Cheap Eats: Marketing tips

You want to eat like a king, but your budget is more on the peon level. What to do? Don’t despair. Help is on the way.

How you do your marketing can impact how much you spend on food, as well as how healthy your meals are. Now that you are learning to cook, you can skip those frozen dinners, boxes of mixes, and the tasty-but-expensive pre-made meals in the deli. Instead, look for staples that can be used in a number of different ways.

I have a number of ingredients that I keep on hand at all times. Granted, I live quite a distance from the nearest market, plus I have plenty of storage, which makes it more convenient for me to store stables, compared to someone with a closet-sized kitchen and ready access to groceries. But there are some basic foods that most cooks use often enough to stock. You can see my list on my Mom’s Pantry page. Yours will be different, of course. This is just a starting place.

Number one money-saving marketing tip: have a shopping list. We keep a sheet of paper stuck to the fridge with a magnet. As we use things up (or get close to using them up), we jot that item down on the list. When it’s time to go shopping, I just grab the list and go. The key here is to avoid impulse purchases. A corollary to this tip: don’t go to the market hungry. If necessary, buy something simple, such as an apple, go outside to eat it, then go do your shopping.

If you get a newspaper, or are willing to take the time online, you can check out your store’s weekly specials before you leave home. When we had a house full of teenagers, it was well worth my time to plan out a tentative menu based on the ads. Now, with only two of us at home, I just wait until I get to the store, and plan my meals on the run.

When I get to the market, I try to work my way around the perimeter, avoiding the aisles. Most stores place the basic ingredients along the edges, with the prepared, boxed “food products” in the middle.

I usually head to the produce section first. I compare prices and freshness. I check to see where the fruit or vegetable originated, opting for locally grown rather than imported.[1] Then I select a few vegetables as the key ingredients in the meals I will prepare during the upcoming week.

Of course, it helps to know what meals you might make with the varying veggies you buy. But if not, go ahead and get one or two new ones anyway. You can always come home and look through your cookbooks, go online, or call Mom for meal suggestions. (In fact, call from the store!) As you build a repertoire of family recipes, this part becomes easier and easier.

I usually have meat at home in the freezer, but if there is something special I want, I go there next. Again, I check the bargains, the expiration dates, and the price per serving (rather than price per pound).

At this point, I have three or four meals in mind. With our schedule, we’re out at meetings several nights per week, and I expect to eat leftovers at least once, so this is enough. Your needs, of course, may differ.

I quickly zip around the store, picking up the rest of the items on my list, plus anything else needed to make the dinners I’ve just thought of. I have a good memory, so I usually know what I have in my pantry, fridge, and freezer at home.

I also know which non-perishable ingredients I use on a regular basis. If one of those is on sale, I pick up enough to fill its allotted spot in the pantry.

Then I’m done with the market and heading home, ready to cook up some great meals.

[1] Local produce is fresher (and therefore more nutritious), often has substantially less chemical residue, and supports the local economy. Importing food (nearly 1,500 miles for the average supermarket item) consumes fossil fuels. In addition, food imported from other countries is often produced at the expense of both the workers and the environment. For more information, search the web for topics such as “fair trade,” “buy local,” and “sustainable agriculture.”

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