Lots of money-saving strategies involve cutting back, making sacrifices or hard choices. But when you change your eating habits, following the four strategies below, it can actually help improve your health, well-being and even your family life! This is not about using a few coupons -- there's a little more effort involved, but the payoff is worth it. You could even end up saving on medical costs as well, making a positive cascade across your entire life. This is the perfect New Year's resolution.
1) Eat out one less time a week.
We know that meals eaten out tend to have larger portion sizes and be unhealthily high in calories, fat and salt, but Mark Bittman, columnist for the New York Times, points out that even fast food is also more expensive than a home-cooked meal. Dinner for four at McDonald's, including two Happy Meals, costs about $24, while a meal of beans and rice is just $9.
If your family ate out just one less time a week, you could save $780 a year.
2) Stop buying sweets and processed foods.
Shockingly, the largest single category of grocery store spending is processed foods and sweets -- soda, cookies, chips, ice cream, and all the rest of it. One in five of our grocery dollars -- about $844 annually on average -- goes to food that no one needs to eat.
So, cut back on these two categories and you'll be doing your body and your wallet a favor. However, if you're like me, it's easier said than done. Here are several strategies that have worked for my family.
--Avoid the center of the grocery store and anything offered in the checkout line. Fill your cart with what is sold fresh around the edges of the store: produce, dairy, meats and bread.
--Avoid products made with high-fructose corn syrup or partially hydrogenated fats -- the dreaded "trans fats."
--Cut out items one at a time. Stock up on healthier alternatives, such as hummus and pita instead of tortilla chips, nuts and dried fruit instead of cookies, and Greek yogurt instead of ice cream.
--Buy whole ingredients instead of processed foods. It's OK to have French fries or chocolate chip cookies once in awhile, as long as they're homemade. They'll be tastier and more satisfying.
3) Eat in season.
Fruits and vegetables in season are at the peak of their tastiness and nutrition, and they're cheaper too. It's usually easy to figure out what's in season by looking for what's on sale in the produce aisle. If you really want to commit to eating in season, locally and organic, you could consider a farm share, aka community supported agriculture (CSA). This is a deal where you pay a local farmer a fee up front and get a share of the harvest each week through the summer and fall. One study in Wisconsin showed that CSAs offered a significant value -- up to $144 a week compared to the same amount of local, organic produce at a natural food store. And when your crisper is full of fresh vegetables, you'll have more motivation to cook healthy meals!
4) Buy in bulk the smart way.
Bulk grocery buying at stores like Costco or Sam's Club isn't always cheaper, especially when you buy more than you can use. Stick to just a few staples with long shelf lives: vitamins, cooking oil, cereal and pet food have been found to be consistently good values at these stores. If you stock up on perishables such as meat, vegetables, seafood, butter, and even breads and pastries, divide them into individually sized portions and freeze for a few months to last longer.
(Anya Kamenetz' latest book is "DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education." She welcomes your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org)