Saturday, April 23, 2011

Saturday Throwback: Spend Less, Eat Healthier - The Five Most Important Things You Can Do

Every Saturday, we post a piece from the CHG archives. Today's comes from May 2009.

Should you cut coupons? How do you make a grocery budget? What is high fructose corn syrup? Is an organic cantaloupe better for you than a regular cantaloupe? Where do you find a farmer’s market?

Between the time, ethics, and effort involved, food shopping is inherently pretty complicated. Add nutrition and budget factors, and it becomes one of the most difficult regular chores anyone can undertake. Seriously, we’re not talking about vacuuming here. (No offense to all the professional vacuumers out there.)

But what if it was simpler? What if there were a few rules anyone could follow that would ease the load? What if buying inexpensive, good food was as intuitive as flipping your Hoover’s ON switch?

Look no further, my sweets.

Right here, right now (Van Hagar aside), are the five best actions you can take to accomplish those noble goals. Essentially, it’s this entire blog distilled into a handful of its most vital tenets; rules that should significantly impact the way you consider the supermarket.

RULE #1: Buy produce in-season.
Related article: Dr. Veg-love, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Seasonal Produce
Forget labels. Ignore manufacturer promises. Pay no attention to organics (for now, anyway). When you’re purchasing fruits and vegetables, the single most important step you can take is sticking to the appropriate season. Buy asparagus in early spring, peaches in late summer, and squash in fall and winter. The food will taste better, which will make you want it more. It will be substantially cheaper than buying out-of-season. And generally, it will have traveled less of a distance, easing the production’s impact on the environment.

RULE #2: Use the circular.
Related article: The Circular Game: Decoding Your Supermarket Weekly
For some, coupons are invaluable. When correctly applied, they can save billions on the food bill and fill a fridge with myriad good-for-you groceries. But I’m convinced, for the casual shopper, that adhering to the weekly circular is a more useful strategy. For one thing, it’s a less complicated process; you read the circular, you buy the food on sale. For another thing, loss leaders (the stuff on Page 1) usually offer significant savings over any coupon (or, when paired with them). Finally, you can plan your whole menu on what’s available that week. Speaking of that…

RULE #3: Make a plan.
Related article: Weekly Menu Planning for Singles, Couples, and Working People
Between a grocery list, a weekly menu, and a modest price book (though, you could even skip this part), you will have all the tools you need to both limit and optimize your food purchases. Seriously, there’s nothing like having a strategy: you waste less, buy exactly what you need, and (well, almost) never have to worry about what to eat at night. Calories are controlled, money is saved, everybody wins.

RULE #4: Cook.
Related article: Free Cooking Lessons (No, Seriously)
Granted, this is easier said than done, especially if you don’t know a sauté pan from Peter Pan. Still, it can’t be overstated: cooking at home is infinitely cheaper than eating out. We’re talking THOUSANDS of dollars a year, here. Plus, on the dietary side, you’re able to control portion size, as well as what goes into your food. Once you’re into the habit of using your kitchen, the whole endeavor becomes much easier, too. So really, it’s just a question of getting started.

RULE #5: Stock up on sales.
Related article: Pantry of the Gods
You love beans. You use them in everything, up to and including chili, curry dishes, and breakfast cereal. But you have a tendency to buy them last-minute at the bodega across the street, costing you a small fortune. STOP THE MADNESS. If you know you use an item regularly (beans, pasta, etc.), wait for sales and buy as much as you can reasonably store. Personally, I go through canned tomatoes like I go through socks, and they run about 40% less when I stock up ahead of time. Go forth and conquer.

BONUS RULE #6: Relax.
Related article: Relax, Frugal Eater: A Measured Approach to Lifestyle Changes
It’s hard enough making lasting changes in your expenditures and eat…eritures. (What? That’s a word.) Don’t sabotage yourself by going whole-hog. Allow for some leeway. Reward yourself. Relax. Have a glass of wine. It’ll make the transition much easier, and you won’t go completely tweak in the process.

And that’s it. Readers, what do you think? Did I miss something? What are your Top 5? Do tell.

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