As food prices rise, many of us are looking for ways to shave a few dollars off our grocery bills. Alanna Kellogg, author of the online recipe column KitchenParade.com, offers tips on where and how you can save -- and what's worth spending a little extra on.
Make Meat Matter
When it comes to purchasing meat, splurge if you can afford to, as quality definitely tops quantity. "Never-frozen chicken makes all the difference, more than organic, more than farm-raised, more than variety," Kellogg says. She also recommends fish caught sustainably, which is good for you and the environment.
Pay for Food, Not Water
Cutting out bottled water can trim your grocery bill, but don't stop there. Eliminate costly items that are mostly water. "What I'm talking about here is avoiding water masquerading in other forms," Kellogg says. For instance, avoid store-bought chicken broth, which is mostly water, and make your own instead. Trade canned beans for dried beans cooked overnight in the slow cooker. Plus, skip water-laden drinks like premade lemonade, fruit punch and soft drinks.
Spice Things Up
Having fresh spices on hand is key to creating a great meal. "Fresh spices are worth the splurge, helping us use their healthful flavors instead of less healthful oils and salt for seasoning," Kellogg says. In general, you'll need to replace spices that have been around for more than six months, especially if they no longer have a strong, fresh smell.
Blend It Yourself
While fresh spices are a worthy splurge, most spice blends -- Italian seasoning, Cajun seasoning, chai spices, chili powder and curry powder -- are not, Kellogg said. Most, she said, are just blends of basic spices. "The savory blends for meat – think the 'chicken enhancers' and 'beef enhancers' -- are mostly salt, pepper and sugar with a few other seasonings mixed in," she says. To save money, just mix up your own as needed.
Choose the Creme de la Creme
Whole, low-fat, nonfat, soy, skim, organic -- we're spoiled for choice in the dairy aisle. While even a basic carton doesn't come cheap, Kellogg recommends digging deep to spring for the best. "Organic milk tastes better and lasts longer," advises Kellogg.
Shelve the Sweets
Packaged cookies, pastries, candies and baked goods look tempting, but Kellogg recommends steering clear of them to save money and boost your health. Instead, if you really have a craving, "Ask yourself, 'Do I want that mocha muffin enough to bake them myself?' If so, OK, then do," Kellogg says. If the answer is no, give your wallet and your waistline a break and bypass the sugary snacks and desserts.
Be Stingy With the Olive Oil
Yes, cooking with olive oil is heart healthy -- but so is cooking with vegetable, canola or peanut oil. Save your really good extra virgin olive oil for special dishes that demand it, Kellogg says. "Good olive oil is used, not for cooking, but for making salad dressing, drizzling on good vegetables, even drizzling a bit on grilled meat," she said. "Use good olive oil in tiny quantities".
Grow Your Own Herbs
Fresh herbs bring out the best in salads, soups, sandwiches, appetizers and entrees. And in summer when they're in season and especially flavorful, you'll be tempted to add them to everything. "But you'll go broke buying fresh herbs in tiny handfuls at the grocery store," Kellogg said. "Instead, grow your own -- just a few hardy favorites -- paying a few dollars apiece in the spring, and harvesting them a snip at a time during the growing season."
Seize It in Season
True, buying flash-frozen fruits and vegetables is a great way to save money. But fresh produce is tasty, nutritious and -- bonus -- earth-friendly. "During the growing season, fresh vegetables and fruits are often worth an investment, home-grown or farm-grown, and even, in many instances, from the grocery store," Kellogg says. You don't need to break the bank to buy in season. "The trick is to know what's in season in your own area and to learn the going price," Kellogg says.