Monday, January 12, 2009

Shopping Strategies and Recipes to Save Grocery Money

(My monthly food column for Heartland Women)
January 2009

I’ve been channeling Mary Tyler Moore lately, but not in the happy-go-lucky-hat-tossing way you might think. Remember the opening for her old Mary Tyler Moore Show when she is grocery shopping? MTM takes an item off the supermarket shelf, glances at the price, rolls her eyes and gives it a what-the-heck-a-girl’s-gotta-eat toss into her basket.

Have you felt like that lately too? I sure have! Every item at the grocery store has gone up in price, and if I’ve noticed, I’m sure everyone else has. After all these years, I know what we like to eat at my house – I’m just clever like that – so I don’t always pay strict attention to the prices. But anymore, when they ring up that total, my first impulse is to speed dial my eye doctor, because I’m sure I’ve suddenly lost my ability to distinguish numbers at a distance. When I’m handed my receipt though, the problem is never my eyes – it’s always higher food prices!

Let’s look for the silver lining though, if we can. The good news is you can all but scrap a new year’s resolution to diet. Restaurants are in on it too, so dieting is not going to be a problem. Crisp new menus reflect higher prices and smaller serving sizes. A local restaurant I like makes a great hamburger, but when I ordered it the other day, the price was up about a dollar, and the burger was noticeably smaller on the plate. Again, this is not totally bad, as I’ve long maintained that most restaurants cater to lumberjacks and sumo wrestlers. We need to eat out less often, and enjoy it more.

The same phenomenon is true at the grocery store. Food manufacturers have embraced the “less is more” philosophy in their own way. Packages may look the same, but they are actually shrinking in size, at the same time prices are going up! Look at a six-ounce can of tuna – the price is higher, but now it contains only 4.5 ounces. Usually the size of a product decreases when something is “new and improved”, but they don’t even bother with that approach anymore. The differences may be subtle on the shelves, but they are very real at the register.

While our family was with us for Thanksgiving, my sister-in-law, Janet, asked if she could have the coupons from our Sunday paper. As she clipped and filed them away in her expanding file, I remembered doing that myself in years gone by. Diligently, I would save magazines and newspapers to clip grocery coupons, which I would organize by category in a little file I could carry to the market. My grocery list had little stars beside each item with a coupon. It took some time, but it was nice to see all those pennies come off the final bill.

Even before becoming a coupon clipper, I was an ad shopper, combing the Wednesday and Sunday papers to see what was on sale before I made up a menu and a grocery list. A weekly trip to McDonald’s was a big treat for us then, so food was prepared and eaten at home. Our meals were well balanced, moderately portioned, and affordable. Youth was on our side when it came to weight back then, but I’m guessing the whole foods and reasonable portions we ate had a little something to do with it too.

Normally I would plan a month’s dinner menus and shop for the non-perishable and freezer items once a month. I’d make smaller weekly trips for things like milk, bread, and lettuce. In our early Air Force years, I could feed the two of us, and invite a few bachelor pilots for dinner at least once a week, for less than $100 for a whole month – with the help of commissary prices, of course.

Even after menu planning fell by the wayside, which is a frequent problem for busy women, I relied upon a well-stocked pantry for quick, easy and nutritious meals. To this day, I like to keep canned and dried beans, rice, pasta, canned tuna, canned salmon, canned tomatoes and sauce, canned and frozen vegetables, chicken broth, onions, flour, sugar, butter, eggs and lots of herbs and spices on hand. Experience tells me I can always come up with a delicious, impromptu and inexpensive meal with these basic ingredients.

So, the other day, when I flashed on Mary Tyler Moore and her frustration at high food prices, it got my attention. I thought about Janet’s discipline at coupon clipping for her young family. I thought about planning meals based on what was seasonally fresh and sale-priced in the weekly grocery ads. And I reminisced about some of the early meals I prepared for my new husband and his friends. We ate good food, we had lots of friends over for dinner, and we saved enough to reward ourselves with a simple night out every now and then. Life was good, even if money was tight.

I decided to change my lazy shopping habits, so I’ve made a few alterations designed to help the bottom line. I approach meal planning, list making, shopping strategy and the foods I prepare much like I did when I was first married and money was tighter. It was a lesson well learned and too soon forgotten.

With Janet’s inspiration and a nice little trip down memory lane, I’ve started clipping coupons again. Janet also told me about an Internet site, called The Grocery Game, with a database she can use to help her match coupons with store specials. That puts her ahead of the game when figuring out who has the best price for the foods she needs right now, as well as the non-perishable grocery items she can stockpile for future use. It’s a well thought out method and worth investigating, especially if you love organizing and saving.

Although I’m not recommending The Grocery Game, if you want to read about it, I can tell you I saved 44% the first week I matched up the weekly coupons with the store specials. The four-week trial period is $1.00.

This month’s recipes feature beans, rice and pasta, along with smaller portions of meat. I have a couple of ways to use leftovers, which is a good way to stretch more expensive items like meat. I’ve also tried to use foods that are minimally processed, have long storage potential, and are some of the least expensive you can buy. Whether you’re clipping coupons, making a shopping list, searching for recipes or planning menus, start with this grocery list and these recipes to eat well and save money at the same time.


