Smart grocery shopping starts with three things: budgeting, menu planning and scoping out savings in store. Before your next supermarket trip, consider the tips below below to help stretch your budget and put nutritious meals on the table.
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Smart Grocery Shopping: How to Stretch Your Food Budget

Are your weekly trips to the grocery store busting your household budget? Do you wander the aisles aimlessly, hoping for dinner inspiration?

Smart grocery shopping starts with three things: budgeting, menu planning and scoping out savings in store. Before your next supermarket trip, consider the tips below to help stretch your budget and put nutritious meals on the table.

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How Much Should You Spend?

Many of us don’t know how much of our household budget we should allocate to food each month. The United States Department of Agriculture reported in 2009 that the average family of four spent around $185 on food per week. The report stated, however, that this food budget was not spent on what qualifies as a healthful diet.

A family of four, with two children ages 6-11 years old, can spend from $150-$250 per week on healthful meals for the family.

Using its food plans as a basis, the USDA estimates that a family of four, with two children ages 6-11 years old, could spend from $150-$250 per week on healthful meals for the family. Your bill, of course, will depend on your budget and family’s needs. The food plans, which range from low-cost to liberal, provide recommendations on how many pounds of key food groups to purchase per week, per age range. For example, on the moderate cost food plan, the USDA recommends budgeting for nearly 6 pounds of vegetables per week for a child age 6-8. This may seem high, but remember, the plans are based on a balanced diet.

In addition, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach offers a “What You Should Spend” calculator as part of their Spend Smart, Eat Smart initiative. The tool lets you enter the number of people in your household, and their ages and genders, to help calculate what you should be spending on groceries.

Menu Planning

Menu planning is the key to smart grocery shopping. We’ve all heard the rule that you shouldn’t shop hungry. Menu planning takes that rule a step further: Don’t shop without a plan.

By taking an hour or so weekly to list each meal for every day of the week, you can plan to eat healthier and compare ingredient prices to save money.

Iowa State University Extension and Outreach provides practical guidelines for planning your weekly meals. With a five-day meal planning worksheet; tips on how to use grocery ads to cut costs; and guidelines to ensure every meal contains something from each of the food groups, the site is a great resource if you’re serious about eating healthier on a budget.

However, even the most seasoned cook can run out of ideas for meals. To help with that, the USDA provides an online menu planner that allows you to search for recipes by main ingredient, type of meal, nutritional categories and more. Each recipe includes preparations times and nutritional information.

The database can be particularly helpful to those adhering to a strict budget—each recipe has a calculated cost per serving. For example, Arroz con Pollo (chicken with rice) costs about $1.05 per serving, while Stir Fry Vegetables and Beef rings up at about  $1.29 per serving. With costs like this, you might even be able to put a whole dinner on the table for under $10. Iowa State’s site recommends checking your pantry for what you have on hand and planning meals that can use those products. Then, fill in your shopping list with ingredients to complete those meals.

In-Store Savings

Once you’ve determined your budget and planned your meals, the following tips can help you shop smarter while you’re in the supermarket.

First, don’t be afraid to check out store brands. According to Consumer Reports, store brand food products cost an average of 27 percent lower than brand-name foods—often without sacrificing quality or flavor.

Second, learn how to compare unit prices to ensure you’re getting the most bang for your buck. Store brands typically offer savings in the form of a lower unit price.

For example, a name-brand, 18-ounce box of cereal may cost $3.99, which is $0.21 per ounce. Compare that to a store-brand, 24-ounce box of cereal that may cost $4.29 and $0.18 per ounce. At face value,the  name-brand seems cheaper, but when you look at the unit price, you’re actually being charged $0.03 more per ounce! When you shop smart, every cent can add up, so be sure to look for the unit price labels.

With a bit of time and research, you can plan meals that work for your budget–and make your supermarket trips a little less daunting. So put on your chef’s hat, select some tasty recipes and before you know it, it’s time to say, “Bon appétit!”


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