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Shop, preserve wisely to stretch food dollars

By Bonnie Coblentz
MSU Ag Communications

MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Keeping meals on the table is an ever-more-expensive task for Mississippians as food prices were up more than 8 percent in the last three months and energy prices are more than 50 percent higher than last year.

Susan Cosgrove, family resource management area agent with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said egg prices are up 60 percent, pasta prices are up 30 percent, and fruit and vegetables cost about 20 percent more than they did a year ago.

“Rising costs make it more difficult than ever to keep food on the table, but families can take steps to ensure they are stretching their grocery dollars as far as possible,” Cosgrove said.

Cook meals at home rather than eating out, she said, and make dishes from scratch using recipes that require simple ingredients.

“The more preparation that already has gone into a food product, the more it will cost,” Cosgrove said. “While ‘convenience' foods are nice, they cost much more, and they have lots of additives and preservatives that may not be healthy.”

While many people realize that buying in bulk can save money, some forget that cooking more than one item at a time can also save electricity or gas. Other cost-saving techniques include preparing meatless meals, buying generic or store brands rather than national brands, drinking tap water instead of soft drinks and always shopping with a list.

“Never go grocery shopping hungry, and if possible, leave the kids and maybe even your spouse home when you shop for food,” Cosgrove said. “Use coupons for items you have on your list, and try to shop sales for good food buys.”

Bobbie Shaffett, Extension family resource management specialist, said families' income levels determine how much of their budget is spent on food.

“Consumers with lower incomes spend a larger portion of their income on food than do those with higher incomes, but those with low incomes may receive Food Stamp assistance,” Shaffett said. “Moderate-income consumers who had been making ends meet may be having the worst time now with prices rising so rapidly.”

MSU's Family Nutrition Program offers some menu planning guidelines. These include writing down what the family will eat for the coming week or month, making sure to remember special events or meals that will be eaten out. Use the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Dietary Guidelines and Daily Food Guide to develop menus for each meal each day.

Check the pantry, freezer and refrigerator to see what foods are on hand, and then check the newspaper for food specials, especially coupons and sales in the Wednesday or Sunday advertisements.

Take the list shopping and only buy foods on the list. Compare prices and labels at the store to ensure a good purchase.

Natasha Haynes, Extension nutrition and food safety agent in Lincoln County, said freezing is a good way to preserve food bought or grown in quantity.

“Just about any food can be frozen except for canned foods in the can and eggs in the shell,” Haynes said. “Make sure you are freezing the food properly and using proper packaging like freezer bags or freezer containers.”

She said packaging products designed for freezer use protect food from freezer burn and allow it to store well in the freezer.

“Foods are freezer burned when they have dried out and lost flavor and nutritional value,” Haynes said. “Freezer burn is caused by poor packaging, and it gives food a dark color and a bad taste, but it is not a food safety issue.”

She said small areas of freezer burn can be cut off and thrown away and the remaining food eaten. Throw away food that is heavily freezer burned.

Some people use any type of storage bag or container with a lid to store things in the freezer, but Haynes said these do not provide the protection foods need. Good freezer options include freezer bags, freezer paper, heavy-duty aluminum foil, plastic freezer containers and even glass containers marked for canning or freezing.

“Freezer bags and storage bags are side by side in the grocery store, but there is a difference,” Haynes said. “Storage bags are just to store things, and freezer bags are designed to protect foods in the freezer.”

Even when using proper freezer containers, it is important to cool foods before placing them in the freezer. Haynes said a 5-quart pot of stew takes 72 hours to cool in the refrigerator and almost 32 hours to freeze in the freezer. Label and date all packages and eat first the foods that were placed first in the freezer.

More information on freezing fruits and vegetables is available in Extension publications online at http://msucares.com/pubs/.

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Released: Aug. 14, 2008
Contact: Natasha Haynes, (601) 835-3460