteful, but few consumers ask themselves whether they will actually use everything they buy. If you commit to cooking (even occasionally), you can avoid getting nickeled and dimed by paying attention to a few simple pieces of shopping advice:

  1. Packaging frequently costs as much or more than the food contents. Buying just the amount you need of spices, nuts, beans and many grains in bulk can save you a bundle – your re-sealable containers quickly pay for themselves. Find your local food coops, they cater to selling in bulk.
  2. Products shelved at eye level may have paid extra for that privilege, an expense manufacturers will certainly pass on to you.
  3. Generic or store brand products often come from the same facilities as brand names. You may need to experiment.
  4. Buy fruits and vegetables that are in season. With globalization this is getting harder to know. When there’s snow where you live, fruit will be expensive and/or of low quality. Most people know when gas prices are high; this has a big impact on producer and shipping costs, so local is good.
  5. Large or “Economy size” quantities are no bargain if you end up throwing out spoiled or unwanted food.
  6. The more the butcher does, the more the meat costs, but butchers are professionals. If you try to save by buying a whole chicken versus a skinless, boneless breast, you will not only get more meat, but more waste, and you won’t save anything if you hack it up so badly that you throw a lot of meat away.
  7. Most discounted produce or meat has reached its “sell-by” date. If you know it will be consumed immediately, it may be worthwhile otherwise you’ll probably waste your money.
  8. Beans in cans are heavy and expensive. If you cook with beans, learn the quick soak/cook method. It’s not that quick, but if you start a batch before heading to the store, you won’t have to drag back a can that costs four times what dried beans cost. A rice cooker can safely cook beans and use little energy.
  9. Buy spices in bulk from neighborhood food cooperatives or ethnic groceries. If you don’t know where to find a local coop, check out http://www.coopdirectory.org/

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Meat & Produce Shopping Hints

When buying certain types of meat and produce here are some things to look for:

  • Onions and garlic should be firm. If there are more layers of paper-like skin, there is more waste.
  • Consider buying one or two ripe bananas and one or two green bananas for later – don’t be afraid to separate bunches in the store to mix and match for your own needs.
  • Large carrots tend to be “woody” and undesirable, very small carrots have a high ratio of peel to useful vegetable. Aim for medium size or pay for “baby” carrots.
  • Check the dates on all dairy products and don’t be embarrassed to hunt for the furthest out.
  • Tomatoes and pears are rarely seen in stores perfectly ripe. You’ll probably need to bring them home and allow them to ripen in a window. Neither should be refrigerated whole.
  • Smell, texture, and weight indicate ripeness of fruits: cantelope buttons and tomatoes’ skin should give. Tomatoes should have an earthy smell.
  • Americans strongly prefer the white meat of chicken and turkey despite the fact that their low fat content makes them quite bland. Because of that strong preference, chicken and turkey breasts are priced at a premium. Try replacing expensive breastmeat with more flavorful thighs, drumsticks or even wings whenever possible.
  • The most tender cuts of beef are the most expensive. Any "prime" grade cut will cost you dearly, and "choice" grade cuts are not much cheaper. Even if you buy exclusively "select", you aren't necessarily relegated to tough meats. You should still look closely for marbling (the white flecks of fat), and there is much you can do in preparation to ensure a delightfully tender dish, e.g. slow and moist cooking for chuck roasts, manually tenderizing flank steaks and thinly slicing sirloin steaks.

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