End of the Farmer’s Market Season

Farmer’s Markets are winding down. Today was the final day until next Spring for the one I visited this morning.

This makes me sad because there are great bargains to be found at the Farmer’s Market. Today I spent $3.50 and bought a beautiful baking pumpkin, about 3/4 pound of lovely turnips, a bag of shelling beans, and three ears of end-of-the-season sweet corn.

End of the Farmer's Market Season

End of the Farmer's Market Season

But even when I don’t buy anything, I just love to stroll through the Farmer’s Markets. Where I live, there’s at least one every day of the week from spring until autumn.

All farmer’s markets are different, yet they are all the same. There’s the hectic bustle in the big produce tents contrasted by the serenity of the flower salesman, his wares splayed colorfully on the ashpalt. The plain Mennonite women in their bonnets selling homemade breads and sweets, next to entrepreneurs hawking jewelry, gym memberships or timeshares.

I often see the same two older gentlemen sitting at a folding table selling jars of suspect honey, chatting with passersby. I’ve never actually seen them make a sale, although they must sell something to afford the space rental.

In summer, children run in bursts between the aisles and down the midway, excited by the colors, smells and sounds. By autumn, the kids are safely back in school and their parents return alone or in pairs to pick efficiently through the produce, taking a brief respite from their busy days.

Day after day, month after month, year after year.

Here’s a recipe for one-pot pork roast I made with some of the produce I bought today. It’s an quick and easy dish to prepare on a quiet autumn afternoon. The quantities are purposely vague so that you can use whatever you have or don’t have on hand.

One-Pot Pork Roast

One-Pot Pork Roast

See you next year, Farmer’s Market! Sigh.

One-Pot Pork Roast

3-4 lb pork roast

1/2 TBS sea salt

1/4 tsp cracked black pepper

1/2 TBS onion powder

1/2 TBS granulated garlic

1/2 TBS dried thyme

2 TBS EVOO

1-2 white onions, rough chop

3-4 carrots, peeled and rough chop

3-4 white turnips, peeled and rough chop

4-5 red potatoes, quartered

2 cloves garlic, smashed but not crushed

1 cup beef stock (or chicken stock)

1 bay leaf

1 sprig fresh rosemary

3-4 sprigs fresh thyme

Put cast iron pan over heat. Meanwhile, season pork roast liberally with salt, pepper, onion powder, granulated garlic and dried thyme. When hot, pour TBS EVOO into skillet. When smoking, sear pork roast on all sides until dark brown.

Put large pot over heat. When hot, add TBS EVOO. When smoking, add onion, carrot and turnip. Cook until slightly brown, about five minutes, stirring occasionally. Add stock and bring up to boil. Add potatoes, garlic cloves and bay leaf. Place pork roast directly on top of vegetables, throw rosemary and thyme sprigs on top, cover and place in 350F oven for 35 minutes.

Remove from oven, remove roast to cutting board and and let rest, uncovered, 5 minutes.

To plate, spoon vegetables in heap in center of pasta bowl. Slice pork into medium slices and place on top. Spoon a little of the liquid over the top of the pork. Garnish with parsley or fresh herb sprigs.

South Side Grocery Bargains – Week of Sept. 28-Oct 4, 2011

Last week, I wrote about the growing popularity of dollar stores in our struggling economy. This week, I want to follow up on some of the best items to buy at the dollar store:

  • Cleaning products are the backbone of the dollar store business, according to industry experts. Because they buy close out and remnants, dollar stores often have name brands for 60 to 70 percent less than grocery chains.
  • Gift wrap is substantially less expensive at the dollar store. And buy early. National chains, even discount stores, will raise their prices right before the holidays, when consumer demand is highest.
  • Beauty products — including soap, shampoo and conditioners — can be found for less than half the price of other stores. And while you may not find expensive name brands, the quality is the same or better, experts say.
  • Kitchen gadgets are plentiful and at rock bottom prices at dollar stores. Stay away from the cheap-o items, but look for measuring cups, timers, graters and other items that will cost way more at mainstream stores.
  • Halloween candy and other bulk candy can be found for a much better value than the grocery stores. Let your kids pick out their own jumbo sized boxes of candy before taking them to the movies and you will save a fortune.

Speaking of great values, let’s start saving some money!

