How to stretch your grocery dollar

Need help stretching your grocery budget? During my first year in the career world, my husband and I only stayed within our grocery budget 5 out of the 12 months. That comes out to 41%…a failing grade. Spending $5 over the grocery budget isn’t a big deal, but it adds up to $60 a year. Throw in any other categories that went slightly over and it can amount to hundreds of dollars each year. We became debt free in March 2012 and would like to keep it that way. With that said, here are a few tips and tricks I’ve learned that may help your grocery dollar finish the month without breaking a sweat (or your budget).

Stock up on staples
I always keep brown rice, whole wheat pasta, dried beans, and oatmeal on hand in my cupboards. That giant canister of oatmeal costs $2 and it makes 30 one cup servings. Add your own ingredients like cinnamon, fruit, or nuts which you can also buy in bulk. The other ingredients I listed make great additions to soups, stews, salads, pastas and casseroles and are a great source of fiber.

Fresh, Canned, or Frozen?
Depending on what’s in season, one choice may be cheaper than the other. Fresh produce tastes better and costs less when it’s in season. Frozen produce is picked at its ripest condition and immediately frozen, so you still get the highest quality of nutrients. Buying frozen can also prevent losing money by purchasing too much fresh produce that goes bad by the end of the week. If you choose canned, look for labels that say “no salt added” for vegetables and “packed in juice” for fruit instead of “packed in syrup.”

Double Batches
My mom had 5 mouths to feed but cooked for 10 because she would freeze leftovers to use another day. This not only saves money but precious time as well. That extra dinner can also save some dough by preventing you from the temptation to eat out when you don’t feel like cooking.

Make a list and stick to it
Aw man, you’re making tacos for dinner but forgot to get cheese! You run to the store for this one item but end up coming home with chips and salsa as well because hey, who doesn’t like chips and salsa with tacos? Making a list before you leave for the grocery store ensures you to get everything needed in one trip. Most grocery stores have their weekly ads posted online. They can guide your weekly meal planning as long as you don’t add an item to your list just because it’s on sale.

What are some methods you use to stretch your grocery dollar?

Brown Rice vs White Rice

Dave lived in a house with 3 guys at Michigan State University his senior year. It was Dave, Dave, Joe and Joe living in the Cozy Cottage, how cute :) . When he moved in, my mom bought him this rice cooker as a housewarming gift. What a wise mother; planning ahead by giving a good gift that we’d use over and over down the road as a married couple. Don’t be fooled by the size, this little guy can make 6 or 7 cups of cooked rice.

Rice is so versatile and can be used in a wide array of dishes from desserts (rice pudding) to main entrees. If the question is brown rice vs white rice, brown rice always wins for me. While white rice is dirt cheap, brown rice isn’t too far behind in terms of price. I also think you get a way better bang for your buck since white rice is depleted of nutrients.

After the inedible hull is removed, you are left with the endosperm, germ, and bran. The bran is on the outside and is a tan color, hence the name “brown rice.” White rice is made by stripping the bran and most of the germ layer, leaving the starchy, white endosperm… white rice.

The bran layer is an arsenal of fiber that helps aid digestion and lower cholesterol. Brown rice also contains heart-healthy fats, but during the refining process the bran is removed and the rice is then polished to remove a layer of the grain that contains the good fats in order to prolong shelf life. Not only are the fats removed, but many other beneficial nutrients are stripped out as well. I found these numbers on the Whole Foods website: The complete milling and polishing that converts brown rice into white rice destroys 67% of the vitamin B3, 80% of the vitamin B1, 90% of the vitamin B6, half of the manganese, half of the phosphorus, 60% of the iron, and all of the dietary fiber and essential fatty acids. You might as well just eat a spoonful of sugar if all you’re going to get from white rice is refined carbs.

Since rice takes about 30-45 minutes to cook it’s helpful to make a big batch, use what you need, and freeze the rest. It’s much cheaper than buying the 1-minute pre-cooked rice. All you’ll have to do is add a sprinkle of water to your frozen rice and zap it in the microwave. I love Alton Brown’s show Good Eats, but I do have to disagree that some uni-taskers are worth having. Maybe my avocado slicer was a silly purchase, but a rice cooker is wonderful because I can set it and forget it. The cooker even turns itself off when the rice is done, so I don’t even need a timer! I think ours was only $15 at Meijer, well worth my mom’s investment ;)

Do you use a rice cooker? What are your favorite dishes with brown rice?

Which Bread is Best?

