Recently I got a frantic letter from Barbara, a reader of my column who lives in Florida. It seems that her teenage son has taken up bodybuilding and her husband is adhering rigidly to the Atkins diet, both of which are protein heavy. Barb got through the first week with a major case of mixed emotions: Her husband lost seven pounds, her son gained four – and her food bill doubled.
Can Barb keep her food costs down while still supporting her family’s eating choices? I know she can. Special diets don’t have to be budget-busters. In the same way her son and husband are adjusting their way of eating, Barb must adjust the way she shops. Here’s how Barb — and you — can stick to that special diet without fattening your food bill.
Don’t pay full-price for protein. Tuna, chicken breasts and lean beef cuts are always on sale somewhere. If you don’t want to store-hop, you can always find some cut of meat, fish and poultry on sale in your favorite market. Eat what’s on sale, and if it’s a loss-leader (that means dirt-cheap in an effort to entice people through the door), stock up for the coming weeks. Grab up the items that are marked down for quick sale, and then freeze them.
Buy carbs in bulk. Find a warehouse club, ethnic market, health-food store or food co-op that offers rice, beans, oatmeal, nuts and legumes by the pound. Store dry items in the freezer to retain freshness.
Shop with a list. Buying on impulse can blow a budget and a diet. So can arriving at the store hungry. Eat before you get there, stick to your list so you leave nothing to chance.
Buy generic. Let go of your brand loyalties. Shop by best value and not by brand. Try the store brand. Most all stores have a “satisfaction guaranteed” policy. If you try something and it is awful, ask for a refund. Some generic items are identical to their brand-name cousins, while others are pretty bad. So you be the judge.
Don’t throw anything away. Freeze extra rice or left over pasta in freezer bags. Save up meat bones and scraps in the freezer to make stock or soup. Ditto on vegetables.
Stick to the perimeter. If you’re on a diet or special food plan, most everything you need is around the outside perimeter of the typical store (dairy, meat, produce), while the high-calorie, high-priced items are in those center aisles.
Don’t pay for convenience. Pre-washed bagged lettuce and pre-cut veggies might be convenient, but they are expensive. Pre-cut vegetables are three to four times more. Individual packets of oatmeal are outrageously priced. The way to make sure you’re getting the best deal is to shop by price per unit, not package price. When it comes to produce, buy what’s in season and you’ll get the best price and best quality, too.
Control portions. Eating more than is prescribed by your food plan will blow your diet and your budget. Take the time to measure and weigh. Tomorrow, before you pour out your bowl of cereal, read the box to find out how much cereal makes a single serving. Now measure that amount into your bowl. Does it look a little puny? It’s possible that your “dump method” has been treating you to three to four servings at a time instead of just one. Whoops!