First, in produce, let me say that although Food 4 Less has cantaloupe on sale 3 for $5, you would have to be a really big fan of this fruit to buy it right now because of the listeria outbreak tied to cantaloupe that already has claimed at least 16 lives. Do yourself a favor and stay away from the cantaloupe for a while.

A better buy at F4L would be cabbage, which is $.25/head. Over at Freshline Foods, Romaine lettuce is $.99/lb. At Cermak Produce, both mangoes and avocados are $.59/each, so it’s a great time to make Mango Walnut Guacamole. Fresh Pick Market has iceberg lettuce for $.59/head, a pretty good price, and bananas for $.29/lb, a great price.

Tony’s Finer Foods has collard, mustard and turnip greens for only $.59/lb, which is perfect for these soul food specialties. Tony’s also still has sweet corn for $.25/ear, but it has to be the last local corn of the season, so hurry!

Speaking of the season ending, vendors at area Farmer’s Markets tell me next week or the week after will be the last until the spring, so make it count!

In the meat departmentreports that meat prices would be increasing are starting to be felt. Prices are up across the board. The best value I found was at Ultra Foods, where whole chickens are available for $.58/lb. At Jewel’s, chicken leg quarters are $.39/lb, but you have to buy a 10 lb bag. Who has room for that?! And Tony’s has ground beef for $1.88/lb if you buy 5 lbs or more, which is better than most places but still a bit pricey for me.

In the grocery aisle,  there are a couple of deals to get excited about. Jewel’s has their house brand pasta for $.88/lb. Pair that with the 24 oz house brand pasta sauce available at Freshline Foods for $1 and you’ve got dinner for 4 for $1.88. Not bad. Get a jump on holiday baking by picking up a 5 lb bag of unbleached all purpose flour for only $1.88 at Tony’s.

In the frozen section, Ultra Foods has Bird’s Eye vegetables for $.78/lb. And Tony’s has Palermo’s 12″ frozen pizzas for $1.83/each, although I can’t vouch for quality because I’ve never tried this brand. Might be good if you have onmiverous teenagers, though.

This week’s Bargain of the Week is at Ultra Foods, where an 8 lb bag of Idaho potatoes is only $.98. That’s only $.12/lb. You can’t afford not to buy at that price!

Have you found any great bargains out there? Why not share them in the comments section below? See you at the grocery store!

South Side Grocery Bargains — Week of Sept. 21-27, 2011

At the gym the other day, I watched Jim Kramer from the Mad Money TV program do a peice on the increasing popularity of dollar stores.

Dollar store stocks are on the rise because the struggling economy is forcing more and more consumers to seek out stripped down, rock bottom bargains.

That resonated with me because I visited a local dollar store this week for the first time since they were known as “five and dime” stores.

Bud, our new puppy

Bud, our new puppy

As readers of this blog may remember, we recently got a new puppy and, though he is a very good boy (good boy!), he is still prone to “accidents”. So I needed a can of Lysol.

I went to Food 4 Less, which usually is reasonably priced on most items. I was first shocked then angered to find they were charging $4.25 for a small can of Lysol. I mean, come on, that’s criminal!

So later I stopped by one of the many dollar stores in my area (and there certainly do seem to be a lot, once you start looking for them) and, sure enough, they had a comparable can of disinfectant — off brand, but so what? — for $1. And once I started looking around, I noticed a lot of other $1 items that I’ve been paying a lot more for at grocery stores.

So, Jim Kramer, you were right. Until the economy improves, the dollar store will be getting a lot more of my business.

Speaking of great values, let’s start saving some money!

In produce, there are a lot of $.10 sales this week. At Pete’s Fresh Market, a dime will get you Bartlett and Bosc pears, limes, plums, Idaho potatoes and Washington onions; and at Cermak Produce a dime will get you peaches, banana peppers, bananas, carrots and red potatoes.

Although this week I’ve had a lot of luck at Farmer’s Markets, other grocery store produce bargains include broccoli crowns for $.69/lb at Freshline Foods; iceberg lettuce is $.79/head and beets are $.33/lb at Tony’s Finer Foods; and cauliflower is only $.68/lb at Cermak.

There are a couple of good meat specials this week. Pete’s has whole chickens for $.78/lb; both Pete’s and Ultra Foods has bone-in chicken breasts for $.98/lb; and Tony’s has chicken leg quarters for $.49/lb in the family pack and chuck pot roast for $1.99/lb, which is perfect for this pot roast.

