Thursday, January 20, 2011

How to Buy Groceries - Pt. V The Store(s)


Well here we are...It's grocery shopping day at last.  The first thing I do before leaving the house is to gather my tools.  They are: my lists, my coupons (my entire folder not just the ones I'm sure I'll be using) and my bags.  I have both the reusable grocery bags and those really nice insulated bags which will keep foods cold for several hours.  This is important when you are making multiple stops.  In summer, I buy a bag of ice at the first store where I stop to insure that my perishable groceries stay cool.  In winter, the bag alone is more than sufficient.  I am protecting my investment when I insure that cold items STAY cold.

Once I have all my tools gathered and loaded into the car, I pray.  Now when we pay bills on Harvest Night we pray over my grocery list and for unexpected bargains.  On grocery shopping day, I hold my list in my hand and pray for wisdom, for keen eyes to catch unexpected bargains and best prices, for favor in finding unadvertised specials and for safe travels.

Now I am ready to shop.

Let talk about the three types of stores I use for my grocery shopping.

The drugstore is one of the best places to find grocery bargains. I really look hard at those sales papers to ferret out the bargains.  At least once a month, one of the two drugstores will advertise 13 ounce cans (or bags) of coffee for $2.50 each and usually that includes decaf as well as regular.  Occasionally the decaf prices are a little higher (about $.50).  

What groceries do I buy most often at the drugstore?  Dried fruit (prunes, craisins, raisins), olives, olive oil, coffee.  Occasionally five pound bags of flour or sugar.  Personal care products (shampoo, razors, tissues).  Sometimes I buy zippered storage bags, or aluminum foil at very good prices, as well as toilet paper and paper towels.  I almost always buy my dish detergent at the drugstore and occasionally find a good sale on laundry detergent there.  And of course, candy is often better priced there than at the grocery.  Now and then cereal is a good buy.  I have seen good bargains for ice cream and frozen rising crust pizzas but they are seldom on the shelf when I arrive to buy them. 

The downside to the drugstore for grocery purchases? The grocery section of the drugstore is small, usually two aisles, in some stores only one.  Limited supply means limited quantities (per customer limit) allowed for purchase and sometimes sales are offered for items that aren't available.  Those items are useless to ask for rainchecks for too, because they are special ordered for the sale only and won't be on the shelf again until the next sale.

The Dollar Store has been touted as the great bargain store for all things edible, wearable, or used in cleaning.  For my local dollar store, I tend to buy only a few foods, usually brand name chips, and pet foods.  Lightbulbs, zippered storage bags (name brand) and trash bags go on sale for great prices, as does toilet paper.  Coffee is an occasional good buy there. 

The downside: cleaners, shampoo and most foodstuffs are a better buy than the local grocery perhaps but I can find far better bargains at the grocers where I shop. 

Another downside for me: I can easily become undisciplined and lose focus when I wander down the aisles of pretty home accessories, garden items, and kitchenware.  I can spend all of my impulse money right there in the dollar store in no time!

I do the majority of my grocery shopping at the grocers.  It's easy here to get caught up in the idea that one must walk up and down every aisle and look at every single item.  In the two major grocers where I shop this can be a huge distraction.  There's always something I'd like to have for my shelves or some lovely exotic something that sounds good even I'm not sure how to use it...

To offset this tendency I try to stick to the hard and fast rule of perimeter shopping with only the occasional foray down an aisle where an item on sale might be. 

Most stores are set up with bakery/deli/produce along the outside right wall, meat and dairy along the back wall and more dairy and breads down the left outside wall.  There is a reason for this.  It's all based upon research data and the desire to lure the shopper to spend more time and money in the store than they'd planned to spend.  For every ten minutes you are in the grocery, you can plan to spend $20.  Sticking to the perimeter of the store can help limit that time and money spent, if you remain focused.

I am human...the lure of freshly baked goods is strong.  I love to linger in the bakery and look.  However, I seldom do so!  The temptation to spend is strong.  The deli is another area where the lure to spend is strong.  However, I do allow myself to look around and see what might be on special or marked down in both these areas.  Remember my bargain priced shredded Parmesan/Roman cheese?  Bought in the deli for $1.49 a package (usually $3.99).    I often will purchase that evening's supper from the deli if whole roasted chicken, fried chicken or sandwiches are on sale.  I do occasionally buy sliced sandwich meats in the deli as well if on sale.

If your budget is very tight, I suggest following a Hint from Heloise published in 1959:  visit the meat and dairy aisles first because those items will  likley be the most expensive you'll be buying.  Keep track of how much you're spending and then go back and fill the buggy with produce, canned goods and other needs. 

