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Manage Food Spending with Online Calculator

August 18th, 2014

grocery storeYes, grocery prices have gone up.  Do you wonder if you could eat nutritiously and spend less on food for your family?

If so, our online calculator provides the weekly and monthly amount your family needs to spend for nutritious meals on USDA’s Low-cost Plan. To use the calculator you will need the age, gender, and number of meals eaten away from home for each member of your household. You can also get information about the other three USDA food plans: Thrifty, Moderate-Cost, and Liberal.

How does this amount compare with what you spend?  Sometimes it is hard to monitor how much you spend on food each month because we purchase food at numerous places and times throughout the month. Our page about tracking your food expenses can help. This includes some helpful suggestions and questions to ask yourself about your spending habits.

If you decide to you want to spend less on food our website SpendSmart EatSmart is devoted to eating nutritiously on a budget.

Peggy Signature

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SNAP Challenge Meals

April 14th, 2014

Following our SNAP challenge blogs throughout the month of March, I received some requests for details about the foods I purchased and how I put them together into meals. I allowed myself $28 and I spent $25.01 so that I could use a few things from home (cooking spray, margarine, salt and pepper).

Breakfasts

Baked eggs (raw)Baked eggs (cooked)

Given the cost of meat, I tried to get protein from eggs each day. I made baked eggs twice during the week and ate one or two each morning with a slice of whole wheat toast with margarine, a banana and a cup of milk. My baked eggs recipe is quite simple.

Baked Eggs

  1. Spray a muffin tin with non-stick spray or rub with a bit of vegetable oil.
  2. Put a thin slice of ham in each cup and crack an egg inside the ham.
  3. Bake at 375 degrees until eggs are totally set. This typically takes about 15 minutes.

Lunches

I went to work on five of the seven days of my challenge. I knew I would dwell on food a bit during this week so I wanted to choose lunches that would be very filling. Carrots and celery were the most affordable vegetables at my store, so I needed to base a lot of meals around them. At the beginning of the week I made a vegetable salad with garbanzo beans (aka chickpeas) that I ate for lunch with two or three clementines. I made all of the salad at once to get ready for the week. The full salad recipe was 4 cups of chopped carrots, 4 cups of chopped celery and two cans of garbanzo beans (drained and rinsed). Salad dressing did not fit in my budget so I topped my salad with about a tablespoon of reduced fat mayonnaise seasoned with salt and pepper when I sat down to eat each day.

On the weekend days when I was not at work, I ate leftovers from dinner.

Dinners

My twenty eight dollars did not give me room for a lot of variety during my week. There was much repetition. I chose two basic dishes and made them in large enough quantities to provide me with seven dinners plus a bit leftover. These dishes are not really recipes; they are just simple combinations that allowed me to eat relatively healthy for very little money.

The first was a meatless meal of whole wheat pasta with jarred pasta sauce topped with some grated cheddar cheese. This was not a particularly exciting dish, but I was able to get 4 single-serving meals for just $3.87.

The second dish was based around the fact that my store had a special on chicken thighs that made them the most affordable meat option for me. I bought a package of six thighs for $3.88. I built the dish around the chicken and stretched it with some additional ingredients.

Chicken with Rice and Peppers

  1. Individual servingsSeason chicken thighs with a bit of salt and pepper and roast at 425 degrees for 50 minutes or until a meat thermometer reads 165 on a food thermometer.
  2. While chicken roasts, chop three bell peppers and cook them in a skillet over medium heat for about ten to twelve minutes.
  3. When the peppers are cooked, add a can of pinto beans that have been drained and rinsed. I used a 24 ounce can. Season with pepper and a pinch of salt.
  4. Cook brown rice according to package instructions. I made four servings, but this is flexible based on how many people you’re trying to serve.
  5. When chicken is done. Remove the skin and pick meat from the bones.
  6. Combine rice, peppers and beans, chicken and two cups of thawed frozen corn in a large pot. Cook over low heat until everything is combined and heated through.

This dish made six large servings and cost just under $10. It could easily serve eight if some sides were also being served.

SNAP Challenge PurchaseAs you can see, the volume of food available for my $28 budget was not too bad, but eating the same dish over and over again did get boring. I also ate less dairy and fruit than would be recommended. I also did not have room in my budget for any beverages beyond milk and water and I did not purchase any snacks.

