PUBLISHED: 4:18 PM on Wednesday, March 14, 2007
Make a plan to save money in preparing healthy meals
University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service

  Helen Idzorek
Serving our families nutritious meals without over-extending our food budgets can pose quite a challenge for most of us.

All too often, the task proves both exasperating and time consuming.

An effective way to spend less money on food and guarantee that your family is eating a healthy diet is to plan the meals ahead of time.

Research has found that planning meals or creating weekly menus can save families up to 15 percent of their monthly food costs.

For example, in Juneau, a family of four could save more than $75 every month. In addition to helping you save money, a menu provides an excellent tool for successful grocery shopping.

Depending on your food resources and how often you grocery shop, you may want to create a menu plan for a week or as long as a month.

Meal planning takes practice, so don't give up.

Within a few weeks you'll find the process goes quickly and smoothly. Here are some tips to consider when creating a menu:

• Plan foods that will be served for all meals -- breakfast, lunch, dinner and include snacks.

• Check your calendar for busy days or days when you will not eat at home.

• Plan for leftovers-for example, they make quick and easy lunches.

• Ask friends and families for low-cost meal ideas and healthy recipes.

• Check your cupboards for items that you have on hand.

• Choose a meal centerpiece and plan around it. For example, if you are planning to serve baked chicken, choose side dishes that complement the main dish such as green salad and baked yams.

• Keep it simple-whole grain cereals served with fruit and milk make a great breakfast.

Once you have a meal plan in place you're ready to make your shopping list.

Unless it is something you already have on hand, include all of the necessary ingredients for the meal plan to your shopping list.

A comprehensive list allows you to limit the number of trips you make to the grocery store. This is important because the more times you visit the store, the more likely you are to give in to impulse purchases. Remember to buy items only if they are on your list.

This will help you in sticking to your planned food budget. The following are additional tips that can also help you to stay within your food budget:

• Do not shop while hungry! Research has shown an increase in impulse buying when shopping on an empty stomach.

• Use coupons only if they are actually a bargain. If the coupon is for an item that you don't regularly buy, consider whether it is really needed.

• Shop during the week when the store is less crowded. Stores are typically busiest on weekends and in the early evening when many shoppers are on their way home from work.

• Check the unit price of the product. Most stores print the cost per unit on the shelf tag.

• Bring a calculator to quickly compare prices and sales.

• Check the date stamps on perishable items such as milk and eggs to make sure they won't expire before you can use them.

• Store brands and generics are often less expensive and taste the same as name brands.

• Food manufacturers fight for shelf position. They want their products at eye level as this increases sales. Remember that the shelves above and below eye level often contain the best buys.

• Precooked and prepackaged foods are often more expensive. For instance, rather than buying flavored instant oatmeal packets, consider purchasing a less costly container of oatmeal and a bag of dried fruit to add to the cooked oatmeal. Buy produce in season when it's freshest and cheapest. When fresh produce is not a practical option for your family, frozen produce is an excellent alternative.

Because it is flash frozen immediately after harvest, the nutritional value and quality are equal to that of fresh produce.

Menu plans and shopping lists are simple tools that will help you in planning and serving healthy and nutritious meals for your family without straining your food budget.

Though planning meals takes practice, you will quickly see the results and find that this simple exercise is worth both the time and effort.

Helen Idzorek is the Nutrition Educator for the UAF Cooperative Extension Service, Juneau District.