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How a Dad Saves Money on Food

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A Shopping Plan - It's Where You Look

Food prices are going up. This is the inevitable result of fuel prices rising and drought in the farm belt of the U.S. The more fuel used to ship things, the more those things will cost. Add to this the drought in the "corn-belt" and food prices can go nowhere, but up.

Recent weather events have also had an effect on corn and wheat prices. Since both these grains are affected, costs for both are going up. And it is not just the price of bread that will rise. Corn feeds live-stock, so meat, and products that use corn and wheat in their ingredient lists will go up as well. This includes any product that uses corn sweetener, and there are quite a few.

Of course you, the consumer, are expected to pay this price increase.

So, saving money on groceries then is pretty important. This is not as hard as it sounds. The most likely reason your food bill is so high is your 'brand loyalty.'

General Tip

One of the easiest methods of saving money on particular food items is to stop looking at eye level.

What? How the heck can looking at a particular location on the store shelves save money on anything?!?!?

It's simple really. Food retailers and wholesalers pay the grocer for prime locations on the store shelves. It's perfectly legal too. Of course they have to make up what they pay for "prime real-estate", by charging more for the food item. pay for the prime location in the price of the food.

So look down near the floor or up near the very top. Here's an excellent example;

You want to buy oatmeal. You are on the cereal aisle and the first brand that hits your eye (for oatmeal) features a friendly looking gray haired gentleman in 18th century garb. This is a great brand of course, but it's also likely the most expensive oatmeal you can buy, unless your store carries specialty brands. Look around that general area, higher or lower than that shelf, and you'll find store brands. Check the prices per ounce. Since federal law requires a price per ounce on the price sticker on the shelf, you might be shocked just how much more you are paying for handsome packaging and a friendly face or just how much less you can pay for the same item with a store brand label on it.

Here's another example;

Cold Cereal
You want to buy cold cereal for the kids. They have their favorite brands. Some feature happy looking bees others friendly vampires or a cheerful pirate. What you may not know is that the companies that sell these happy cheerful cereals have the same "pay for space" deal that exists with hot cereals. You end up paying a price difference for "popular" brands of cereal as opposed to less well known brands. These are referred to as "store brands." What you are paying for is advertising and prime shelf location.

But if you look at the nutritional information on these cereals, regardless of brand, you may be shocked to find that they are nearly identical in vitamins, minerals, and caloric content.

I've got a news flash for you. They taste good too. In fact you'll be hard pressed to tell them apart in a blind taste test.

December 23, 2012

I take my own advice. Lately I've noticed something odd about the ingredient list of popular cereals. One, a popular oat based cereal, cheerfully shaped like "Os" is no longer strictly made with oats. In fact the first ingredient by weight is corn.

Lesser brands, those typically packaged in plastic bags rather than boxes, have much better ingredients than expected. Their oat cereal is still based on oats.

Perhaps most surprising, the sweetener of choice is not corn syrup; it's sugar. This for a dry cold cereal that is typically priced at half the amount per ounce as the more brightly colored, branded boxed cereal.

Cereal for Breakfast


But the Kids Won't Eat It!

I went through that phase with my kids. If the box on the table didn't have a familiar look to it they wouldn't touch it.

Honestly, though, no arm twisting is required. Being sneaky may be though. If you are a parent "sneaky" is your stock in trade.

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Now I'll tell you, one of the best (and least expensive) cereal brands out there comes in bulk bags; mentioned above. You may not know this, but that company decided to change the way they market cereal in the seventies. When they got into the cold cereal market they decided to do so in bulk plastic bags. They are the fifth largest cereal producer in the U.S. and are expert at creating "clones" of popular boxed brands. So good in fact, once it's in the bowl with milk poured over it you really can't tell the difference.

What's in the bag is, by flavor, nearly identical to what you are paying twice as much for in a box. And I'll tell you; that is a very good food company with high nutritional value food. Just check the federally required nutrition label. A closer inspection of the ingredient label will reveal a surprise. The bag cereal actually has a more natural ingredient list than that of the brightly colored brand.

Now, I don't know how things work at your house, but at mine the cereal was placed on the table in it's box with milk, orange juice (or some other fruit juice) already poured sitting on the table. The kids are called to breakfast and they happily choose which brand of sugar bomb to eat.

