Family Finance: Shopping smart and eating healthy

NEW YORK (AP) ? Drink fat-free or low-fat milk, and make sure half of the grains you eat are whole grains.

Do these healthy eating guidelines sound costly?

Researchers at the University of Washington raised eyebrows earlier this month with a study finding that a healthy diet is expensive and difficult for cash-strapped Americans to afford. And with the cost of food rising faster than other products ? the Agriculture Department estimates that grocery prices will rise by 3.5 to 4.5 percent this year and another 3 percent to 4 percent in 2012 ? it would seem that problem may only get worse.

But frugal foodies say it’s still possible to eat well on a budget. It just takes a bit of organization and some smart strategies.

The path starts with understanding what’s healthy and what’s not. That’s where the federal government comes in. The USDA has updated its recommendations with the aim of helping people make better food choices. Details of the new “plate” that replaced the “food pyramid” earlier this year can be found on . The site explains what types of foods provide different nutrients, which “empty” calories provide little nutrition and provides recipes for a variety of meals.

It’s easiest to save if you have some basic cooking skills to rely on. Cooking is almost always going to be less expensive than buying prepared meals or eating out.

Healthy meals don’t have to be gourmet concoctions, said Kelly Hancock, the author of the soon-to-be-released book “Saving Savvy” and a blogger at “You don’t have to be a master chef to cook dinner every night.”

Once armed with the knowledge of what to eat and how to pull it together, getting the most out of every grocery dollar requires a system. But that doesn’t mean you have to resort to building up a case full of coupons.

“If you don’t have the basic concepts down, coupons are not going to help you,” said Hancock.

Instead of focusing on clipping and organizing coupons, put your time into planning, said Steve Economides, who with his wife, Annette, operates the website, and last fall wrote the book, “Cut Your Grocery Bill In Half.”

“Everything we talk about really comes down to planning in advance,” he said. “The more you plan, the more you save.”

Here’s a recipe for grocery saving success:

1. Plan meals and shopping trips to cut down on impulse purchases

The Economides family makes one major shopping trip per month, with a second to pick up necessities in between. Although they acknowledge that their shopping strategy relies on plenty of storage space and a large freezer, they advocate minimizing trips as much as possible. “The more times you go into a store, the more you’re going to pick up unplanned items,” said Annette Economides.

It’s also critical to plan meals and develop a good list. Sit down for a few minutes and map out what your family will eat for the week, and you’ll be less likely to randomly fill your cart. Check recipes to make sure you’ve got all the necessary ingredients, and aren’t inviting an extra run to the store for that last item ? and six others.

2. Reduce waste through planning ahead, using leftovers

The U.S. generates more than 34 million tons of food waste each year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Much of that comes from homes where uneaten food gets discarded.

Overshopping is a big contributor to waste, so planning will help cut down on that problem. Hancock said one way she avoids tossing out good food is by preparing extra-large batches, and freezing a portion of what she’s cooked as a convenient second meal. While the Economides use a weekly “leftovers night” to create a smorgasbord dinner.

3. Shop sales to keep your pantry and freezer stocked

Smart shopping advocates say it’s easy to get fooled by advertising if you don’t know what food typically costs. Grocery chains often include items in their flyers that are not really on sale ? or sale prices that are not their lowest. To know when an item is really a bargain, keep notes on the prices charged in various stores, and the price of items when they’re put on sale.

Be sure to put whatever storage space you have available to work. Building a stockpile of staples is an important step in stretching a budget ? but that doesn’t mean you have to fill a room with surplus. Avoid going overboard by keeping an inventory of the items in the pantry and freezer to help you decide whether it’s time to take advantage of a sale.

4. Learn what’s in season, and what goes on sale seasonally

The height of summer is prime time for many fruits and vegetables, and prices drop as the various crops hit their peak. Choosing what’s in season can keep costs down, while picking out-of-season produce or items shipped a long distance will require an extra bounty.

“There’s no excuse for saying I can’t eat fruits and vegetables because they cost too much,” said Annette Economides.

Popular recipe website offers an interactive seasonal ingredient map that can tutor you on what to watch for .

Find a local farmer’s market for really fresh bargains. If you shop at the end of the market hours, you’ll typically find vendors offering steep discounts. Contact a local Chamber of Commerce or visit to find a market near you. Freezing or canning any extras can extend the life of those deals through the off-season.

Hancock notes that seasonal items like marinades for grilling will be on sale in spring, while baking products are discounted before the holiday season. Stocking up on items with long shelf lives during seasonal sales can help cut costs.