I personally prefer to walk around the produce section first.  I buy seasonal foods or those which hold up well in cold storage (potatoes, onions, carrots).  What this means is that I won't be buying strawberries in December or asparagus in October.  I wait until they are in season and eat my fill then.  There are charts that abound that will help you determine what is seasonal in your area. 

How do I buy produce?  Long lasting fruits such as oranges and apples I usually purchase by the bag.  These are a little smaller in size than those I might purchase individually but are usually extremely low in price per pound compared to their larger kin.  Other fruit may already be bagged for sale, but in at least two of my markets if the bags are not sealed shut (think of grapes and cherries) then the produce manager allows the removal of the desired amount which may be placed in a produce bag and weighed at the register.  A dozen lemons is always tempting but if I'm not making lemonade I'd best buy two.  Otherwise they just spoil before I will use them.  Green beans, brussels sprouts, broccoli crowns, squash I buy only enough of to serve us one meal.  

The less an item is handled prior to being placed on the produce shelves the less expensive it likely will be.  Baby carrots are reasonable at just $1/pound...but whole carrots at $.29/pound are even more reasonable.  Slaw mix for $1.29 10 ounces sounds like a good buy but a whole head of cabbage might be bought for half that amount and will do for several meals.  Cabbage is a hardy vegetable, which will last for awhile as well.

You'll note that I said I buy broccoli crowns...This is my exception to the least handled rule.  Often the price is more per pound than that of broccoli stalks but if the end pieces are going to go into the compost why pay for them.  I like broccoli stems for stir frys and for broccoli slaw, but if I've no plans to make those things, I don't waste my money paying a per pound price for what is going to become trash.

The meat counter takes a little knowledge and experience to negotiate.  One of the few pointers Mama ever gave me related to the meat counter and these days that advice is largely ignored...Only because cuts of meat change in popularity just as styles do.  In the winter months, when you'd most likely want to eat slow cooked roasts and stews, roasts and stew beef are priced higher in cost, while steaks tend to be lower in cost.  Come summer and grilling season then steaks are higher priced and roasts are lower in cost. 

When buying roasts I look for cuts like boneless chuck (great for pot roast, cubed as stew beef, and ground for burgers), sirloin tip roast (I cube or cut into strips for stirfry, have ground for lean hamburger, or ask the butcher to cut into steaks and cube twice for cubed steaks at a bargain price), and round or rump roast (great for slow cooking or roasting, slices well for sandwiches).  I may buy ground beef, but if chuck or sirloin roast are less expensive then I'm going to buy those and ask the butcher to grind.

When purchasing steaks, I look for marked down bargains under $5 a pound.  Chuck steak and shoulder steak are possibilities as well, but marinating is necessary.  London broil is another possibility (top round), but here marinating and broiling is best, as well as cooking only medium well and slicing thin across the grain.

When I bought pork  I preferred a whole boneless loin bought on sale and cut into individual boneless chops or roasts.  Typically these go on sale for under $2 a pound and are far less expensive than bone-in chops or individual roasts.

I think learning to cut up a whole chicken should be on the list of accomplishments of every home cook.  Why?  Because chicken parts cost big bucks.  Boneless skinless chicken breasts go for $5/pound in my area, legs and wings bring about $1.29 pound, thighs usually around $2 pound .  A whole chicken costs less than $1 a pound.  Even if you don't care to cut up whole chickens, it's worth knowing how to bone a breast.  The price of $1/pound when bought on sale, bone in breasts can be quickly boned and you have the boneless of having both the tenderloin (chicken finger, anyone?) and the breast meat.  By the way, it takes absolutely no time to cut these boneless breasts into nuggets, bread them, and oven fry.  Imagine that: chicken nuggets for $1/pound!

If you are unsure how to cook a particular cut of meat ask the butcher.  If the butcher doesn't know, make a note on your list and look it up online when you get home.  Then when you see it on sale the next time you'll know just how to use it.  Usually though, the butcher is a fount of information.  I learned that trick of having a sirloin roast cut into steaks and cubed twice from the butcher.

I found this chart in the January newsletter archives.  I thought it might prove helpful published here.  I'm including the whole article as it was originally published:

Kitchen Basics:
How Many Servings per Pound?

Sometimes the hardest part of budgeting our grocery money is
determining which cut of meat will provide us with the most for our
money. Is it safer to go with a hard and fast rule based on price
per pound( I try to stay under $2/pound for most cuts), or should we
plan meat purchases based on how many they will serve per pound?

