Seven secrets to slashing rising food costs

Consumer Reports News: November 04, 2010 04:12 PM

There are many forces behind the recent surge in food prices: drought in Russia, speculative trading, worldwide crop blights, more demand for meat in China. But whatever the cause, you’re likely to suffer the consequences, as food makers and retailers pass along the higher costs to consumers. These seven tips from the experts at Consumer Reports will help manage the inflation.

Ditch name brands
Think you can’t live without Kraft Macaroni & Cheese? In Consumer Reports latest taste-off between store brands and name brands, Fred Meyer’s Macaroni & Cheese delivered the same mild, cheddarlike flavor, even though it costs half as much—and that was before Kraft Food Inc. said it plans to raise prices higher. Kellogg’s is also pumping up prices, making Stop & Shop’s Fruit Swirls an even more enticing alternative to name-brand Fruit Loops. See all 21 face-offs from our report.   

Compare unit prices
You'll typically find shelf tags in the supermarket that reveal the cost per ounce, quart, pound, or 100 sheets. Consumer Reports finds many cases where bigger isn't better. For example, we recently found a 14-ounce box of Frosted Flakes on sale at $2.29 per pound, compared with $4.38 per pound for a 17-ounce box.

Also look out for sneaky sale signs designed to get you to buy more than one bag or box—for example, four cans of soup for $5. Rarely are you required to buy all four to get the discount. Retailers are just planting a number in your head, hoping you'll buy a lot.

Be smart with organics.
Organic products tend to be pricey, so reserve them for fruits and vegetables that are most likely to harbor pesticides when grown conventionally. That includes a lot of items that could make the Thanksgiving table, including apples, cranberries, green beans and potatoes. Check the complete list of high-risk produce. And just say no to “organic” seafood, since no standards are in place to verify the claim. 

Pay less at the percolator
Starbucks promised this summer to keep prices steady, but it’s now having to go back on its word. We’ve found that home brewing can save you a few hundred dollars a year. Our latest Ratings of coffeemakers includes the Cooks CM4221 (JC Penney), a $40 CR Best Buy. Also check our latest report on coffee blends to find the best flavor for the value (give you a hint: it’s not Starbucks).

Be judicious about bulk
Shopping at Costco or Sam’s Club can save you in the long run. But it’s easy to get carried away in the oversized aisles, which is why making a list and sticking to it is essential. Splitting large buys with others is another way to save, especially on perishables, like that 10-pound bag of carrots. Lastly, supermarkets’ heavily-discounted items can still beat warehouse clubs, so continue to comparison shop. 

Cut down on food waste
To get the longest shelf life from food, burrow to the rear of supermarket shelves, refrigerators, or freezers, where the newest milk, cereal, cold cuts, and other packaged goods are first stocked. Also make sure your refrigerator maintains optimal temperatures between 37 degrees to 38 degrees F; the freezer, 0 degrees F. Read these additional food storage tips from our experts. 

Save on meals out
Restaurants say they’ll have to raise prices too. In our latest review of restaurant chains, nearly all of them had some sort of menu bargain, including lower prices for smaller portions (which is easy on the waist line as well as the wallet). Deals tend to increase during weekdays and off-peak hours, even at high-end restaurants.   

—Daniel DiClerico

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