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RISMEDIA, July 31, 2010—(MCT)—Spending smarter on food is a great idea. Problem is, most supermarket-shopping strategies are overwhelming and time-consuming. Saving doesn’t have to be that hard. Start with a few techniques and watch your food spending plummet.

The average American family of four spends $9,172 on food each year, according to the federal government’s Consumer Expenditure Survey. Cutting that total by just 20% using these tips saves you more than $1,800.

Annette Economides, co-author of the upcoming book Cut Your Grocery Bill in Half and Stephanie Nelson, author of The Coupon Mom’s Guide to Cutting Your Grocery Bills in Half to learn some simple strategies for the grocery aisles.

First ingredient: Cooking.
It takes about three generations for an immigrant family to lose the ability to speak their ancestors’ native language fluently. The same thing has happened to many Americans’ ability to cook—many simply don’t know how to prepare a meal, Economides said. “People don’t even know where to start.”

That’s partly why dining out accounts for 42% of a four-person family’s food spending, or nearly $4,000 a year, according the expenditure survey.

Cooking allows you to spend less on dining out and less on convenience foods at the supermarket, Economides said. And it doesn’t mean cooking every night. When you cook, make double and triple batches and freeze the rest. It’s minimal extra hassle and about the same amount of cleanup.

Then on busy nights, you’re only microwave-minutes away from an entree that will be cheaper—and probably more healthy—than you would order off a restaurant menu. Consult family, friends, cookbooks and cooking shows to improve your culinary skills. Taking a cooking class at a community college could pay for itself many times over.

True, people seem busier than ever and have irregular schedules, but if you want to save money on food, you must cook.

Then add: Planning.
Before you groan at this suggestion, know that planning meals and shopping trips ultimately takes less time, not more, and you’ll save a bundle in the process by curbing impulse buys and reducing the number of trips to the store. More than half of supermarket purchases are unplanned, according to the Point of Purchase Advertising Institute.

“People think planning is too much effort, but it actually is an unbelievable time saver,” said Economides, who shops just once a month. The typical American shops two to three times per week.

Start with a seven-day menu. “You don’t have to start out gourmet,” Economides said. “You’ve got to get out of the habit of thinking about dinner at 4 in the afternoon.”

Need help brainstorming? Look at the weekly supermarket advertisement, which will give you ideas. Pay special attention to the front and back covers, which will have the best deals, called loss leaders because the store loses money on them. “Even if you don’t have time to plan, you can save 50% or more on loss-leader items,” Nelson said.

Additional tips to help you save money at the grocery store:
-Avoid impulse buys. Plan so that you need to visit the supermarket just once a week. Make a list for your weekly menu so that once you get to the store, you will be able to shop quickly and avoid picking up things you don’t need.

-Get a loyalty card. Sales in most supermarkets are tied to loyalty cards. Seek out the items on your list that are on sale.

-Be brand-flexible. If you must have Heinz ketchup and will tolerate no other, that’s fine. But, surely, you don’t have such strong opinions about all products. Substitute a brand that’s on sale or try store brands, which are much better in quality than they used to be.

-Know a deal. Keep a price book—a small notepad of items you buy frequently. Unless you have a photographic memory, it’s the only way to spot a good price.

-Stockpile. When your price book tells you a nonperishable item is offered at a great price, buy multiples.

-Price match. If your store matches competitors’ prices, bring along other supermarkets’ sales fliers to get the lowest prices on more items at your own store.

(c) 2010, Chicago Tribune.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.