My menus were largely built around the sales at my store, I chose proteins and vegetables that were at a good price and then filled them out with some whole grain products that are generally inexpensive. Since the challenge, I have continued to think this way when I determine meals for the week. My $28 budget allowed me to purchase most of the foods I needed for a week, but left no room for convenience items or snacks. This meant I spent a lot of time preparing my food and I chose only foods that gave me the nutrients I need.

 

s Signature-1

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Are Steamer Bags Worth the Money?

March 31st, 2014

frozen vegetablesI’m all for increasing the amount of vegetables in the diet. Vegetables provide nutrients we can’t get from other foods plus they are low in calories and high in fiber. I also think frozen vegetables are a great value. They are usually flash frozen right after they are picked so they may have more nutrients than fresh vegetables that have spent a long time traveling across the country. Sometimes they are less expensive than fresh vegetables, and they are already cleaned and prepared.

A few years ago manufacturers began selling frozen vegetables that can be microwaved in the bag they are sold in. Microwave steam bag vegetables are supposed to be a healthy solution for those who want to increase their vegetable intake without sacrificing convenience. These “steamers” have gotten so popular that it is hard to find frozen bags of vegetables that are not “steamers”.

I just don’t get why these are so popular!

1)  They are more expensive.  An ounce of frozen mixed vegetables in the steamer bags in central Iowa cost between  $.10 to $.14 an ounce. While the same food in plain plastic bag cost $.08-.09 ounce.  (Sometimes the bags cost the same, but the “steamer” bags had only ¾ as much as the plain bags).

2) I can’t see that they save much time or save washing dishes. 

a. The advantage of frozen bags of vegetables has always been that you could take out just what you need and put the rest back in the freezer. With “steamer” bags you have to cook the whole bag to get the steamer effect.  I think this leads to wasted leftover vegetables.
b. Unless you serve the vegetables in the plastic bag you still have to get a container dirty.

I cook frozen vegetables without the aid of this specialized packaging. All it takes is a microwave safe serving bowl and some ordinary plastic wrap or a lidded microwave-safe container. I put about a cup of vegetables per person in the bowl, add about 1 tablespoon of water, cover and cook on high 2-5 minutes, depending on how much is in the bowl. If you’re unsure how much time is needed, start at two minutes. Keep cooking the vegetables for an additional one minute at a time until hot.

Before you jump on the steaming bag trend, make sure you compare the price per ounce and think about whether it will really save you time.

Pointers from

Peggy Signature

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How Much are you Paying for your Coffee?

June 24th, 2013

PR27358-1526x228983% of Americans drink coffee according to the National Coffee Association’s 2013 online survey. That’s up from 78% last year and more than any other country in the world.

How much do we pay for coffee?  That is really hard to figure since:

1)  We drink different size cups and make it different strengths. It used to be a cup of coffee was 6oz. Now a cup of coffee is at least 8 ounces with mugs and to-go cups routinely being 12-18 ounces.

2)  There are many ways to make your coffee. Home-brewing gadgets and single-serve coffee makers are very popular, as are gourmet beans and coffeehouses.

3)  Coffee drink sales are increasing while drinking traditional coffee is dropping. Last year nearly 1/3 of US adults were drinking a gourmet coffee each day. This includes coffees such as lattes and espresso along with custom blends of exotic beans.

Liz Breuer, an ISU dietetics student, and I decided to compare prices. Check out the coffee prices we found in central Iowa.