Canned salmon
Canned tuna
Beans – canned and dried
Peanut butter
Canned peas
Canned tomatoes
Canned tomato sauce
Concentrated fruit juice
Frozen fruits
Frozen vegetables

1 box ziti or penne pasta
1 lb. ground beef
16 oz. ricotta cheese
1 jar spaghetti sauce
2 c. shredded mozzarella cheese
1/2 c. grated Parmesan

Bring large pot of water to a boil and cook pasta; drain and place in a large mixing bowl. Brown ground beef and drain fat; add to bowl with pasta. Stir in ricotta, spaghetti sauce and mozzarella cheese until well blended. Pour into a large 13 x 9-inch baking dish – or smaller dishes to freeze for later – and sprinkle top with Parmesan cheese. Bake at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes, or until bubbly around sides. Whole recipe serves 8 – 10.

1 can salmon, drained
1/3 c. finely chopped onion
1 egg
1/2 c. crushed saltine crackers
2 c. crushed saltine crackers
vegetable oil

Mix salmon, chopped onion, egg and 1/2 c. crushed saltine crackers in a bowl. Shape salmon mixture into patties. Place 2 c. crushed saltine crackers on a plate and coat salmon patties with cracker crumbs. Refrigerate salmon patties for one hour or longer. Heat frying pan and add vegetable oil. Fry salmon patties until brown and crispy on both sides. Makes 6 salmon patties.

1 pkg. egg noodles
4 tbsp. butter
4 tbsp. flour
2 c. milk
2 c. shredded sharp cheddar cheese
2 cans tuna, drained
1 can LeSueur peas drained or 1 c. frozen peas
Choice of topping: 1 c. crushed potato chips, 1 c. shredded cheddar cheese, or 1 can French fried onions
Cooking spray

Boil egg noodles in a large pot of salted water; drain. In a saucepan, melt butter until bubbly; stir in flour and continue for one minute. Add milk to butter and flour mixture and continue to stir over medium heat until bubbly and thickened. Stir in shredded cheddar cheese. Pour cheese sauce over hot noodles; add tuna and peas and stir gently to mix. Pour tuna noodle mixture into a large casserole dish coated with cooking spray; sprinkle top with choice of toppings and bake at 350 degrees for 30 to 40 minutes, until heated through.

6 red or green bell peppers
1 lb. ground beef
1/2 c. chopped onion
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 c. cooked rice
16 oz. tomato sauce
2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp. Italian seasoning
Salt and pepper to taste

Cut tops off peppers and clean out seeds and membranes. Stand hollowed out peppers in a large flat baking dish – trim bottoms, if necessary, so peppers will stand upright. Brown the ground beef in a skillet with chopped onion and minced garlic. Drain the ground beef and pour into a bowl with cooked rice, 8 oz. tomato sauce, Worcestershire sauce and salt and pepper. Spoon ground beef mixture into each pepper. Add Italian seasoning to tomato sauce and pour over the peppers. Bake in a 350-degree oven, basting every 15 minutes, for about 1 hour until peppers are tender.

see recipe here


see recipe here

1 (16 oz.) box elbow macaroni
3 tbsp. olive oil
1 onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 (15 oz.) cans tomato sauce
1 box frozen chopped spinach
1 (14 oz.) can diced tomatoes
2 qts. chicken broth
1 tbsp. dried parsley
1 1/2 tsp dried basil
1 1/2 tsp. dried oregano
1/4 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
1 tsp. salt
2 (15 oz.) cans cannellini beans
1 c. grated Parmesan cheese

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook elbow macaroni until al dente. Drain in a colander and run under cool water to stop cooking. Set macaroni aside to cool. Return large pot to stove and add olive oil and chopped onion; cook over medium heat until translucent. Add minced garlic and cook briefly. Reduce heat and add tomato sauce, frozen chopped spinach, diced tomatoes, chicken broth, parsley, basil, oregano, crushed red pepper, salt and beans. Cover and simmer for 1 hour. Add the cooked macaroni and Parmesan cheese; continue to heat and stir until cheese is melted. Serve with crusty Italian bread.

2 cans kidney or pinto beans
1/2 lb. Chorizo or Linguica sausage, thinly sliced
16 oz. beef broth
16 oz. chicken broth
1 medium head cabbage, chopped
2 bunches kale – rinsed, dried and chopped
5 potatoes, peeled and cubed
1 qt. hot water, or more as needed
Salt and pepper to taste

In a large pot, combine beans, sausage, beef broth, chicken broth, cabbage, kale, potatoes and enough hot water to cover. Cook until the potatoes are tender, about 20 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Simmer on low heat for an hour before serving.

2 small cans chopped green chiles
1 lb. medium cheddar cheese
1/2 c. flour
2 eggs
2 c. milk
1 tsp. salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place chopped chiles in the bottom of a casserole dish. Cut cheese into long finger shaped pieces and place over chiles. Beat eggs; add milk, flour and salt and mix well. Pour egg mixture over chiles and cheese. Bake for 1 hour, or until set. Serve hot.

2 – 16 oz. cans diced tomatoes
1 c. diced onions
1/4 c. sugar
1/4 c. brown sugar
3 slices toasted bread, cubed

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. In a skillet, brown tomatoes and onions in butter; add sugars. Cook for 10 mins. Add bread cubes and stir. Pour into a casserole dish and bake for 1 hour.

1/3 c. oatmeal
2/3 c. cold water
Sprinkle of salt
Sprinkle of cinnamon
1 tbsp. peanut butter

Place oatmeal, cold water and salt in a bowl large enough to keep oatmeal from boiling over. Heat on high for one minute; remove and stir. Return to microwave and heat another minute; stir again. Return to microwave and heat one minute; stir in sprinkle of cinnamon and peanut butter and serve.

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