Food & Drink

Prices fueling changes in the menu

It's a tossup: Do you drive less to cut fuel costs or buy fewer groceries to save money? Gas and food prices are skyrocketing, and many families are changing the way they eat and shop.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Consumer Price Index for all food is forecast to increase 4.5 percent to 5.5 percent in 2008 as retailers continue to pass on higher commodity and energy costs to consumers.

Adele McKinney of Nicholasville, Ky., learned how to save money at the grocery store -- without sacrificing nutrition -- when she was living with her daughter last fall.

"They were on a very strict budget. I prepared the week's menus by using the store's sale papers," she said.

McKinney planned two or three meals a week, with leftovers for other meals.

"I was also packing my son-in-law's lunch, feeding a 4-year-old and a pregnant lady. We managed to do this on about $600 a month," she said.

"What works best for me is to buy what is on special. I do buy store brands if the quality is the same, but there are some items that do not have the same quality. I save money by preparing most meals from scratch, but I do use the microwave and slow cooker to save time.

"Prepared meals and/or box mixes for meals are very expensive and not as nutritious as doing it at home.

"A bargain to me is something that I use. I don't care how cheap it is if it will just sit on your shelf or in the freezer."

The weekly menus she used when she lived with her daughter are posted on her blog, www.akentucky, under "Eating well in hard times."

Maria Boosalis, director of the division of clinical nutrition at the University of Kentucky College of Health Sciences, reminds consumers: "We have to be smart shoppers."

That means spending more time in the grocery store, not less.

"Go in with a list, don't be distracted, and be flexible," she said.

Before shopping, make a list using the USDA's MyPyramid as a guide. The dietary guidelines describe a healthy diet as one that emphasizes fruits; vegetables; whole grains; and fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products; one that includes lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, eggs and nuts; and one that is low in saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, salt (sodium) and added sugars.

Many fruits and vegetables are at their peak now, and generally, you can save money when buying locally, Boosalis said. When the growing season ends, buy canned or frozen, but choose items with no added sodium.

And remember: Supermarkets compete by offering many sale items, and most shoppers are tempted to buy them.

"Be familiar with store pricing so you'll know that it's truly a good deal," Boosalis said.

Whole grains should be a major part of our diet, and -- traditionally they're inexpensive. If your family balks at 100 percent whole-wheat pasta, mix it half and half with regular pasta.

"At least you're increasing the nutritional value," she said.

Choose whole-grain cereals, such as oatmeal, and brown rice instead of white. Lean sources of protein such as meat, poultry and fish are probably among the most expensive items on a grocery list, Boosalis said. Alternative protein sources include dried beans, eggs and peanut butter.

Dairy products are often on sale. Choose fat-free/skim milk and nonfat milk powder. Powdered milk can be used in cooked dishes to save money.

According to Phil Lempert, who bills himself as the Supermarket Guru, shoppers can lower their grocery bills by being flexible and planning meals around what's on sale.

"You may need to switch brands and types of foods, substituting less expensive meats or fish, and trading beans and eggs for meat," he said.

"Stores are set up to spur impulse buying. Focus on staples such as milk, eggs, bread and canned or frozen veggies, and avoid tempting cookies and cakes in the deli section," he said.

Coupons also can generate significant savings, as can shopping with a list and never going to the grocery hungry.