Ounces per container  Cost Cost for 12 ounces One Coffee a day for a year
Brewed Coffee*
Cameron’s ground flavor coffee 12  $ 6.99  $ 0.41  $ 150.08
Cameron’s bulk coffee 12  $ 6.74  $ 0.40  $ 144.71
HyVee Whole Bean Coffee 12  $ 6.69  $ 0.39  $ 143.64
Starbucks ground coffee 12  $ 8.99  $ 0.53  $ 193.02
Dunkin Donuts Coffee 12  $ 7.38  $ 0.43  $ 158.45
Panera ground Coffee 12  $ 8.29  $ 0.49  $ 177.99
Folgers coffee flavored 11.5  $ 5.39  $ 0.32  $ 115.73
Folgers coffee plain (on sale) 33.9  $ 7.88  $ 0.17  $ 61.20
Single Serve
Cameron’s single serve 12 cups $7.49 12 K cups  $ 7.49  $ 0.62  $ 227.82
8 O’clock (Keurig) 12 K cup packs $6.99 12 K cups  $ 6.99  $ 0.58  $ 212.61
Green Mountain (Keurig) 12 K cup packs $8.29 12 K cups  $ 8.29  $ 0.61  $ 222.85
35 K cup assortment mail order including shipping 35 K cups  $ 27.99  $ 0.79  $ 288.35
Coffee by the Cup
Starbucks 12 oz. with one pump hazelnut 12  $ 1.77  $ 1.77 $ 646.05
  with three pumps hazelnut 12  $ 2.30  $ 2.30  $ 839.50
Casey’s gas station 12  $ 1.09  $ 1.09  $ 397.85
Panera^ 16  $ 1.99  $ 1.49  $ 543.85
Butterfinger Frappuccino^ 16  $ 4.35  $ 3.26  $ 1,189.90
* Costs calculated estimating 12 oz. of coffee would yield 17-12 ounces cup^ Costs calculated from 16 oz. price

I’m one of those 83% who drink coffee and I am especially fond of hazelnut flavored coffee. If I really want to splurge I have a skim milk latte. I admit I haven’t tried the other specialty coffees because I just can’t get past the cost and the calories.

According to the Mayo clinic, the health benefits of drinking coffee in moderate amounts outweighs the risks. However, added fat and sugar in some drinks can make them unhealthy. The Daily Beast, which is part of Newsweek, has an article called 40 Unhealthiest Coffees  which I thought was very interesting.

If you want to know more about brewing and storing coffee, roasting types, or recipes check out the National Coffee Association’s web site.

Peggy Signature

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New Videos that Help you Shop for Fruits and Vegetables

June 10th, 2013

pile of veggiesWhen you’re planning your meals and writing your grocery list, do you ever wonder how many fruits and vegetables to buy or how to get the best deals on them? If so, check out our new series of 2-3 minute ‘how to’ videos. Some of the topics for the videos include:

A few of the tips shared in the videos that I find helpful include:

-Check your cupboards, refrigerator, and freezers to see what you already have.

-Check the grocery ads for what is on sale.

-Buy a variety of fruits and vegetables including fresh, canned, frozen, and dried.

-Use unit pricing to help you decide what is the best deal for you.

Before heading to the grocery store or Farmer’s Market, take a few minutes to watch these videos to learn some new tips to help you when buying fruits and vegetables.

Jodi Signature

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Grocery Shopping with Kids

April 8th, 2013

Shopping with my 3 year-old son, Parker, is always an adventure. One of the stores I shop at has carts that have steering wheels where he sits and another has a ‘car’ attached to the front of the cart that he can sit in. Both of these keep him entertained because he pretends like he is driving. This is nice because it cuts down on the whining and wanting to buy everything. The downside to these carts is that they are big and take up more space going thru the aisles. Sometimes it is worth it though!

In addition to the ‘car’ carts, one of the stores also has little carts that the kids can push. I’m not so sure about this idea as a parent. Let’s just say I’ve held my breath a few times hoping that all of the cans he ran into would not fall. Only a few cans have fallen so far! I’ve also had a few bruises on the back of my legs where he ran into me. I’m usually frantically trying to make sure he doesn’t hit anyone else. Thankfully he hasn’t run into anyone else yet! And lastly, when he is pushing his own cart, and not confined to the child seat in the larger cart, he can grab lots of stuff off the shelves! Funny thing was the other day Parker informed me, “Dad doesn’t let me drive the little cart when I go shopping with him.” Imagine that!

Sometimes I do make it to the store without taking Parker, but that isn’t always possible. And he needs to learn how to act while in a store. In addition, grocery stores can be great places to teach kids. They are a place to learn about good nutrition but kids can also learn about numbers, colors, and shapes.  The University of Maine Cooperative Extension has a great publication on shopping with children. Here are some of the tips they share.