In dairy, Ultra has a dozen eggs for $.88; Tony’s has a gallon of milk for $2.49; Pete’s has Imperial margarine for $.88/lb; and Food 4 Less has Yoplait yogurt for $.50/ea.

There are a couple of good frozen bargains out there this week. At Tony’s 16 oz frozen vegetables are $.69/ea; and Ultra has Tony’s Pizza for only $2.00/ea, a good “buy and stock up” price.

In the bakery, Ultra has Butternut bread for $.88/loaf and fresh baked 16 oz white, wheat or French bread for $.58/ea.

Finally, in grocery, Cermak has La Preferida pinto beans for $.59/15 oz can; Pete’s has Del Monte vegetables and 15 oz Centrella tomato sauce for $.49/can; Ultra has 8 oz Kraft salad dressings and 18 oz Open Pit BBQ Sauce for $.88/ea; and Pete’s has General Mills cereals for $2/box.

And for this week’s Bargain of the Week, we return to Ultra, where you can stock up for school lunches with Armour Small Lunchmakers and 12 oz Oscar Mayer Bologna or Cotto Salami for only $.88/each.

Have you found any great bargains out there? Why not share them in the comments section below? See you at the grocery store!

Farmer’s Market Treasure

As the economy struggles to improve, it becomes more important than ever to find ways to stretch our food budget. One good way I’ve found is to visit the local farmer’s markets.

A little internet research shows there’s one almost every day of the week in the Chicago area this time of year.

Not only are they a fun way to spend time outdoors in the crisp autumn air, farmer’s markets also feature a wide variety of fruits and vegetables and usually are less expensive grocery stores because they have, literally, no overhead.

Some farmer’s markets also have flowers and plants, baked goods, jams and jellies, assorted honeys, and even cheeses.

This week, I visited two local farmer’s markets — in Oak Lawn and Evergreen Park. I spent a total of $9.25 and I bought: One medium pumpkin for making soup, two smaller pumpkins for serving the soup, three sweet gypsy peppers, two purple peppers, two large eggplants, 5 or 6 patty pan squash, and three beautiful red beets.

Not a bad haul for the money.

Next, I had to figure out what to do with all this. It’s sort of like one of those tryouts for a chef’s job, where they give you a mystery basket full of ingredients and you have to create something unique and delicious out of it.

So after nosing around my refigerator, freezer and cabinets, here’s what I came up with: Roasted Beet, Blue Cheese and Walnut Salad with a Honey Dijon Vinaigrette, and Assorted Stuffed Peppers. I’ll make use the rest to make pumpkin soup and baba ganouj another time.

The stuffed peppers are kind of an inside joke between my wife, Sandi, and I. Growing up, stuffed green peppers was one of the few dishes Sandi’s mother and grandmother could make, so they made it almost every week, freezing leftovers in plastic Wonder Bread bags. As a result, she ate her lifetime allotment of stuffed green peppers by the time she turned 12. It’s one dish I’m strongly discouraged from making at home.

But I’m going to stuff those purple peppers, the sweet gypsy peppers, as well as a green pepper from our garden, so hopefully this twist on an old standard will be acceptable.

Roasted Beet, Blue Cheese and Walnut Salad

For the Salad

1 large beet

1/2 TBS EVOO

1/4 cup walnuts, broken up

4 oz imported Danish blue cheese (or domestic), crumbled

1 head Boston Bibb lettuce

For the Honey Dijon Vinaigrette

2 TBS honey

1-1/2 TBS Dijon mustard

3 TBS red wine vinegar

1/2 tsp sea salt

1/4 tsp cracked black pepper

1/4 cup EVOO

1. Roast the beets the night before: Preheat the oven to 425F. Leaving about 1/2 inch of the stem attached to prevent beet juice from escaping, rub beets with EVOO, place in baking dish, cover with foil and bake until a knife passes through easily, about 1 hour. Allow to cool and remove skin with a pairing knife.

2. In mixing bowl, whisk together honey, Dijon, vinegar, salt and pepper. Emulsify the oil into the mixture by slowly whisking in the EVOO, starting with a drop at a time and building to steady stream. Season with S&P to taste.

3. Dice the beets into medium cubes. Remove a few lettuce leaves and set aside. Chop remaining lettuce into bite-sized peices and toss with beets, walnuts and blue cheese, then dress with vinaigrette. To assemble, place one Bibb leave in center of each chilled salad plate, and build tall pile of salad in center of each leaf. Drizzle a bit more dressing on top and grind a little more pepper on top of that.