Dave told me earlier this week that around 9am every morning he has a Pavlov’s dog response and his body expects to be fed a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Unless he takes leftovers with him, I usually pack some other type of sandwich like ham & cheese or a tuna fish sandwich. We go through a lot of bread. If you want to read what else we pack, you’ll have to read my post about packing lunches but today, it’s all about BREAD.

What have you heard about bread? Wheat is good, white is bad…or if you read Michael Pollan’s book Food Rules, you’d say “the whiter the bread, the sooner you’ll be dead.” There are too many types of bread out there and it’s hard to figure out which bread is best. I’ll start with some myths and relieve you with some tips…

#1: If it sounds healthy, it’s probably healthy
Hm, this bread says it’s 100% natural. You know what else is 100% natural? Dirt. Just because the name of the bread sounds super healthy doesn’t mean it is. Take 7-grain and 12-grain breads for example; it’s got whole wheat flour, oats, brown rice and other grains, but the first ingredient is unbleached enriched flour. That means it’s no longer considered a whole grain since it’s been stripped of its bran and germ. By enriching the flour some nutrients are added back in, but it still doesn’t match up to good ol’ whole-wheat flour. This Aunt Millie’s 12-grain has water as the first ingredient, but whole grain wheat flour does come in second…so not all are phonies. Just read your ingredient labels.



Myth #2: If it looks brown or has the word “wheat” in the name, it’s good for you
Again with the first ingredient…if it says “wheat flour” or “enriched bleached flour” or something like that, it means that white flour is the primary ingredient used, not whole-wheat flour. You’ll see other tricks like “cracked wheat with whole grains.” Whole grains are further down the list, but white flour still ranks number one.

Myth #3: “Diet” or “Light” bread is better
“Light” usually means a smaller serving size. If I had to define it, I would say it means less bread, more air. If you really want a lower-calorie sandwich but need to have 2 slices of bread, go for it, but I find it funny that I could squish the entire loaf into the size of two pieces of regular bread. You can still find 100% whole wheat light bread…I guess this myth is more of a personal preference.

Bread tip #1: 100% wins
Not “whole wheat.” You want “100% whole wheat” or “100% whole grain.” Best tip I can give you, hands down… I didn’t even need to write this long post. If it’s really 100%, you’ll see whole-wheat flour as the first ingredient listed. Why do I keep pushing whole grains? They’re naturally low in fat, cholesterol free, contain lots of fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and contain a good source of protein.

Bread tip #2: Stay under 200 a slice
200 calories? I’d hope so…but I mean 200mg sodium, aka salt. While bread can provide a great source of nutrients, some brands tend to pack in the sodium. Since the recommendation is to stay under 2,000mg a day for most people, bread can add a significant sodium contribution if it’s a big part of your diet.

Bread tip #3: Check your serving size
50 calories a slice!? Awesome! Wait a minute… it tastes like air with a hint of sawdust. On the other extreme, some heartier breads can pack in 120 calories per slice. Depending on what you’re putting on the bread, calories can add up. Take a look at the weight on the serving listed. Some can weigh a measly 15 grams or a hefty 45 grams.

What brand am I loyal to? Sometimes I choose Nature’s Pride if I find a good deal, but I usually buy Koepplinger’s 100% Whole Wheat bread. The first ingredient: whole-grain wheat flour. 135mg sodium. 80 calories per 30-gram slice. I can usually find it at the store for $1.80 a loaf. The downfall to this bread is that it contains sugar, molasses, and corn syrup in the ingredient list along with a crappy man-made oil, soybean oil.

In summary- some breads are healthier than others. However, the best diet contains healthy fats, quality protein, and the main carbohydrate source from vegetables and fruit.

What’s your favorite brand/type of bread?

The Benefits of Meal Planning

“If you don’t plan, you plan to fail”
Do you know what you’re eating for breakfast tomorrow? How about for lunch on Wednesday? While you don’t have to plan every single meal and snack out and ensure you won’t diverge from the plan, having a general game plan can help in many ways.
It can save you time
I try to come up with 3 or 4 meals we can have for the week and do one big grocery trip. I don’t do 7 meals per week because often times there are leftovers. Breakfast is usually one of the meals I work in to the week since some form of eggs and potatoes is so darn cheap. I note what day of the week I’d like to have each meal since I know what meals may take more time to make and would best be prepped for the night before. For example, it would take an hour and a half to make and bake lasagna, so I make it the night before and all I have to do is throw it in the oven when I get home from work. Another time-saver is planning a meal with items you already have in your home. You might only need to shop for 2-3 meals if you can throw together something already in your fridge or pantry.It can save you money
Even if you just need to pick up a few tomatoes at the store because you forgot, your chances of buying something else while you’re there is pretty high. If you check your local grocery store’s weekly ad you can save money by planning your meal based off of what’s on sale or in season. Be careful you don’t start adding things to your list just because it’s on sale. Another way to save is by cutting down on the amount of meat you use and spread it out over a few meals. A little Italian sausage in lasagna, then a quiche, then on a homemade pizza. Just enough to flavor the meal. Making your own lunch versus going out can also save a lot. For example:

