Food & Finance: Navigating the Supermarket

By: Roni

Most of us enter the supermarket with only the best of intentions. You have your list (If you don’t customarily bring a shopping list, do not take a cart or even step into the supermarket -- return to the inaugural Food & Finance column immediately!). You have your cash. You’ve planned for a shopping expedition with the kids and have a backpack full of snacks, projects and distractions. And then you walk through the supermarket door and are confronted by the produce section. The beautiful gleaming grapes, strawberries and mangoes are beckoning. Peppers in a multitude of colors, lettuce, 10 varieties of mushrooms – fiscal prudence goes right out the window and you start filling those little plastic bags with everything in sight.

You’ve got to know the rules of the game in order to succeed. So here are my rules….

  • 1. Skip the produce section. Don’t start your shopping in the produce section. If you are like most people, it is far too enticing. Even if produce comprises a major part of your shopping list, walk further into the store and give yourself an opportunity to come down from your adrenaline rush. You can come back for those lovely ripe peaches later and avoid having them wind up at the bottom of the cart under the laundry detergent.
  • 2. Do the staples first. They’re not sexy, but they are the everyday items that you need (i) pantry goods (stocks, soups, dry or canned beans, pasta, rice, baking needs, condiments, etc.), which are often inexpensive and the always needed, often big ticket items on your list (laundry detergent, cleaning products, paper goods). They are often located in the center of the store, so you’ll have to push past the enticements (meat, deli, dairy, featured products on endcaps, etc.) to get to them. The good news is that these products tend to take up a bit of space, leaving less room for impulse buys. Some also eat up a considerable portion of your budget – alas, leaving less room for impulse buys.
  • 3. Other packaged goods and frozen foods. After you’ve loaded your cart with the staples, its time to move on to other packaged goods on your list like cereals and frozen foods. There are often good bargains to be found in these sections of the store, make sure to refer to your store circular for savings on things like frozen vegetables and one of your child’s favorite cereals (which usually means anything sugar-loaded). Those savings can translate into the ability to splurge in one or more of the following categories….
  • 4. Meat/Poultry/Fish. Unless you are a vegetarian, you probably spend a considerable portion of your food budget in this area, which is why I’ve tagged it as the next stop after packaged goods. At this point, you know how you are doing against the budget you’ve set for yourself and can make some adjustments to your selections if necessary (e.g. no porterhouse this week, opt instead for skirt steak).
  • 5. Dairy. Not usually tons of specials in the dairy aisle, but keep on the lookout for specials on butter, yogurt and refrigerated juices. If you are a cheese-a-holic like I am, it’s good to put this aisle toward the end of your supermarket journey to avoid excessive splurging.
  • 6. Bakery. At this point, dollars are dwindling. Pick up the bread that you need and avoid the 50 varieties of baked goods on display because, you have to save as much of your budget as possible to go back to………
  • 7. Produce. At last! It’s a great treat for you (and your kids) at the end of a supermarket run to pick out some beautiful, fresh (in season) produce and put it in the cart. If you have a few extra dollars left in the budget, you may even take this opportunity to try a new fruit or vegetable. This approach is not only good for your budget; it’s great for your health. Aren’t you glad that you didn’t waste your money on spray cheese?

As always, I love to hear your stories of success (and, um….challenges), so feel free to write in. Of course, we here at Food Network are always happy to help you figure out what to do with all that food… just turn to our recipes for the perfect solution to your cooking conundrum. Back again in two weeks!

Yours in food frugality,

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