Should you rebox? That's up to you, but I wasn't above such sneakiness.

A Dad Trick

I don't know if I should feel guilty about this, but here's a short story about cereal, a test of wills, and how I "won."

For months I had been trying to get my kids to try "plain" cereal. This is the stuff I ate. Honestly, I can't stand to eat anything with a glazed coating of sugar on it. I know it's crunchy and fun to hear in my head as I munch along, but it's just too darned sweet.

I also worried that my kids were getting more sugar than nutrition and, of course, the "plain" cereal is cheaper than the "sugar blasters." The question was "how do I get them to try it?"

So one morning I decide to take a different approach. I play "let's make a deal." We parents all know that one.

My daughter was the most die-hard in her brand loyalty. So I tell my daughter that I'll make her a bowl of cereal and all she has to do is try it. If she doesn't like it I'll eat it and I'll leave her alone about the cereal she chooses from now on; I'll stop bugging her and she can eat whatever she wants.

Out of her line of sight, I put about a cup of whole grain miniature doughnut shaped cereal in a bowl. I think you know the brand; it has a cheerful name. In a measuring cup I put in half a cup of milk and half a cup of "half-n-half." I also put about two teaspoons of sugar in there; I'm sure there's at least that much sugar in the "crunch bombs" they love so much.

I make sure to mix the cereal, sugar, and milk-cream completely to get the "sweetness" blended all through the cereal and I serve it to her.

She had about four spoonfuls each before looking up and, mouth half full, saying "this is good Dad." From then on she was up to eating the "plain" cereal about as often as the pre-sweetened stuff. Of course they used plain milk (not my blend) and about the same amount of sugar as I did. Oddly I was never asked my why mine tasted slightly better.

This did two things. My kids trusted me more when I made other food suggestions and it was was easier to get the others to try eating "Dad" food too. You see I chose to "trick" the pickiest eater in the bunch.

A Few Cents Here; A Dollar There

So this isn't just about the kids, though they can be a big factor in food costs.

Each item that goes into the shopping basket adds to the total bill. The trick, of course, is to have it add up in your favor.

Nickle and Dime Yourself

Rather than allowing the manufacturers to nickle and dime you, do it to yourself, but do it to your advantage.

Sure, simply by looking at alternate brands in less than ideal shelf locations, you may only save a quarter or so from item to item. But if you buy ten items and save 25 cents per item that's a saving of $2.50. A dollar with only four food items, two dollars with eight and so on.

Day-Old Bread

Of course you should buy this. If you buy the bread fresh the very next twenty-four hour cycle it's a day old isn't it? And if you are worried about it getting moldy before you can eat it, pop a loaf into the freezer. Bread keeps wonderfully in the freezer and only takes a few hours to thaw once you take it out of there.

Day-Old Meat

The same rule applies. Once you get it home and pop it in the fridge it's still going to get older. And you know you can freeze it.

Here's a little secret you may not know. Everyone wants bright red "healthy" looking meat. Haven't you noticed it doesn't look quite as good at home as it did in the store?

It's not your eyes going bad; it's a grocer "trick." Lights at the meat counter are designed to give off more red light or enhance the level of red reaching your eyes. Lighting at the meat counter is not the same as lighting in the rest of the store. You may also notice that most meat displays use bright green artificial "grass" around the meat. They do this to make the meat look redder by contrasting it with the green.

Now we've all seen meat with brown areas or ground beef that's brown. I for one was reluctant to buy it. But I found out from a close friend in the restaurant business that this isn't caused by age. I know, I know, that just doesn't sound possible, but I guarantee you the store would suffer horrible health department fines if they sold you old meat.

No, the brown you see is from "improper" storage. Improper being that the meat had too much pressure placed on it either from surrounding packaging or during processing. The brown is caused by pressure; not age. In other words the blood, which gives the meat its red color, has been pushed out of the area where you see brown.

You could use this to your advantage and ask the meat counter person for a price break for the "old" meat. I have. And I got that discount too.

Once you cook it its all going to look brown anyway right?

Cooking "Tough" Beef

Looking at the graphic at right, you can see that the best cuts come from just below the back and just forward of the rump or round.