Roasted Beet, Blue Cheese and Walnut Salad

Roasted Beet, Blue Cheese and Walnut Salad

Assorted Stuffed Peppers

2 purple peppers

1 sweet gypsy pepper

1 green pepper

1 lb ground turkey

1-1/2 cooked white rice

1/2 white onion, diced

1 clove garlic, crushed

8 oz can tomato sauce

1/4 cup grated parmesan

Assorted Stuffed Peppers

Assorted Stuffed Peppers

1. Cut tops off peppers, then use a spoon to dig out the ribs and seeds, being careful not to pierce the walls. Blanch peppers by dropping into boiling water for 30 seconds, then immediately plunging them in ice water.

2. Heat cast iron pan. When hot, add TBS EVOO. When smoking, add chopped pepper tops and onion and saute until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook another minute, then add ground turkey and cook until browned, about 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Combine turkey, rice and 3/4 of the tomato sauce in a mixing bowl. Season with S&P to taste.

3. Use a spoon to stuff the peppers with the meat and rice mixture. Place about 1/3 of the mixture in the bottom of a 9″x9″ baking pan. Place peppers on top, spoon a little of the remaining tomato sauce onto the top of each pepper, then sprinkle each with parmesan. Bake at 350F for 30 minutes.

What treasures have you found at your local Farmer’s Market? Share your discoveries in the comments section below. And thanks for looking at my blog!

South Side Grocery Bargains – Week of September 14-20, 2011

Before we get into this week’s South Side grocery bargains, what if you stopped buying food from grocery stores and restaurants altogether? Imagine cutting out the middleman and buying only non-processed food directly from farmers markets, growing it yourself, or bartering at food co-ops? Think of the savings!

I came across an interesting blog written by a San Francisco area couple who did just that. It’s called A Year Without Groceries. Their experiment, which concludes October 1, was made even more challenging when they stopped buying food altogether for the last three months. There’s a great interview with them from Time magazine here.

Kind of inspires me to start visiting local farmers markets. In the past, I’ve been disappointed with some of the prices at these events, but I’ll let you know if I find any real bargains.

Okay, let’s start saving some money!

Produce bargains include broccoli and cauliflower for only $.68/lb at Food 4 Less; avocados for $.78/ea at Pete’s Fresh Market; Aldi’s has baby carrots for $.49/lb; and Freshline Foods, over at 5355 W. 95th St., in Oak Lawn, has an 8 lb bag of Wisconsin Russet potatoes for $1.69, which is only $.21/lb, a great price.

Freshline also has acorn or butternut squash for $.59/lb. It’s good to see winter squashes coming back online. Lots of recipes coming for those.

Over at Fresh Pick Market, at 87th and Ridgeland, Illinois sweet corn is 5/$1, Illinois green cabbage is $.25/lb, and Illinois green peppers are only $.69/lb. Great deals, plus they get props for buying local!

There are a number of good meat specials this week. Tony’s Finer Foods has bone-in chicken breast for $.79/lb; Ultra Foods has drumsticks or thighs for $.58/lb; and Fresh Pick has boneless skinless chicken breasts for $1.69/lb.

There’s lots of fruit on sale this week for kid’s lunches. Pete’s has nectarines for $.58/lb, large plums for $.68/lb and Bosc pears for $.78/lb. A lot of places have Washington Bartlett pears on sale this week, but the best price I found was $.79/lb at Tony’s, who also has Chiquita bananas for  only $.29/lb. At Cermak Produce, Georgia sweet peaches are $.59/lb.

At Aldi’s, mangoes are only $.49/ea, and at Pete’s, limes are 15 for $.98, or less than $.07/ea.

Dairy deals this week include Prairie Farms milk for $2.25/gallon at Fresh Pick, who also have medium eggs for $.89/dozen. Tony’s has extra large eggs for $.99/dozen.

There are some great deals on grocery items this week. Cermak Produce has all varieties of Campbell’s soups for $1/ea, but Pete’s has Campbell’s tomato or chicken noodle for only $.58/ea. Pete’s also has Violi EVOO for $2.98/liter and select Barilla pastas for $.98/lb, a great price. Freshline Foods has Chicken of the Sea solid white tuna for $1.25/can. Bumble Bee chunk light tuna is $.68/can at Pete’s.