Restaurant 6” Turkey Sub ($3.79)
Homemade turkey sub

6” Wheat Hoggie ($0.44)
3 oz. turkey breast ($0.94)
1 slice Swiss ($0.32)
1 tsp. mustard $(0.02)
veggies ($0.20)
Total: $1.92

Planning can prevent spontaneous expenses
If you’ve got your pantry staples and get only the groceries needed for the meals you have planned for the week, you cut down on spontaneous runs to the grocery store or going through the drive through instead of making dinner altogether. I do take a 10-minute walk/ 1-minute drive to our local grocery store to pick up produce about twice a week since I can’t usually buy for the whole week without losing quality. I make sure I’m only getting what I planned to get going in to the store by making a straight shot for the item and heading to the checkout. No browsing around.

A weekly menu plan doesn’t have to be elaborate. If you want a simple place to start, you can download my Budget for Health Menu Planner document from Microsoft Word and create your own. I even included a sample of one of my days. I do have “snack” listed between each meal, but you don’t have to do this. I just put all the options out there. I don’t like eating a full meal at once, so I pack my lunch and eat something from it every few hours.

Do you meal plan? If so, what’s your strategy?

Bulk Basics

I came across this very useful pamphlet from Whole Foods. It’s called “Bulk Basics: a simple guide to buying and cooking bulk foods at Whole Foods Market.” The cover is shown above. Even if you don’t shop at Whole Foods, try to get your hands on this pamphlet. It’s like a treasure chest of cooking tips that will open your eyes to new options! For example, the data on beans include soak or no soak, how long to cook, what they look like and serving suggestions.

I like to try new recipes, but I don’t like when they call for ingredients I don’t already have or haven’t tried before. I worry that I won’t use the whole package or I won’t even like it. This is a great opportunity to buy in bulk because you can choose the amount you want to purchase. I’ve made bulk purchases for rice, barley, lentils, nuts, dried beans, and even sesame seeds…because it’s not often that I need a whole pound of sesame seeds…

Whole Foods provides four great reasons to buy in bulk:
- Bins are replenished often so ingredients are super fresh.
(I never thought of this point before; how old is that rice I bought last week?)
- Because you can buy as much or as little as you need, you can experiment with new products without getting stuck with a lot of something that doesn’t suit you.
- Many of the bulk offerings are organically grown.
- You save money by not paying for fancy labels.
What can you buy in bulk?
I love the bulk bins at whole foods. They’ve got all different types of flours, rice, grains, pastas, nuts, trail mixes, and a machine to grind your own nut butter. They also carry bulk food items like spices, herbs, dried fruit, soup mixes, salts, peppercorns (I didn’t even know there was more than one type of peppercorn…), beans, cereals, teas, coffees, snacks & treats. I got a few canisters from Bed Bath & Beyond from our wedding registry that helps to keep our rice and flour fresh since I don’t want to leave it in the bag I buy it in. Sometimes bulk costs the same as the packaged items, but there are items that will cost you a fraction of the packaged item (spices & seasonings). Aside from Costco, I can’t find quinoa cheaper at any store besides Whole Foods. If I try a new item I’ll be sure to let you know what I think about it. I probably won’t start with flageolets since I couldn’t even pronounce it right [fla-zhoh-LAY would be the correct way, not flag-ee-oh-lets.]
What foods do you buy in bulk?

Buy in season, do some freezin’

If you haven’t read yesterday’s post on how to find what fruit & vegetables are in season, be sure to check it out in addition to today’s post.

Strawberries were on sale last week for $1 a pound, so I bought 6 pounds, cut them up and froze all but one pound. We kept one pound fresh and packed whole strawberries in our lunch this week. I usually scoop out a few frozen ones and put them in my yogurt. They thaw out overnight since I pack my lunch after dinner. Strawberries aren’t always that cheap, so when I see the sale, I stock up! If a pound of strawberries usually costs $2.50 per pound out of season and I find the $1 per pound sale, I’ve saved $9 on the 6 pounds I bought! If you have a deep freezer, you could save some mad money by grabbing seasonal produce when it’s cheap. We only have a standard bottom fridge/ top freezer in our apartment, so I can’t go too crazy with these sales. Someday…

If you want some awesome tips on freezing produce and all sorts of food, check out this helpful post from Andrea at Simple Organized Living. You’ll find great ideas on how to freeze foods like baked goods, dairy, baking supplies, and whole meals. She’s developed a freezing system that works for her and uses various sizes of Ziploc bags, Tupperware, and even shoe boxes to make sorting and stacking foods easier. There’s even a Freezer Cooking FAQ from all the questions Andrea got after the first post. Her site is definitely in my top favorite sites I follow, so check her out. Just don’t forget about Budget for Health as you browse in awe through her savvy organizing/decorating/kitchen skills ;) Another useful article I found from Eating well shows how to prep 16 fruits & vegetables.

