Grocery runs have gotten more expensive.
Anyone who has taken a look at their receipts in the last few months can tell that prices have gone up on nearly everything from chicken wings to milk as inflation levels reached heights we haven't seen in decades.
The cost of food that people eat at home rose 6.5% in December compared to the same month the year before. That's well above what people were used to. Over the last 20 years, the cost of supermarket purchases rose about 2% a year on average.
"If you are not careful, you are going to have a full cart and be shocked at how much you spent," said Haley Nelson of St. Paul, who has shared low-cost recipes on her blog Cheap Recipe Blog for more than a decade.
Inflation may slow this spring and summer from last year, but price increases may still be higher than normal.
Here are some ways you can plan and shop to better stretch your grocery budget:
Plan your trip and don't get distracted
When is the last time you really looked in your pantry? The first step is to taking stock of what's in your fridge and cupboards. That will prevent you from buying items you already have.
Do you plan your meals? Or do you pick up whatever strikes you in the store?
"Impulse is the grocer's best friend and temptations are everywhere," said Steven Plant, a financial planner at Raymond James in Wayzata who owned a local grocery store for 15 years.
Go to the grocery store with a list.
"This is really not the time to wing it," Nelson said. Having a list helps you stay focused on what you need so you don't overspend on extra items.
Don't shop while hungry and avoid picking up unplanned processed foods such as frozen dinners.
Learn your store
Discover your grocery store's hidden finds such as discount sections. Many grocery stores have sections or bins with soon-to-expire food or bruised fruits that are still good to eat, said Jamie Pfuhl, president of the Minnesota Grocers Association.
Two of the best places to get deals is the bulk section of spices at local food cooperatives and the salad bar at grocery stores where you can get a small scoop of ingredients like bacon bits, Nelson said.
Having a better grasp on prices of your everyday items and the pricing of an array of stores instead of relying on just one can also be helpful.
"Broadening your horizons probably could help your household budget," Pfuhl said.
Don't forget about coupons and reward programs offered by your grocer and manufacturers. Whether it's in print or digital, coupons can still save you money, Pfuhl said. Print circulars like the ones in this paper can also alert you to good deals. Most stores also offer incentive programs where buyers can get discounts on food, gas and other perks so don't forget to swipe your card at checkout.
Stay flexible for good deals
Sometimes you can find similar and cheaper products at another part of the grocery store. "If one doesn't need a fancy cheese from the deli department, they can often save by buying similar cheese from the dairy department," said Plant of Raymond James.
If there are products that your family uses on a regular basis, it wouldn't be a bad idea to grab it when you see it because it is still hard to keep certain popular items stocked, Pfuhl said. But try not to hoard, she warned.
Be flexible on what you buy and try different brands, different sizes of products and even a different product in the same category. "Because of supply-chain issues, if you like product X, you may need to buy product Y," Pfuhl said.
However, pay attention to the price per ounce. "Smaller sizes are another form of inflation," Plant said. For example, ice cream used to come in half-gallon (64 oz.) cartons and now many come in 48- to 56-oz. sizes.
Stretch your meals and find substitutions
To make meals stretch, repurpose cooked food into other meals throughout the week, Nelson said. She used pork she slow-cooked recently for several meals, including a rice bowl and pulled pork tacos.
When planning meals, identify four or five typically low-cost ingredients you can sub into your diet such as bananas, chicken thighs and beans, Nelson said. "If you can save $10 twice a week over time, that all just adds up," she said.
One substitution people are talking a lot about these days is going meatless. By far the largest increase in at-home food costs last year in the U.S. was for meat, poultry, fish and eggs — up 12.6% in December compared to the year before.
With the price of meat so high, you can save a considerable amount of money (and likely see some health benefits) if you go meatless one or two days a week or even a few meals per week, Nelson said.
"There are so many ways to make this work, even for people who are big meat eaters," she said. Oats, peanut butter, beans, lentils, rice, eggs, potatoes and other vegetables are great staple ingredients for meat-free diets and are cheap alternatives to manufactured plant-based products.