Well, I for one, have never really been able to figure out how many
servings per pound I could expect. Below is a listing that was sent
into another online group by someone who'd been checking out older
cookbooks. I've found it very helpful and it gives me a little
added help in planning my purchases.

2 Servings Per Pound :

Chuck blade steak
Chuck roast (arm or blade)
bone-in picnic pork
ham steaks
whole chicken

3 Servings Per Pound:

Boneless beef chuck roast
Beef brisket
Beef round steak
Sirloin tip
Pork blade steaks
Ham (bone-in)
Boston butt (bone-in)
Pork ribs
Chicken legs and thighs

4 Servings Per Pound:

Ground beef or turkey
Pork chops
Ham (boneless / canned)
Chicken breasts

These are not hard and fast rules. I've never allowed myself to
think I could only serve 4 from a pound of ground beef, for example,
but this guideline is helpful if I plan to make a meatloaf or
burgers as my main dish. Many recipes I've used in the past to
serve 6 were based on half a pound of ground meat per recipe, but
that was for main dishes which were extended with starches or
vegetables(such as soups and casseroles). How meat is sliced will
affect the usage, as well. If you plan to serve sandwiches it is
quite possible to extend that one pound of ham or turkey or roast to
feed 8. Remember too, to add an extra serving for the bone of any
meat you cook. Why? Because those bones have meat still remaining
on them and produce broth that can be used to make soups, which are
a great way to extend the budget and provide inexpensive meals.

Using a combination of this chart, your kitchen savvy, and a general
idea of what you're willing to spend each week, should help extend
your kitchen budget tremendously.

Now, I shall share something I learned from my daughter.  You may substitute any roast for beef roast, any type of ground meat for beef.  Do not allow yourself to get locked into the idea that only one meat may be used.   Years ago when I was teaching Kay to cook and shop, she wanted to make a pot roast.  Her budget simply wouldn't stretch to a beef roast that wasn't on sale...but pork roasts were on sale.  She bought a butt portion pork roast and made one of the best pot roasts I've ever eaten.  Not too long ago she informed me that she now uses venison roasts with equally as tasty results. 

Be willing to experiement if a cut of meat is at a particularly good price.  I loved short ribs of beef for a particular favorite winter dish, but once I'd tried beef shanks I found I much preferred them for the recipe.  I used oxtail to make soup and found it very tasty but my family balked only after they discovered it was oxtail.  Until that moment they'd enjoyed the soup just fine, lol.  Recently I purchased ground lamb on sale for $2/pound.  I've never cooked with ground lamb but I have a number of recipes that can easily me made with lamb and look forward to trying it.

My hard and fast rule of $3/pound stands no matter what I'm buying in the meat department, but I shoot for an average overall rather than an absolute $3 per pound.  If I'm buying chicken breasts for $1 a pound and find chuck roast on sale for $2.50 pound then I've got wiggle room for a pricier cut of meat, hence that is how we might purchase steak at $5/pound.

I'll touch only briefly on hot dogs and sandwich meats.  Chance made the mistake years ago of introducing us to a Kosher beef hot dog...There is no going back, lol.  I watch for these to go on sale.  Luncheon meats I find are often pricey.  I prefer to buy roasts and turkey breasts and make my own sliced meat for sandwiches at home.  I buy beef bologna in the deli.  It typically runs a bit over $5/ pound but if you price the packets of all beef bologna you'll find they also run about $5/pound.  The deli brand tastes the best in my opinion.  I count the cost of sandwich meat's per pound price into my overall average per pound costs.

The fresh pasta may be tempting but save your money and head to the freezer department for tortellini and ravioli.  It's far better priced and tastes just as good as the 'fresh'.

Now for the dairy department.  Once upon a time powdered milk was a great money saver, even if used only for cooking.  But I find that these days powdered milk costs as much or more per gallon than whole milk.  I save by making my own buttermilk and yogurt.  I do buy a small half pint of buttermilk and one of yogurt to act as starter, but I can make a quart of buttermilk (and use the homemade as starter for the next quart), and several pints of yogurt from those initial purchases.

We are big cheese eaters. I  love a variety of cheese and it's not unusual to find several varieties in our fridge.  One grocer has a very decent store brand cheddar and excellent store brand Swiss that I prefer to buy when on sale.  Fortunately their sales are frequent.  Lately the cost of shredded 8 ounce packets has matched the cost of 8 ounce blocks, and because of that I'll often buy shredded mozzarella rather than buy blocks of cheese.  Really strong flavored cheeses such as blue, feta, romano I buy in smaller quantities and use sparingly. 

