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cooking_1110RISMEDIA, November 10, 2009—In a tough economic environment, eating well on a budget can be challenging. Tempting low-cost, high-calorie comfort foods are readily available, but often lack important nutrients that are sacrificed in exchange for convenience. With a few key skills and strategies from TOPS Club Inc. (Take Off Pounds Sensibly), the nonprofit weight-loss support organization, it can be relatively easy to create flavorful, well-balanced meals without busting the budget. 

Eat In More and Out Less
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service found that spending on food away from home accounted for nearly half of every American food dollar, or $565 billion, in 2008. While they require more planning, home-cooked meals are an excellent way to minimize your grocery bill and they are typically healthier than the options you may find when dining out. 

To save money while cooking at home, try some of these tips:
-Make at least one meal meatless. Choose recipes that utilize eggs or dried beans – like pinto or northern beans – as the main protein.
-Double your recipes and freeze leftovers or extra amounts of meat, bread, and cooked vegetables. Bring to work for lunch or use the excess ingredients as inspiration for future meals.
-Eat dinner as a family, or consider having a weekly potluck with neighbors to reduce the cost per person of your meals.
-Clip coupons, avoiding “new food” coupon gimmicks that often are low in nutritional value.
-Subscribe to a healthy cooking magazine, or peruse recipe books for healthy ideas.

Plan Meals for the Week in Advance
-A meal planning chart or simple shopping list for the week are great tools for the budget-minded, health-conscious consumer. Knowing what you already have in the pantry and what you intend to make ahead of time reduces impulse spending, saves time, and improves the nutritional value of your meal.
-Take part of one day a week to plan the upcoming week’s menu. Search “meal planning charts” on the Internet for a variety of templates and convenient shopping tools.
-Read the supermarket circulars in your local newspaper, or look online for weekly specials that can help guide your meal planning.
-Post meal plans on the refrigerator door where the entire family can see it and refer back to it throughout the week. This also helps avoid the dreaded question, “What’s for dinner?”

Only Shop Once a Week
In addition to shopping at grocery stores, try local markets and even dollar stores. Shopping once a week makes it easier to avoid unnecessary purchases and encourages you to stick to your weekly menu. Have a snack before you visit the grocery store. Shopping on an empty stomach can lead to impulse buying. If fresh fruits and vegetables are cost-prohibitive, try the frozen or canned versions. Frozen produce is often flash frozen at the source, locking in nutrients. Rinse canned vegetables before cooking to reduce the sodium content. Buy generics, which are often less expensive than name-brand items. Choose prepared foods with short ingredient lists and minimal additives or artificial ingredients.

Use Unit Pricing to Get the Best Value
Savvy shoppers know that using unit pricing can maximize their purchasing power. Commonly listed in small print below or to the side of the total price and as dollars or cents per unit of weight – such as pounds, ounces, or grams – unit pricing can be a valuable tool that helps you make an informed choice about your purchases.

Grocery stores don’t always post the costs on sale items; bring a calculator with you to the supermarket, or use the calculator on your cell phone. Buying “economy” or “family size” containers is sometimes, but not always, a better buy. Larger packages that have a lower cost per unit than their smaller counterparts are only going to save you money if you will truly eat all of the food in the package. If it spoils and has to be thrown away, it could just be a waste of your money.

Packaging Gets Downsized
Be cautious of stores’ shrinking food packages and their content while prices stay the same. Common changes include packaging redesign that holds fewer ounces by way of indented container bottoms, cartons that hold 1/4 less of a quart, and boxes that remain the same size but actually have smaller bags of product inside.

For more information, visit www.tops.org.

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