Even if you don’t have a freezer, there are other ways to preserve foods like canning or making jams. I made 6 jars of jam when blackberries were on sale for 50 cents a pint. Believe it or not, I actually got my recipe to make jam from Andrea. Other foods I buy in bulk and freeze are bread, berries, chicken (our local store has Michigan-farmed chicken breasts for $1.79 per pound on Saturdays), broth (I buy the 32oz carton since it’s often cheaper and just freeze the rest in little Tupperware bowls), and vegetables (I buy bulk red & orange peppers when on sale, chop, and freeze for soups, tacos, stir fry, omelettes, etc). It’s important to keep an eye on your grocery budget when buying in bulk so you don’t go over, but you can typically save a good chunk of change from this practice!

Do you stock up on produce in season? What else do you freeze in bulk?

The Peanut Butter Battle

What do choosy moms choose?
If I had to choose a food I can’t live without, it would be peanut butter. It’s just SO good! I can stir it in my oatmeal, add it to smoothies, spread on my English muffin or bagel, put it on my apples, bananas, carrots, or celery, use it in dessert, eat it right off the spoon…and who can forget the simple delight of a PBJ? Although peanut butter is high in calories (around 180 for 2 tablespoons), it contains heart-healthy mono-unsaturated fat as well as Vitamin E, niacin, folate and fiber. One problem you may run into is figuring out which brand and type to choose! I’ve listed a few brands that are pretty common and provided a few details about each one. You get to make the call.

Smuckers (natural)
Ingredients: Peanuts, salt. I’d say this is a smart pick, unless your peanut butter comes in the same jar as the jelly like Smucker’s “Goober” brand

Smart Balance
Haven’t tried it but have heard it’s gross because they use molasses to sweeten it. Can anyone verify this? I don’t want to totally knock it without trying, but I would be upset if my peanut butter didn’t really taste like peanut butter.

Jif contains extra ingredients like added sugar and hydrogenated oils (a source of trans fat, associated with heart disease). The brand “Simply Jif” claims it’s healthier because there’s 30% less sugar than regular peanut butter (they went from a whopping 3 grams per serving to 2 grams). Jif does offer a “natural” brand made with only 5 ingredients (peanuts, sugar, palm oil, molasses, salt) and it has the same spreadable consistency as regular peanut butter. However, palm oil contains a high source of saturated fat (again with the heart disease).

Just re-read Jif. Skippy does the same thing, even with their natural brand.

Meijer (a generic brand)
The regular brand is similar to Jif & Skippy, but the natural brand is made with only peanuts, so it qualifies as a smart pick.

Krema (natural)
Contains fresh roasted ground nuts. That’s it. Good choice.

Trader Joes
Once again, the only ingredients are dry roasted peanuts and salt. It has great flavor, a silky smooth texture and they claim it won’t separate once refrigerated.

Make your own!
Don’t want to buy natural peanut butter? Make it! I’ve used my Magic Bullet to grind some peanuts I roasted myself and it worked just fine. I’m guessing a food processor would work too, but you’ll have to try it out and let me know. It takes a little patience since it looks like you’re just chopping the nuts forever until the oils start to come out and get the creamy texture going. I’ll admit I’ve thrown in some chocolate chips before and not to my surprise, it was delicious. My local grocery store now offers the option to grind peanuts into a jar and purchase by the pound. With peanuts as the only ingredient, it’s a natural, healthy option, but check your prices- it may be cheaper, or you may be better off buying one of the natural brands above.

Another thing to note- if you’re thinking about getting reduced fat PB, don’t. Some fat comes out, but read the label and you’ll see that the amount of sugar is increased. They’ve got to make it taste good somehow, don’t they?

Overall, my vote goes for natural peanut butters that contain peanuts and no hydrogenated oils. Usually one good stir after opening is supposed to keep the peanut butter from separating in the fridge, but if you’re like me and don’t want to rip your bread by trying to spread a rock on it, you can simply alternate the jar upside down and right side up in your cupboard each time you use it to keep the oil mixed through.

What’s your favorite peanut butter?