Stretching Your Food DollarPublished on November 2, 2015

  • Executive Chef Geoffrey Morden; Shaw Centre

If it seems to you like the cost of food is rising more than the rate of inflation, you're not alone, and you're right. Food is generally one of the most susceptible consumer items to fluctuate with market conditions. There are many factors which impact the cost of food that won't necessarily impact the cost of non-perishable items. For example if the price of oil rises, shipping costs go up and that cost is applied to the food items being transported. Exchange rates will affect how much a Canadian importer can purchase based on the rate. Poor weather conditions can have an impact on crop yields, growth cycles of livestock can limit availability of fresh meat, and so on. All of this simmers down, in general, to higher prices on the grocery store shelves. So with that said, how can you as a consumer maximise your spending power to eat well while potentially saving a few bucks along the way?

Here are some suggestions:

1. Eat more veggies and purchase less meat and fish. Moderation has always been my mantra. So I'm not saying don't buy meat, but if you are looking to save on your grocery bill then this is the first place to start. Experiment â€" on your next trip to the grocery store don't buy any meat or fish, just buy fresh vegetables, grains and beans. You will be amazed just how much more food you can buy if you avoid purchasing animal proteins. Now I'm not expecting everyone to become total vegetarians,  but I encourage you to try reducing the size of your average portion of fish or meat. Instead of the 8 oz steak, try a 6 oz. I like to suggest a good portion for fish or meat should be about the size of a deck of cards. By gradually reducing your animal protein portion size, you’ll be eating healthier while also saving money.

2. Try to make a weekly meal plan and stick to it. This will help you avoid making impulsive decisions which may be costly. For example, if you plan out all of your week’s meals, you can make a strategic shopping list, potentially take advantage of items on special (perhaps at multiple stores which, I agree, is a bit of a pain but in the long run can save you big bucks, and avoid multiple trips during the week, saving on gas as well). Additionally, if you stick to the plan, you will avoid those last minute breakfast or lunch purchases at your local upscale coffee shop or fast food chain.

3. Portion control. Purchase what you need rather than purchasing what appears to be what you need. For example next time you buy fresh yellow beans for a meal, count out 10 beans per person, rather than simply grabbing handfuls of the beans. 9 times out of 10 when you shop with your eyes you will purchase too much, resulting in either unwanted leftovers or over eating. The same rule can apply to most fresh vegetables. For example, when making mashed potatoes for 4 people, use 4 large potatoes instead of eyeing it, perhaps using 6. Simple theory, I know, but it really pays off. I also suggest avoid buying too much in bulk. While bulk can seem like you are saving, please be honest with yourself. Are you really going to eat the 32 pack of jumbo bagels or will they go stale before you can get to them? How many times have you thrown stale bread out or something with freezer burn? Some simple math before you head out shopping can save you big in the long run.

4. A little prep can go a long way.  It ties in with the meal planning. Planning and prepping your meals in advance, does require some personal discipline and work, but it will save you money. Try trimming and cutting snacking vegetables on your weekend, rather than buying the pre-cut ones. The cost savings are noticeable right away and you will have fresher items for your lunch all week. Make homemade hummus, dips, dressings and soups; these are all great items which will last well in the fridge and cost much less than the store bought varieties.

5. Deep Freezer. I recommend getting one if you don't have one. I am often asked if they are a worthwhile investment and I am quick to say "absolutely!" I would suggest that you use it strategically as you want to avoid senseless waste (see freezer burn comment above), but deep freezers are a great way to stretch your food dollar. They are wonderful for storing a wide variety of foods. I like to take whole cuts of meat like a beef striploin or pork loin (usually much cheaper than pre-cut portions) and cut them into individual portions, wrap well, label and freeze them. I'll do the same with homemade soup; for example I will make a large batch of Ontario asparagus soup in the spring and freeze the soup into 2 litre containers for use all year. If your space permits I highly recommend a stand-up variety rather than the deep chest variety. Stand up freezers are much easier to keep organized, hopefully helping you avoid finding random food stuffs buried in the depths of a cavernous chest style freezer.

6. Buy local. Purchasing from a local farmers’ market will typically cost the same as your grocery store, with the benefit of your money going to supporting your local farming community. You will not only enjoy  some of the freshest produce and meats available but you will be impressed at how long they stay fresh. On average they will stay fresh twice as long as produce coming from the south.

While increasing costs seem to be a fact of life, you can take measures that will lessen their impact. It is not going to be easy, but it’s so worthwhile. Buying expensive pre-prepared foods is easy, but it is not nearly as fresh and flavourful as if you trim and cut your own. With a little extra work you can enjoy your food a little more knowing you've taken the time to plan, prep and store it properly…all the while saving a few bucks for the bottom line.

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