Getting in and out of that parking lot at Pete’s, at 3720 W. 95th St., in Evergreen Park, is a real nightmare, but with prices like these it’s worth the aggravation.

This week’s Bargain of the Week is very appropriate for the season. Aldi’s has a 7-quart slow cooker for only $19.99. Menard’s has a 6-quart version for the same price. Perfect for cooking your football chili!

What bargains have you found this week? Share your thoughts in the comments section. See you at the grocery store!

Suddenly Couscous

Under the blazing Sudanese sun, groups of women crouch before a pile of semolina wheat, carefully sprinkling it with water before rolling it out into pellets and passing them through a sieve to make couscous.  For several long days they toil, building a store of food that will be dried then stored, feeding their village for months.

Meanwhile, in America, you open a box, pour it into boiling water and cover and it’s ready five minutes later. What a country!

Couscous – which is part grain, part pasta – has been food staple for more than a
thousand years. It  is most commonly associated with the Middle East, but in fact is also widely used throughout Africa, Europe and Asia.

Couscous with Shish Kabob

Couscous with Shish Kabob

The coucous most commonly available in the United States is pre-steamed then dehydrated, just like instant rice. It can be served hot as the starch portion of a dish, or cold as a salad.

Israeli couscous, which has much larger pearls, is actually more of a pasta like the
Italian orzo.

Around where I live, you typically see a brand called Near East couscous, which comes plain or a variety of flavors. Each box comes with an envelope of powdered flavoring
agents, which I always throw away.

I’ve also bought it in larger packages, usually in Arabic groceries. A word of advice: transfer it immediately to  an airtight plastic container with a lid. The tiny pellets tend to get everywhere.

Couscous has a much different taste and texture than pasta or rice. It is obviously smaller, but to me the flavor is more velvety and nuttier. If I’m serving it hot, I toss it in a little butter then season it with salt and pepper. It is great for a vegetarian entrée, or it pairs well with just about any meat or seafood. I think it has a little more versatility than rice or pasta.

Try substituting couscous where you would use rice or pasta. It can transform an ordinary midweek meal into something more exotic. It’s also relatively inexpensive. I paid $2.64 for a 10 oz box of couscous — which makes enough for at least four people as an accompaniment. But you can find it for less in an Arabic grocery.

I almost always use it as a base for Shish-Ka-Bob because of the cultural thematic unity. In Libya, it is commonly served with braised camel: I’d like to try that!

Add some diced steamed or sautéed vegetables, such as onion, carrot, corn, zucchini, yellow squash, or even broccoli or cauliflower. Pitted and chopped kalamata olives also work nicely.

Here’s a recipe for an easy  couscous salad I like to make. It will stay fresh refrigerated for several days and is great for an on-the-go lunch. Like most grain salads, it tastes even better the second day after the flavors have had time to meld together.

Couscous Salad

1-1/2 cups water or chicken stock

1 cup couscous

2 TBS EVOO

2-3 leaves fresh basil, chopped

6-7 Marinated Kalamata Olives, pitted and rough chop

½ red onion, small dice

½ carrot, small dice

½ red pepper, ribs and seeds removed, diced

1 small tomato, ribs and seeds removed, diced

1 jalapeno, ribs and seeds removed, diced

½ cup flatleaf Italian or curly parsley, chopped

Salt and Cracked Black Pepper to taste

Couscous Salad

Couscous Salad

Bring water or chicken stock to a boil, then stir in couscous and cover. Wait five minutes then fluff with fork. Fold in EVOO, onion, carrot, red pepper, tomato, jalapeno and parsley. Season with S&P to taste. Garnish with sliced basil.

What more exotic grains do you use to spice up a meal? Share your ideas in the comments section.

South Side Grocery Bargains – Week of September 7-13, 2011

Before I get to this week’s South Side shopping bargains, I wanted to recommend an interesting article about new increases in grain and corn prices that are going to directly impact your grocery budget.

The article, which can be found here, states that droughts in Russia and the U.S. redirecting more corn to ethanol production use will result in higher prices for bread, cereal, pasta, sweets, and almost all meats (most animal feed is corn-based) in the coming months.

Among the author’s recommendations is that people start baking their own bread again. I wrote a blog on that very subject, which includes an easy and delicious bread recipe that you can make for less than $1.00/loaf.

Okay, let’s start saving some money!