It's all good though. We all know that "plate" and "flank" cuts are the cheapest, or used to be until they became popular. What you probably don't know is that the ground beef you buy, unless it's marked chuck or sirloin, come from all over the cow, including the "tough beef" areas. The reason it is "tender" is grinding it also tenderizes it.

Now if you buy a plate or flank and cook it the way you cook chuck or sirloin you are going to be disappointed and probably get a jaw workout too. You don't have to. It's all in the cooking.

Note: Lately I've been buying steaks at two local groceries. The quality has been disappointing to say the least. No amount of cooking seems to help. I suspect that the suppliers must be running the cows in marathons or around a track. I haven't had cuts this bad for twenty or more years. In this economic climate I think selling such poor quality cuts, marked and packaged to look like premium cuts, is nothing less than criminal. I've been taking them back to the market and looking for other places to shop. Of course when I take it back I make sure the manager knows what I'm unhappy about and make it clear that I can spend my money at any number of other places. This does not always work, but that has never kept me from going elsewhere; I make good my threats.

Low and Slow

Any cut of beef can be flavorful and tender. It's all in the way you cook it. The "better" cuts of beef will remain tender and tasty if cooked with high heat in a short amount of time. In essence, what you are paying extra for is convenience not nutrition.

A "tough" cut of beef can be just as tasty and tender if you cook it longer with less heat. Here in the United States this is called barbeque. You don't have to do this outside or in a special cooker. Just lower the heat and cook for hours rather than minutes. Cooking meat at 250° F (120° C) for a couple of hours (rather than 350° F for fifteen minutes) will make a huge difference in the tenderness of the meat.

Pressure Cooking

You can also cook at higher temperatures and pressures to soften the meat. This applies to beef, pork, chicken, and lamb.

Chicken & Pork

There's not much I can tell you about these two meats. Chicken in particular, is now quite popular. Naturally, when a food type becomes popular it also becomes more expensive.

Pork isn't in quite the same category because it's still not all that popular. But that keeps it's price higher than beef too. Pork ribs tend to be cheaper than other cuts of pork and there's a surprising amount of meat on them.

Usually buying either of these two in bulk will help. For example buying two frying chickens in a single package is usually cheaper than buying one bird or selected cuts of this fowl. Typically the more the meat has been processed, the more per pound it will cost. This is why a package of chicken breasts can cost up to fifty cents more per pound than the whole bird.

Price per Ounce Example


Other Grocery Store Savings

"Off Brands" are a safe bet. Looking above and below the "prime real-estate" areas works well too. So is buying in bulk.

Bulking Up

This works best if you have a high enough head-count in your household to make this worthwhile, that or a dedicated freezer.The amount you save can be downright astounding though. The best way to make this determination is to read that price label on the shelf closely. As stated above, federal law requires a price per ounce or price per unit printed along with the sales price.

A little bit of price label comparing, even with bulk quantities of the same brand, can save you quite a bit of money.

Of course storing the items might be a problem, but do try. It is definitely worth it.

For example. I now live alone. Bulking up on meat or other perishables is out of the question; I don't have a large freezer or room for one. But I do buy bulk toilet paper and paper towels. Fortunately, I do have room to store these.

A "six pack" of toilet paper is close to four dollars (more for the cushy stuff) and paper towels nearly a dollar a roll, but if I buy six six-packs (or thirty-six item count packs) I save about a quarter a roll. This really adds up...and I never worry about running out at "inopportune times."


Stores make an absolute killing on produce. Those beautiful displays of squash, tomatoes, citrus, and lettuce cost you plenty.

What's especially galling, to me anyway, is how much of this stuff goes in the trash every morning just because it doesn't look quite as fresh as it did the day before. Store produce section experience anywhere from fifty to seventy five percent turnover every day. That is fruit and vegetables that are thrown in the trash.

That means that if you buy your fruit and vegetables at your typical grocer you are paying for that turnover. Imagine how much cheaper those tomatoes would be if they sold all of them instead of throwing two thirds of them away on a daily basis. That fifty-nine cent per pound tomato could be sold for twenty cents per pound. Think about that.

My advice? Buy at a farmer's market or vegetable stand in your area. What your neighborhood grocer has to do to keep the produce section looking good would feed a small nation. You, dear shopper, are paying for all that waste.

