Eat Well and Save

People shopping for large families or on tight budgets have always had to be savvy about their grocery expenditures, but with the higher costs of food and the word recession being bandied about, it seems that nearly everyone is now looking for ways to save. CHOW shopped around, crunched numbers, and spoke with experts to come up with tips to help you economize and still eat well.

Plan Meals, Shop with a List, and Check Specials
“To save money on groceries, it will take time,” says Dr. Patricia S. Barber, an associate professor of food and resource economics at the University of Delaware. “This is what most people don’t want to hear.” Even if you just plan two or three days’ worth of meals, create a shopping list to eliminate waste or unnecessary purchases. Most markets now put their weekly specials online: WeeklyCirculars.com, for instance, has an alphabetical database of markets that will take you directly to the specials pages. Check the circulars early in the week, and develop meals around sale items.

Filter Your Own Water
In many places the tap water tastes bad, so it makes sense that you’d want to buy it bottled. But a basic faucet-mount filter, like PuR’s, costs $37, filters 100 gallons of water, and removes contaminants and 95 percent of chlorine’s taste and odor. Single replacement filters cost $26, which brings the cost per gallon down to 26 cents; multipacks of filters increase the savings. This is about a fifth of the price of a gallon of Arrowhead or Crystal Geyser spring water at CHOW’s local supermarket. A faucet filter also does away with packaging waste from bottled water. Besides, many bottled waters are really tap water anyhow.

Buy Herbs and Spices at Your Local Ethnic Grocer
CHOW compared two typical supermarket spice brands (McCormick’s glass jars and Spice Islands’ glass jars) to the spices sold at a local ethnic grocery store in plastic bags. The savings were big: Ground black pepper was $1.19 per ounce at the ethnic market versus $2.71 per ounce for McCormick and $2.76 for Spice Islands; ground cinnamon was 79 cents per ounce versus $2.78 for one ounce of McCormick and $3.03 for one ounce of Spice Islands. Ground ginger was another big savings, running 79 cents for one ounce at the ethnic market versus $3.95 and $3.82 for the supermarket brands, respectively. The same ethnic grocer showed savings over the supermarket on produce, too: Cabbages were 39 cents per pound versus 99 cents; broccoli was 79 cents per pound versus $2; green onions were four bunches for $1.20 instead of 99 cents for one bunch; yams were 79 cents per pound versus $1.99; and yellow onions were 39 cents per pound versus $1.80. The only caveat to shopping at ethnic grocers for produce is that many things are shipped from overseas. You’ll want to check the stickers and signs if local food is important to you.

Use Online Coupons
Many larger organic brands and distributors offer coupons you can print directly from their websites. They’ll usually only let you print a coupon once, but you may be able to get a few rounds of savings by using multiple email addresses. Try Stonyfield Farm’s website for discounts on organic yogurt; Organic Valley for butter, milk, cheese, and soy milk; and Living Naturally for Barbara’s Bakery cereal.

Reduce Waste with Proper Storage
“When you throw food in the garbage, you may as well just throw away your money,” says Dr. Barber. To reduce waste, she recommends putting a little thought and effort into food storage. Place dry goods in airtight containers, freeze items correctly, and be mindful of things you’ve already purchased: Barber says that if she has bread sitting in the pantry for more than three days, she’ll freeze it, then defrost it as she needs it, so it doesn’t mold. For produce, we’ve had good luck with Evert-Fresh Green Bags, which add a few days to the life span of leafy produce, and Chowhounds swear by glass jars for storing berries as well as cut produce and grapes. It’s also important to learn which foods to store where in your kitchen and refrigerator. This article from Prevention Magazine maps it out.

Buy Organics from Bulk Bins
If you buy food from bulk bins, organic items can end up costing less than packaged nonorganic versions. For example, at Safeway, a canister of Sun-Maid seedless raisins with a net weight of 24 ounces is $4.99 (equal to $3.33 per pound). At Whole Foods, the bulk-bin price on organic raisins is lower, at $2.99 per pound. A canister of Quaker Old Fashioned rolled oats with a net weight of 42 ounces is $5.15 at Safeway, equal to $1.96 per pound; an independent neighborhood health food store in San Francisco was recently selling organic rolled oats for $1.19 per pound.