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SHOPPING ON A DIME

The Baltimore Sun

From coffee in the morning to a burger at lunch to a chicken breast and salad for dinner, most food now costs more - 5, 10, even 25 percent more - than it did a year ago.

Higher crop and fuel prices are behind the rise, but saving money on food doesn't have to involve keeping cows in the backyard, say shopping advisers and some creative grocery-goers. Some even say shoppers should avoid those nettlesome coupons if the food is unhealthful or unneeded.

The savings may take some extra work but only a little sacrifice: cooking more at home, eating leftovers, buying in bulk, forgoing out-of-season produce and some meat, and above all, planning.

Jerry Richardson of Linthicum has to be frugal now that she has three offspring, including her 24-year-old, plus a family friend in the house.

Her strategy involves weekly trips to the Costco in Glen Burnie.

"Prices are outrageous," she said. "I try and buy a lot of things in bulk, like meat, but who can use a 10-gallon jug of mayonnaise? ... When I cook, I cook for everyone and the older ones will cook if I bring in food, and that helps."

Cathy Strodel of Baltimore makes her own bread and has turned to more vegetarian dishes and in-season fruit and vegetables.

She's known in her neighborhood as a good cook and hostess, and she plans to keep entertaining - despite the sticker shock she's gotten at the market. On a recent trip to the store, she said she didn't believe the makings of a simple spaghetti dinner for her husband and friends could add up to $47, so she made the cashier recheck. She recalled that months ago, the tab would have been in the $20s.

Strodel works long hours in Washington during the week and also has turned to a menu planning service called the Six O'Clock Scramble (thescramble.com) that helped her get a handle on dinner. Weeks she uses it, she spends about $100 to feed herself and her husband dinner and lunch with leftovers. When she doesn't?

"We spend hundreds. We go out to dinner. We lose track of what we're doing. Planning really makes the difference."

Professional shopping advisers said these shoppers are doing the right things. Aviva Goldfarb, who runs the Chevy Chase-based Six O'Clock Scramble, said planning helps shoppers avoid throwing away expensive food.

Goldfarb says to buy in bulk and cook recipes around common items. Freeze or store unused portions in reusable containers. Buy big bags of frozen vegetables because they won't go bad. Meat eaters can replace expensive cuts with cheaper and more healthful proteins like beans - which go nicely with rice and spices on tortillas - or serve a little of both.

When the end of the week comes, she said, throw vegetable odds and ends in an omelet, quesadilla or pasta sauce. Pack leftover dinner for lunch, and even consider packing lunch before sitting down for dinner to ensure proper portions.

Of course, she said, don't shop without a written list.

"I'm so obsessed with waste, and this is a good time for me to get my message across," she said. "If you just buy what you need and use what you have, you can save. I bet people have hundreds or thousands of dollars worth of food in their refrigerators and freezers that they don't use."

Shopping more carefully and cooking at home can make a big difference, agreed Christiane Jory, who wrote The 99 Cent Only Stores Cookbook (the99centonlystorecookbook.com) using only items from the discount chain near her California home.

But she goes one step further. She uses food as a form of entertainment. If she foots the bill for some friends this time, they'll bring the wine and cook for her later on. In the end, they all spend less - especially if she uses her recipes, which can be made cheaply with food from many grocery stores.

"Obviously, I didn't plan for the state of the economy today. I started writing the book when I was broke," she said. "A few years later, the country is broke."

Jory said food shopping can be a fun adventure in alternative shopping venues. The farmers' market often has cheaper in-season items. Ethnic markets have low-cost versions of foods considered exotic at the standard store. And the butcher and cheese clerk at almost any store can point shoppers to tasty replacements for expensive cuts of meat and wedges of cheese.

When you get the food home, include friends, family or kids in the cooking process. Biscuit dough is cheaper than Play-Doh, Jory said.

"If they screw it up, I've lost like $2, but the kids will have hours of fun," she said.

Neither Jory nor Goldfarb recommends coupons, especially if the coupons encourage buying unhealthy processed food or too much of something. But if shoppers have coupons for products they already use, they still should compare unit prices in the store to ensure the best deal.

Coupons have been falling in use for the last 10 years because food prices were relatively cheap, but more people are likely thinking about them now. In a recent survey by the marketing firm Icom, 67 percent of respondents say they are more likely to use coupons during a recession. And some food makers are responding by making more convenient Web versions available.

Icom said households with two adults and two kids can save 25 percent on their grocery bills with coupons, or $200 a month based on a typical $800 a month tab.

This probably wouldn't sway Julie Thorne, who lives in Bolton Hill and loves being in her kitchen so much she blogs about it on her site, Kitchenography (kitchenography.typepad.com). She buys what seems most healthful, and that's how she saves.

She avoids processed foods beyond Cheerios and Wheat Thins. Frozen pizzas, TV dinners and salad dressings tend to be pricey and high in artificial ingredients, she said.

Thorne eats and plans meals around in-season produce and even has a garden plot in Druid Hill Park. She'll soon plant her own tomatoes, zucchinis, peppers and cucumbers. There will be a second crop of greens in the fall, and at home she'll fill her window boxes.

(Goldfarb, the menu planner, said those without space or green thumbs can grow herbs in pots at the window. Basil and other herbs are easy to grow.)

Thorne and her husband eat vegetarian a couple of times a week. She makes her own pasta. And when they eat chicken, she roasts it for a meal and uses the leftovers in sandwiches, salads, enchiladas and stock.

"A quart of chicken broth costs between three and four dollars," she said. "Using a chicken carcass makes it virtually free. Roast chicken is one of those things that give you a lot of mileage for your food dollar."

meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

Food prices on the rise

Here's how prices for some common food items rose from February 2007 to February 2008:

White bread per pound: $1.17 to $1.32

Ground beef per pound: $2.64 to $2.79

Whole chicken per pound: $1.04 to $1.16

Large eggs (1 dozen): $1.75 to $2.17

Red Delicious apples per pound: $1.07 to $1.18

Tomatoes per pound: $1.64 to $1.74

Orange juice, 12 ounces frozen concentrate: $2.41 to $2.53

Whole milk (1 gallon): $3.08 to $3.87

Coffee per pound: $3.46 to $3.69 (as of December 2007)

[Source: Consumer Price Index]

Tips for saving money

Plan meals and buy only what's needed.

Buy in bulk and create recipes around common ingredients, or freeze portions.

Buy fruit and vegetables in season.

Compare the unit prices for the best deal, even with a coupon.

Skip Starbucks and bring coffee from home.

Make your own salad dressings, pizzas and breads.

Shop at farmers' markets for in-season veggies.

Ask the butcher and cheese clerk for less-expensive alternatives.

Shop around, but don't drive too far - gas is expensive.

Cook larger portions for friends and have them return the favor.

[Sources: Interviews with authors, menu planners and shoppers]

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