Shop smart to stretch your food budget

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Guest Column

Have you purchased food lately and found yourself thinking, “What did I get for my money?” If so, there are some simple steps to you can take to lessen that shock.

Chances are you have heard, “Plan your menus and shop smart.” This sounds simple enough, but many times we think there is not enough time to do either.

Planning easy menus for your family does not need to take a lot of time. Start by checking the newspaper and store ads for specials. Many stores are starting to send an email with that week’s specials. Use these specials to help you make a menu of main dishes and side dishes to serve.

Shop smart by balancing each meal to include foods from at least three of the five food groups. About 30 minutes per week planning a menu is all you need to help your family eat healthy and stay within your family’s budget. Once you have created several menus, rotate them for faster menu planning in the future. You can switch up the side dishes to give a new feel and look to a main dish as well.

Although it might be easier to purchase everything you need for the week, it may not be the most economical way to keep within your food budget. Check to see what you have in your pantry, freezer and refrigerator. Then, make a shopping list of items still needed. Check for coupons of any of the items on your list.

Contrary to what you might believe, eating healthy does not have to be expensive. While trying to include a variety of fruits and vegetables may be the biggest challenge, they also make good side dishes and snacks.

Select fresh vegetables that are crisp, plump, bright-colored and are heavy in size. These heavy fruits and vegetables are an indication of water content. Buy vegetables that are free from blemishes, mold or bruises and have tight skins with no wrinkles. Storage times are usually short because fresh vegetables lose their freshness and vitamins easily.

Choose a time when you are not tired or hungry. When you are hungry, everything looks good and this can ruin your food budget and keep you from making healthy choices.

If possible, shop without children. You will spend less time in the store and be less tempted to make purchases not on your shopping list.

Organize your list according to the store layout. Also, take the grocery-shopping list and stick to it. If it is not on the list, do not buy it. Do not forget to bring along your coupons or store specials to save money when it is something you really plan to use.

Compare prices: Consider how many servings is in an item and how you plan to use the item in your menu. Will it affect the recipe if you use fruit that is irregular sized? Can you purchase a bag for less per pound than individual items such as fruit and vegetables? If so, how will you use those items in your menu?

While at the grocery store, check higher or lower shelves for less costly items. Grocery stores tend to shelve the most expensive items at eye level.

Pick up fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables last. This assures they will maintain their optimum nutrition from purchase to home. Store foods immediately to maintain freshness and prevent loss of food quality.

Avoid foods in dented cans or those that have reached their expiration date. Sometimes, stores will sell these items at a reduced price. The reduced price is not worth it. The quality or safety of food in a dented can could be compromised. Bulging cans also may indicate unsafe food.

Finally, while at the checkout line, watch for mistakes. We are all human and mistakes happen, such as scanning an item twice or forgetting to scan a coupon. Be vigilant in your efforts.

For more information about health or nutrition, contact Holly Jay, FCS Extension Agent, MSU, Big Horn County at (406) 665-9770 or email: The MSU Extension Office in Hardin is located at 317 N. Custer Ave. This article was adapted from an article written by Carla Haley, FCS Agent for the University of Arkansas System Division of Ag.