When spring is coming consider growing your own if you can. It will be cheaper and healthier. And you will most certainly know that what you put on the table is fresh, pesticide free, and healthy. After all, if you grow it yourself, you know what's in it.

Gardening may sound daunting, but it's not. The most time spent will be in preparing your soil beds. After that it just takes occasional visits to your garden patch to weed, water, and pick.

I tell you nothing tastes as good as fresh fruit, vegetables, or herbs right out of your own garden. Yum!!!

Last Word On Produce and Gardens

During the first and second world wars people all across the Americas were encouraged to grow their own gardens. Was it successful?

Apparently so, during World War II twenty million Americans grew their own produce. This accounted for forty percent of all produce grown during that time.

Clearly, this just can't be that hard to do.

Some Don'ts

Here is a short list of things we do that will not help you save on food;

  • Eating Out
  • Frozen Prepared Meal
  • Vending Machines
  • Prepackaged "Snack" Foods

Eating out is great. I love it, but if you are trying to save money on the old food bill this is absolutely the worst thing you could do. For the money you spend on a meal you could have four or more meals at home.

A TV dinner is frankly a rip-off. The portions are small, usually don't taste quite right, and are very expensive for what you get.

Paying a buck or buck fifty for a bottle of water or soda drink is just plain crazy. Especially when you consider how much cheaper those things are if you were to buy them in a six pack or in bulk. Better still a nice filtration system or water filter jug works beautifully and costs quite a bit less per ounce than bottled water.

That packaging costs money. Plus they are charging you a "convenience fee" by putting your favorite snack in a neat little colorful package. To heck with that! Buy some zipper seal snack bags and make your own.

Uno Mas

One more thing.

I constantly see coupons touted as a money saving method. And it's true, coupons will save you quite a bit of money as long as you don't buy anything without them. Stores have to make up for coupon sales, especially if the coupon is store issued rather than a manufacturers coupon. So if you do all your shopping at the same store, blending coupon purchases with retail purchases, you'll end up saving little if any money.

In short your local retailer, be it a grocery store, automotive garage, flower shop, and so on, is there for one thing. To make a profit. Many businesses are reputable, but many are not. And it's not the quality of the work so much as the bald faced attempt to get you to part with more money than you rightfully should. You are who they make a profit on. A great deal might indeed be too good to pass up, but in reality a great deal usually has a catch.


mrkterhune on May 24, 2011:

Thanks for this. I really appreciate this one.

LiamBean (author) from Los Angeles, Calilfornia on March 14, 2011:

Wanted to add this caveat about "specialty store" like Trader Joes. Milk, eggs, packaged goods (cereal, flour, rice, etc.), coffee, and other items are a good deal. Meat and produce not so much.

LiamBean (author) from Los Angeles, Calilfornia on March 01, 2008:

I've talked with Trader Joe's personnel about their pricing. What I suspected is verified. They sell at a straight markup. e.g. they simply multiply what they pay for an item by a certain percent plus cost and that's what the customer pays. That's why you almost never see X.99 on a TJ item.

I also like that all of their fruit juices are naturally colored, that they have specific standards for allergy warnings, adhere to federal organic labeling, and, in general, value the customer as more than just a mere revenue source.

Sally Dillon from Pacific Northwest on March 01, 2008:

Yep - you are right about the shelf marketing in conventional grocery stores. I also shop food outlets, like Grocery Outlet, which are grocery stores that sell overstock just like retail stores like Ross do. I get super bargains on organic canned food and dairy products at these outlets. Trader Joe's is another place where you can save money on food. Plus you know that nothing in Trader Joes will ever have trans-fat or monosodium glutamate or any of the other bad food additives.

Manoharan from Bangalore - 560097, Karnataka, India on February 29, 2008:

great hub

LiamBean (author) from Los Angeles, Calilfornia on February 29, 2008:

Thankfully I got the Rice Krispie Treat monkey off my back. ;^)

In The Doghouse from California on February 29, 2008:

This Hub was awesome. Thanks for all the food tips. My husband is the picky brand lover. He can tell a Kelloggs Rice Krispie Treat from an off brand a mile away! Believe me I have tried to fool him. lol Thanks.

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