  1. Plan to go to the store with your child when you have plenty of time and the store is not crowded.
  2. Plan shopping trips when your child is not tired or hungry. Or bring a nutritious snack for him to eat during the shopping trip.
  3. Discuss your rules before you enter a store. Remind your child to stay close to you. Also, set ground rules about what is acceptable to put in the cart. Discussing acceptable behavior before going into the store can save a lot of headache later on.
  4. Give your child a job. For example, ask her to help pick out five oranges or three tomatoes. Or let her choose if you get apples or pears. Kids who help pick out fruits and vegetables are more likely to eat them. Older children may like to hold onto the grocery list and cross off the items as you put them in the cart.
  5. Set positive limits. When your child does something you do not want him to do, instead of reacting with a negative limit, such as “don’t throw the oranges on the floor,” tell your child what is expected in a positive way, such as “Keep the oranges in the bin.”
  6. Make the shopping trip a learning experience. Keep kids entertained by asking them questions and having them searching for items. Teach toddlers about touch by asking how different items feel, like the skin of an apple or if the milk is warm or cold.  Teach preschoolers about colors by asking them to point out items of different colors like the green peas or the cereal in the yellow box. Have school-age children look at the labels and compare items based on nutrition.

What tips do you have for making grocery shopping trips enjoyable for both kids and parents?


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Go Green in the Kitchen

February 25th, 2013

Many of the ways we recycle, reuse, and reduce to save energy can also save us money.  While I don’t think of myself as an extreme recycler, I found that I already do many of the suggestions in the two articles below.  Check them out—you might get an idea that will save you some pennies and reduce your energy use:

Save Green and Go Green in the Kitchen is a list from the Canned Food Alliance and 8 Ways to Go Green in Your Kitchen is from WedMD.

I see people using reusable grocery bags frequently when I shop. Just last week I went to a grocery store in Maryland with a friend. At the stores she shops at you have to pay for plastic or paper sacks, but if you bring your own, you get a discount of 5 to 10 cents. Most people brought sacks with them.

My concern about reusable bags is food safety. Researchers at University of Arizona and Loma Linda University asked shoppers going into grocery stores if they washed those reusable bags.  97% reported they do not regularly, if ever, wash the bags.  In addition 75% said they don’t use separate bags for meats and for vegetables, and about a third said they used the bags for carrying and storing all sorts of things like books, clothes, shoes, etc.

The researchers tested 84 of the bags for bacteria and found bacteria in all the bags except for one. The good news is that machine or hand washing reduced bacteria levels to almost nothing.

It’s a good idea to designate a bag for meat and poultry.  When meat or poultry juices touch food that will not be cooked such as fruits and vegetables, you have the potential for cross contamination and foodborne illness. Any type of reusable grocery bag should be hand or machine washed in warm to hot, soapy water at least once a week, and always after a spill. This will keep them clean and reduce the risk of cross contamination.

The reusable bags I have are made from fabric which doesn’t hold up well to washing.  I found this tutorial for making grocery bags from pillowcases, which looks easy.  Ali Conners, the tutorial author, says you can “admire your handiwork, frugality, and earth consciousness while being the most stylish lady at the grocery store.”  The bags use a double thickness of the pillowcase fabric and the handles are made from the pillowcase hem.  I made one from an old pillowcase (see the light green striped bag below.)  Ali says it takes her about 10 minutes.  My first one took about 45 minutes but it will be much faster next time.  I found the turquoise pillow cases on clearance.  They cost $2.35 for both cases and the little pouch.  I think the darker color will be better and the design is more fun than the pastel green stripes.

Happy Recyling,

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Whole Grain Bread…The Basics

September 17th, 2012

Half the grain products we eat are supposed to be whole grain. We aren’t there yet, but according to a July study about 55% of us have switched from white bread to whole grain bread.

Whole grains aren’t limited to bread. There are whole grain pastas and brown rice on grocery shelves too. And products made with whole grains such as oats, popcorn, brown and wild rice, buckwheat (or kasha) and cracked wheat (also called bulgur) as the first ingredient carry the “whole-grain” label.

Grains such as quinoa, whole cornmeal (yellow or white), whole barley, whole rye, amaranth, millet, spelt and triticale are less common, but are also whole grains.

breadWhy are we eating more whole grains? Maybe consumers are becoming more aware that whole grains help reduce the risk of bowel disorders, some cancers, heart disease (by lowering blood pressure and cholesterol), stroke and type 2 diabetes. Maybe it is because we like the taste and texture.

Bread is still a staple in our diets. Whole grain bread can cost $3.50 to $4.00 a loaf at the supermarket.  At the day old store I found whole grain bread for $1.00 to $2.00 a loaf. If you have a day-old bread store nearby and have a freezer, it’s worth a trip to stock up.