It may seem I've touched only lightly on the shopping portion of buying groceries, but here is where choices must be made.  We don't eat margarine. We use real butter.  I buy olive oil for most of our needs and recently we've incorporated coconut oil into our diet as an alternative.  These items are pricey.  I make sacrifices in other areas to afford these items (like making my own yogurt and buttermilk, baking a portion of our bread), looking for bargains in the meat and produce department. 

Further tips:

I can't tell anyone how to buy snacks for their family.  My own family loved popcorn  and homemade cookies and were perfectly happy with that and an occasional bag of chips.  Where they would not compromise: soda, name brand soda at that.  Nothing but and no substitutes thank you very much.  I had to make room in other areas of my budget, and so I did by introducing two meatless meals each week and insisting that we have cold cereal only once a week.  I also limited them to one soda per day.  These days Chance and I share a 16 ounce bottle about twice a week and may have a whole bottle each once a week.  Much less expensive than the days when the kids were home, lol.  We prefer bottled drinks and now can afford to indulge that like.  When the kids were home I found 12 packs of canned drinks was the most cost effective.  Bought on sale I often paid only $.21 a can for the sodas.

Think outside the usual...That not eating cold cereal was a budget saver but what then to fix?  My kids enjoyed eggs and toast, oatmeal, hot rice...That's right, rice.  Warm cooked rice with milk and brown sugar and raisins was considered a great treat and a filling breakfast.  For convenience sake, I'd double the rice we needed for supper and set half aside.  It took moments to reheat in the microwave the next morning.

My family has always enjoyed juice at breakfast.  It was not used as a beverage to quench thirst, however.  Juice was for nutrition.  Water was for thirst.  Sometimes it is more expensive to buy frozen concentrate than it is  to be 64ounce bottles.  I look for the best buy.  I keep a can of pineapple juice in the pantry (it's great for chest colds and loaded with Vitamin C).

Meatless meals might include frozen pasta with a tomato sauce, bean and rice burritos, a meatless tamale pie (beans and corn in that dish) and black bean burgers, homemade mac and cheese or homemade cheese pizza. 

I suggest borrowing vegetarian cookbooks from the library to get an idea of good meatless meals and the ingredients required. 

Convenience is nice.  I agree 100%, it often means easy meals.  Reserve convenience items though for one night a week or one night per pay period. A little learning is all that is required to prepare biscuits from scratch and the plain dough may be adapated to sweet rolls or savory breads to serve with meals.  I've been experimenting with pie crusts the past couple of months after years of purchasing frozen or prepard crusts.  Freeze your own homemade cookie dough to prepare at a moment's notice.  Most doughs freeze very well.  Make a casserole or two to keep in the freezer for those nights when you don't really have the energy to prepare a meal, instead of picking up frozen entrees (still a less expensive option than eating out, so if this is something you fall back on, consider the savings you'd make if you picked up just one frozen entree each pay period).

If you are serious about trimming your grocery budget then figure out how to make items at home.  My kids loved those lunch kits, but boy, pricey!  I would buy them one each every now and then when they were on sale, but wash and save the trays and make our own kits for home lunches using cheese, bologna and crackers.  They loved it. 

Raw whole foods area almost always cheaper than cooked, prepared foods.  The one exception is deli roasted chickens. 

I stock up on canned vegetables and fruits when they go on sale, usually in the Fall of the year.  While I personally prefer fresh or frozen vegetables, canned vegetables come in very handy for a quick pot of soup.  Canned dried beans are convenient to have on hand, but dried beans soaked overnight and cooked for an hour or two the next day are more economical and may be frozen in recipe sized portions.

Cakes and brownies are best when made from scratch BUT the mixes aren't bad and are occasionally sold for $1 a box.  Coupons can bring the cost per box even lower.  I always make my frosting from scratch though.  Confectioner's sugar and butter is less expensive than one container of frosting and boy the difference in flavor is so worth it!  No one ever notices the cake is mix if you use homemade frosting to ice it.
And when I use the bought cake mix, I usually just substitute water for the oil, and use eggs, which cuts the cost of the cake still further. 

Introduce new fruits and vegetables and seasonings to the family slowly.  No more than one per week.  See how the family likes it before buying in quantity.  Kay was surprised to find that she really liked sweet potato fries and roasted asparagus.  She nor Chance will touch a mango though I love them. 

And that is how to buy groceries! If I've missed a point someone hoped I'd touch upon, please comment so I can answer your request.


Kay said...

Would you consider placing this series in it's own section for easier reference? I plan to link to it and I'd like to link the whole thing rather than each article. pretty please. :o)
(similar to what I did with the tabs at the top of my page (under the photo))

Tracy said...

Great series, Terri! I'm sure I'll be referring to it often. :)