Grocery store.
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Shopping often comes down to a simple choice: Cheap, healthy or fast?

In a perfect world, you'd go to the store and take your pick of delicious, inexpensive and convenient foods. The reality is that grocery shopping is a balancing act among foods you like, foods that fit your busy schedule and foods that meet your budgetary needs. Plus, you've got to calculate how much to buy, especially if you're dealing with perishable foods. Do you have enough pantry space? Will your children be home for dinner this week? Will you use all those tomatoes before they go bad? With all these factors affecting our grocery shopping options, it's a wonder we don't all just eat out every night.

Grocery Shopping

There are some crucial tips and tricks that can cut through this grocery malaise. Whether you're buying for two or a family of six, some planning can bring your food budget under control, reduce waste and help you prepare a healthy diet, all while maximizing precious fridge space. If you've never clipped a coupon, planned a week's meals or weighed the pros and cons of rotisserie chicken, this article will lead you to grocery enlightenment.

 

Cutting Costs at the Grocery Store

These helpful tips will trim dollars off your grocery budget.

  • Make a grocery list before you go shopping; it will get you out of the store faster and prevent you from spending money on things you don't need.
  • Don't shop hungry. If you've had a meal before you go shopping, you'll find it much easier to resist the sweet siren call of ice cream sandwiches and frozen pizza.
  • Buy for convenience where it counts. If a packaged item significantly reduces your time and hassle in the kitchen, it may be worth the extra cost. Most of us probably don't feel like butchering large pieces of meat when we just want to grill some chicken breasts, but grating your own cheese or separating snacks into small portion-sized bags is easy enough -- you shouldn't pay a premium to have it done for you.
  • Buy in bulk when you can. This depends on the volume of food you eat and the amount of storage space available. Pasta and grains have long shelf lives, while meat and poultry freeze well; don't bother stocking up on produce and dairy products. Look for an inexpensive chest freezer -- the extra freezer space will make long-term food storage much easier.
  • Coupons count. A few dollars per week can add up to real savings over the course of a year. File all your coupons in a convenient place where you will remember to bring them to the grocery store. A simple envelope works, or you can create an organized file folder.
  • Try store brands. They're usually of the same quality as the brand names -- and you'll pay a lot less for them. You can also save by using a supermarket rewards card. Ask at the register.
  • Don't buy what you don't like. If your family won't eat it, don't buy it -- at any price. Even if you're tempted by rock-bottom prices, it isn't a bargain if nobody eats it.

Keeping grocery costs down doesn't stop at the checkout line. Next, find out how to cut costs in the kitchen.

Keeping a Budget in the Kitchen

Couple at farmer's market.
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If you want to save money on groceries, consider shopping at a farmer's market.

Budgeting begins at the supermarket and continues at the table. The challenge is to squeeze the maximum amount of food that you can get out of what you can afford to spend -- remembering, of course, to eat as healthily as possible.

The key to controlling grocery costs in the kitchen is portion size. We have a habit of cooking (and eating) far more than we really need for one meal. Make only enough for each person to have a normal serving. This not only helps control the food budget, but also helps to control blood sugar.

Keep meal portions sensible. For example, buy a chicken or roast that is large enough to give each person four ounces per serving, with little or no leftovers. This helps discourage overeating. If you do cook planned leftovers for another meal, cool, bag and freeze the planned leftovers to avoid the temptation of overeating.

Buy produce that is seasonally available and, when possible, buy in bulk. Farmers' markets, farm stands and natural food stores often offer substantial savings on seasonal and bulk items.

Serve healthful, filling, inexpensive side dishes. Vegetables, bread and beans will stretch your main-dish protein serving even further. To really make a meal healthy, offer a veggie or bean dish as the main serving, with a smaller side of meat.

Some ingredients are more expensive than others. If you know how to substitute expensive ingredients for less-expensive ones, you'll be better able to adapt your recipes to fit your budget. The chart below has some useful conversions and substitutions to transform an expensive meal into one you can afford.

To adapt recipes to your budget, see chart below:

Original Substitution
1 tablespoon flat leaf parsley 1 tablespoon dried parsley
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar with 1 teaspoon molasses
Baby spinach
Chopped fresh spinach
Phyllo dough
Low-fat biscuit dough
Goat cheese
Nonfat cream cheese with 1 teaspoon lemon juice
Fresh mahi-mahi
Frozen fish fillets


Next, we'll look at the busy cook's secret weapon: the rotisserie chicken.

Rotisserie Chicken: A Cost-effective Time-saver

The key for quick and healthy cooking is to find foods you can use to prepare entire meals. Fortunately, rotisserie chickens are a simple, readily available solution. Most of us don't have to travel far to find a roast chicken; they can be found everywhere from takeout spots and casual dining establishments to small grocery stores and huge food warehouses.

In addition to being convenient and delicious, rotisserie chicken is an excellent source of protein. It's also low in fat and calories when the skin is removed. You don't have to serve it as is; juicy, succulent rotisserie chickens are amazingly versatile. You can fold it into almost any dish, including salads, pasta or rice dishes, sandwiches, soups and casseroles. Just pull the meat off the bones and combine it with other fresh and healthy ingredients to create a tasty meal. These cooked birds are a true time-saver when you need a super-quick supper.

Here are a few tips for creating quick, healthy meals using rotisserie chicken:

  • If there's a choice, opt for plain instead of flavored chicken. Although most of the flavoring is concentrated on the skin, it does perfume the meat and accumulated juices, and can alter the overall flavor of your recipe.
  • Look for a large, full-breasted chicken. It has more meat and is less likely to dry out under a heat lamp or in a hot box.
  • Remove the skin and pull the chicken from the bone as soon as you get home. It is easier to separate meat from bone while warm, and allows you to start your recipe without delay. Shred or cube the excess meat and refrigerate or freeze in individual portions for future use. By keeping out only what you need, you'll also avoid the temptation to overeat.
  • Reheat the cooked meat slowly and on low heat to avoid cooking the meat any further.
  • To make a quick stock, place the chicken bones in a large pot, along with black peppercorns, chopped garlic and vegetables like onions, carrots and celery. Barely cover with water, and then bring to a simmer. In 30 minutes, you'll have a pot of stock that tastes like it's been simmering for hours. Any fat in the broth will congeal at the top and can be easily strained off.
  • Keep small containers of stock in your freezer so that it's ready at a moment's notice. For perfectly measured, small amounts for cooking, freeze the stock in ice cube trays, then transfer the cubes to a plastic freezer bag.

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