Check for clues on the label!

Be sure the bread you buy is whole grain and not just brown. Look for the “Whole Grain” stamp or choose foods that name one of the following whole-grain ingredients FIRST on the label’s ingredient list: whole grain stamp

  • brown rice
  • bulgur
  • graham flour
  • oatmeal
  • whole-grain corn
  • whole oats
  • whole rye
  • whole wheat
  • wild rice.

If you see these words listed as the first ingredient, that’s your tip that it is NOT a whole grain product: wheat flour; enriched; multigrain; 100% wheat; stone ground; cracked wheat; seven-grain; bran.

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Watermelon: How to Pick a Good One

August 20th, 2012

I love watermelon. I remember my grandfather cutting giant melons on his front porch and giving all the grandkids a slice. Back then all the watermelons had seeds that we spit out on the grass. Melons were also a lot bigger. They often weighed over 20 pounds and sold for around $.06 a pound!watermelon slices

It’s still hard to pick a good watermelon. Here are some suggestions I found:

  1. Choose watermelons that are symmetrical with no soft spots. Odd bumps and curves can mean it was grown with irregular runs of water or sun.
  2. Look for a creamy patch. It’s called the ‘field spot’ — the place where the watermelon rested on the ground. The deeper in color, the longer the fully grown melon was on the vine getting sweet. A yellow field spot is better than white, but white is better than no patch at all.
  3. Pick it up. Your watermelon should feel heavy for its size. Compare its weight with one of similar size.
  4. Thumps, slaps, raps…some people think they can tell if a watermelon is ripe by listening. PCC Natural Markets has a video on selecting the perfect melon if you want to learn more about the listening method.

Safety first

When you get your melon home make sure you wash it. According to the FDA, you should wash all fruits and vegetables under clean, running water before eating them. This is true for all fruits and veggies–rinds or not! You should also use clean knives and cutting surfaces, and make sure you have washed your hands prior to preparing the watermelon for eating.

Buy a dud? Return it!

If you get an unripe or over-ripe melon home, take it back and get another one or your money back.  I called 4 local grocery stores today (Wal-Mart, Hy-Vee, Fareway and Dahls) and they all said they would refund or replace the melon. It is best if you have your receipt with you.

Feeling creative and interested in making a fun watermelon display? Check out the watermelon carvings posted by the ©National Watermelon Promotion Board for some neat ideas.

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Have you Fired your Grocery Store?

April 16th, 2012

Consumer Reports says that one-third of their readers have switched grocery stores in the past year.  The main reason was to get better prices, but their readers also switched in search of better selection, shorter lines, or more courteous staff.

In an eight page report in the May issue, 52 grocery stores were ranked by Consumer Reports readers on service (which combines customer satisfaction with employee courtesy and checkout speed), perishables (quality of meat and produce), price and cleanliness. Of the stores operating in Iowa, Fareway ranked highest at #4, Costco at #5, and Hy-Vee at #9.  Aldi and Target were 20 and 22. Can you guess which store came in lowest?  Walmart Superstores ranked at the bottom (51 out of 52)

Fareway received the highest rating in all the categories.  Costco was rated lower in service,  HyVee was knocked  because of high prices.  Aldi got good ratings for price and Target rated high in cleanliness.  Walmart was rated low in service and cleanliness and but got a favorable rating in price.

Money Saving ideas mentioned in the article include:

  • Using store brands.  Seventy-two percent of those surveyed said they used store brands and 89% of those said store brands were as good as national brands.
  • Unit pricing.  It would be wonderful if more states required this, but only 9 states do and there is no standard formatting so it can be hard to compare. Want to learn more about unit pricing? The SpendSmart.EatSmart web page has a lesson called Choosing the Best Deal which walks you through each step.
  • Paying attention to the sale flyers.  Some items are priced below cost to get you to the store.  However not everything in the sale flyer costs less than the regular price.  (it’s the same as specials in a restaurant—specials are not necessarily cheaper or even something that is not on the menu all the time—they are just a shout out to a “special” meal.
  • Coupons.  The report mentions that more coupons now require you to buy multiples and the coupons expire quicker than they used to.
  • Loyalty cards or senior citizen savings.  I have used these in other parts of the county, but they are not being used much in Iowa

If you would like more tips to reduce your spending on groceries check out our shopping tips at SpendSmart.Eat Smart.

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