The idea of saving money on your groceries is great. But you won't know what you save until you know what you spend.
Try these tips to help you start:
Compare the before and after. Try shopping for two weeks the way you normally do, then two weeks using our money-saving tips. Compare what you spent on each shopping trip to see how much you saved.
Take note of what worked. When you find that something really made a difference on the bottom line, make a note -- mental or otherwise -- and use it again and again.
Make it a family affair. Like any game, saving money can get addictive. Have a competition with family and friends to see who can find the lowest prices or the biggest bargain.
"With every minute you plan before your shopping trip, the more money you'll save in the store," says Randall Putala, author of Better Groceries for Less Cash-101 Tested and Proven Ways to Save on Food (WDV, LLC, 2008). And the better you plan, the more likely you are to make good food choices. If your kitchen is full of ingredients that you can easily whip together for a healthy meal or snack, you're less likely to spend extra cash on dining out.
Make a list and check it twice. Write down food items you eat on a regular basis or the foods your family gobbles up in one night. If there are a few new recipes you want to try, get the ingredients ahead of time so you are better prepared and not wasting gas money running back and forth to the store.
Buy more of what you love. When you spot sales or coupons for your favorite products, stock up. If the item has a longer shelf life or can be frozen, having extra on hand could save you another trip.
Look for the great deals. If you're not good with shopping lists, try shopping for the sale items at the store instead. Then plan your meals after you've purchased your discounted groceries. When using this method of shopping, good foods to choose are:
-- lean meats and fish
-- whole grain pasta and bread
-- fruits and vegetables
-- low-fat dairy
-- baking supplies, such as whole wheat flour, egg substitute, and spices
These core foods can be included in all types of healthful recipes.
Knowing which recipes are family favorites can be a big help the next time you're planning a meal.
Easy ways to keep track of recipes:
-- Fill a recipe box. (Use purchased recipe cards or save more money by making your own out of scrap paper.)
-- Write them in a notebook or clip them from magazines to put in the notebook.
-- Print out your favorites and put them in a three-ring binder. Our recipes are printer-friendly!
-- Add them to a document on your computer.
Look for recipes that use similar ingredients but have enough variety that you don't eat the same thing every night. Compile a final list of ingredients and take that with you to the store. Avoid straying from what you've planned to avoid unexpected costs.
Once your list of recipe ingredients and other grocery items is compiled, check your local newspaper inserts or search online for money-saving coupons.
Clipping, organizing, and updating coupons can help you save money every time you shop. "I'd say I save anywhere from $70 to $90 every week," author Randall Putala says.
-- Compare the price of brand-name foods on the coupon with generic brands.
-- Bring competitor coupons to a different store. "Tell the cashier you'd like the deal the competitor is giving with the coupon," Putala says. "And nine times out of 10 they'll give it to you because they want your business."
-- Don't buy something with a coupon you wouldn't normally buy without one.
-- Write your list on an envelope, then put the coupons that go along with those items inside the envelope so you have them ready for checkout.
-- Clip coupons during the commercial breaks of your can't-miss TV show.
-- "Make a routine out of it," Putala says. "I do it every Sunday after I have my morning coffee."
If clipping coupons sounds like a hassle, just try using them for a couple of weeks to see if they make a difference. However, don't let a little savings persuade you to buy packaged items high in sodium, cholesterol, or fat. Saving money doesn't justify breaking your heart-healthy diet.
"You want to go shopping for food when you're not hungry," says Rochelle Gilman, R.D., Hy-Vee health and wellness supervisor and corporate dietitian. You will be less likely to let your stomach overrule your planned list and budget.
You can make healthier and cheaper food choices on a full stomach, and you'll be more likely to resist nutrient-poor, calorie-rich impulse purchases.
When snacking, keep these four heart-healthy tips from Melina Jampolis, M.D., in mind:
-- Keep snacks low-calorie. Snacks should be about 100-200 calories.
-- Watch the fat. Snacks should have less than 10 percent saturated fat and less than 35 percent total fat.
-- Beware of sugar. Snacks should contain less than 35 percent added sugar.
-- Get your nutrients. Pick snacks with at least 10 percent of the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of one or more of these six nutrients whenever possible: potassium, fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin D, and calcium.
"Fresh fruits and vegetables are high in potassium, low in sodium, and many also provide soluble fiber to help lower your risk of heart disease," Rochelle Gilman, R.D., says. "And they cost less when they're in season." Some produce may be available year-round, but here is a short list to help you know when to buy these heart-healthy fruits and veggies.
Green String Beans
Sweet Potatoes and Yams
If you'd like to know more about seasonal produce in your area, ask your local grocer about its produce calendar.
When you purchase brand-name products, you could be paying 25-50 percent more than if you bought similar store-brand products, according to a 2005 comparison test by Consumer Reports. In some cases, brand-named companies also manufacture store-brand products without changing anything but the packaging.
If you're purchasing food items, you sometimes won't even be able to tell the difference. "For awhile, my daughter would only eat Jif peanut butter," says Maria Rhutenberg, a Des Moines mom of two. "We finally did a taste test and she couldn't tell the difference between Jif and the generic brand. She said to me, 'OK, Mom, you can buy whatever is cheapest now.'"
Gilman says that, in general, store brands have comparable nutritional values but advises to check the label to see if you're gaining any fat or sodium or missing out on fiber or other heart-healthy nutrients when switching brands. To keep up with consumer demand, many store brands also offer organic and health-conscious selections.
Consumer Reports does advise shoppers to consider value and quality before making the switch to store brands and to "not expect the same performance from all of them."
Taking daily trips to the local coffee shop or the office vending machines can make a huge dent in your budget. Save money and calories by making your morning coffee and personal snack-packs at home.
These foods make tasty, healthful snacks and tend to be more affordable when you buy them at a grocery or bulk store:
Snack mix-Make your own snack mix to take on the go. You can control the ingredients and the portions. When picking what to put in your snack mix, check the sodium and fat content of each item so you can better assess the total nutrients in your mix. Good choices include whole grain cereal, dried fruit, and popped light popcorn.
Fresh vegetables-Buy a vegetable tray for the week. The veggies are pre-cut and can be portioned out for easy snacks on the go or at work. Avoid cream-based dips and dressings to save calories. Save even more money by cutting your own carrot and celery sticks at home and making your own dip.
Fresh or Frozen Fruit-Buying pre-cut fruit can make your healthful snacks come together quickly. Save even more money by cutting your own at home.
Cooking at home can help you control the amount of fat, sodium, and cholesterol you put in your body. But who has time for a home-cooked meal? One easy way to stock up on home-cooked favorites is by preparing double the servings (or more), then freezing the extra for a quick meal later in the week.
Six tips to make your freezer leftover-friendly:
-- Create a labeling system for your frozen foods. If you don't know what it is, you're less likely to eat it.
-- Pick one night a week to have a buffet. Thaw several of your labeled leftovers and enjoy them over the next few days. This will also make room for more leftovers!
-- Freeze portion-ready servings for a one- or two-person snack or meal for convenience and portion control. This way, if you're in a hurry, all you need to do is zap it in the microwave.
-- Use space-saving freezer bags to store veggies and soups. These bags allow for easy thawing in a pot of water.
-- Look for fresh meats and vegetables that are near the expiration date. "You might find these items at half off or more," Putala says. "And when you buy them, it's easy to throw them in a slow cooker or pressure cooker and make five or so healthy meals out of them -- and you spent less than five dollars."
-- Try one of these delicious make-ahead recipes: