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grocery-shopping-webRISMEDIA, February 23, 2009-Put your grocery budget on a diet and still eat well-it can be done. “On Wednesday, I look for the ads and plan my weekend shopping and clip coupons,” said Tara Gidus, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. Planning meals around sales, she said, saves money.

While U.S. shoppers increasingly pay more for the convenience of prepared foods, it sometimes takes only five or 10 minutes to do the prep work for something like a salad, as opposed to buying it pre-chopped and mixed in a bag. Ready-made, one-serving drinks are another product you can avoid to cut costs, she said, with the added benefit of reducing the amount of plastic headed for the landfill.

Her top choice among foods that deliver the most bang for the buck: beans, either dry or canned. Beans are full of nutritional benefits, such as fiber and protein, she noted, and they’re inexpensive. Oatmeal is second on her list of nutritious, bargain foods, at a cost of about 11 cents a bowl-if you cook it yourself (the instant variety costs more). Sound bland? Add fresh fruit or other toppings to liven it up.

Rounding out her top picks of good-for-less: seasonal fruit, frozen spinach, peanut butter, eggs and brown rice.

“The biggest food cost is food waste,” Gidus said. “Only buy what you will eat, and things that you will eat-people have the intention of eating things, like carrots, and they rot in the drawer.”

Glinder Stephens, director of the Orange County (Fla.) Extension Service, says grocery stores tend to put the most-expensive foods at eye level, so look for bargains above and below. Also, don’t go to the supermarket hungry; plan ahead and show up with a list, but be flexible enough to substitute items if you find things on sale. Generic brands are a bargain, she said, only if the family will eat them.

And “the more you can shop the perimeters, the healthier the meals you plan will be,” she said of most stores. “The inner aisles are where they have the processed foods.”

Dining out is one of the first things to cut when money is tight, Stephens said. But if eating out is high on your list of priorities, you ought to consider eating at restaurants close to home and where tips are not expected. Consider going out for lunch instead of dinner, or taking advantage of early-bird specials. Order water as your beverage, and bring a money-saving coupon with you.

Edmund Thralls, an urban-horticulture extension agent in Orange County, has seen an increase in the number of people attending gardening classes recently. “If you don’t have experience, you need to start small,” Thralls said. “I’d recommend a small, raised-bed garden 4 feet by 8 feet. You can grow a large amount of vegetables in a small area.”

He estimates that such a garden can save you about $600 a year in grocery costs. And as a bonus, he said, new gardeners discover how much better fresh, homegrown vegetables can taste compared with those sold in stores.

© 2009, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.).
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.