Dominick’s has Safeway Select EVOO for $5/liter (with Fresh Values card). I’ve used this product before. It tastes good and that’s a great price.

If you have the pantry space, you can bulk up on pastas at GFS Marketplace. Their Primo Gusto house brand of dry pastas are on sale for $2.99 for a 2-1/2 lb bag (or $1.19/lb). Speaking of dry pastas, I’ve noticed some stores recently started replacing 1 lb boxes  with 7 oz packages, making it look like you are paying less, but you are actually getting less for your money. Caveat emptor!

Aldi’s has peaches and plums for $.39/lb. It doesn’t specifically say they are Michigan grown, but I would bet they probably are.

Over at Freshline Foods, Dannon Fruit on the Bottom Yogurt in the 6 oz container is only $.50/each. Grade A Medium eggs are $.79/dozen. Those are smaller than what I normally buy (Grade A Large), but that’s still a great price.

Ultra Foods has Campbell’s soups (chicken noodle or tomato only) for $.59/can. That’s cheaper than the generic brand at most other places. They also have 20 oz. Vitamin Water for $.59/each, but you have to buy 14.

Over at Food 4 Less (when did we start letting Prince name the grocery stores, btw?), fresh pork shoulder picnic roast is on sale for $1.38/lb if you buy the family pack. Could be time to fire up the smoker.

Cermak Produce has California avocados for $.69/each. They have been expensive lately, so this is refreshing news. They also have center cut pork chops for $1.99/lb. I’ve gotten these here before and have been impressed with the quality. Seasoned pork chops are only $1.89/lb. but usually they are seasoned because they are not as fresh.

Pete’s Produce has 14.5 oz cans of whole, diced or stewed tomatoes for only $.38/each, which is a good price for stocking up. California broccoli is available for $.68/lb.

I found this week’s Bargain of the Week at Tony’s Finer Foods, 8630 S. Harlem Ave., in Bridgeview, where whole chickens are only $.69/lb. They also have red or green seedless grapes for $.69/lb, as well as 8 oz. cans of tomato sauce for $.20/each.

I love Tony’s because they have a terrific produce section, and their deli and ethnic foods (mostly Italian) are amazing. But it’s just such a cluster getting in an out of the store because the check out lines feed right into the entrance, then you have to maneuver through the super-crowded deli to get to the produce area. But with deals like this, it’s worth the frustration.

What bargains have you found this week? Share your thoughts in the the comments section. See you at the grocery store!

Grocery Shopping Secrets – How to Avoid Overspending at the Checkout Line

Grocery stores are no longer the innocent corner markets set up by mom and pop. They are now highly complicated marketing machines designed to maximize profitability by drawing shoppers to the highest-profit items and hypnotizing them into reaching for products they don’t really need.

Here’s the top ten ways to improve your odds of overcoming the house advantage created
by sophisticated contemporary grocery store design:

10.   Leave the Kids Home –No matter how stern you want to be, it’s naturally difficult to say no to your child, especially if they start causing a scene. Avoid the drama by leaving them home, if possible. If you must bring them, give them something inexpensive right away – such as a box animal crackers or a juice box – to distract them until you can make your way the checkout counter.  But be careful, you will still have to run the gauntlet of the checkout line, where the most colorfully packaged, overpriced impulse items are right at kid grab level.

9.   Use a Hand Basket – If you’re planning to buy only a few items, reach for the hand basket rather than a shopping cart. You’ll force yourself to carry your purchases  throughout the store, discouraging you from adding items you don’t need. Big, empty shopping carts subconsciously trigger an impulse in shoppers to want to fill them up – which is why shopping carts seem to get bigger every year. If a store doesn’t offer hand baskets, let the manager know you’ll stop shopping there until they get them.

8.   Watch Out for Bells and Whistles – Are there flat screen TVs at the checkouts showing “cooking shows” that are really ads in disguise? Is the wine section elaborately decorated to look like a vineyard? All those extravagant extras are built into the price of your groceries.  Odds are, another store without the glitz will be less expensive.

7.   Read the Signs  – Most stores have “circulars”, or paper ad sheets, at the entrance. These are great for identifying sale items before you start shopping. While walking from your car to the door, make a point of reading any sale signs posted on the store’s windows. Usually, these are the store’s best values, loss leaders designed to lure passers by in from the street.

6.    Compare price/ounce – When comparing different brands of the same item, ignore any “sale” pricing and compare cost per ounce. Stores are legally required to post these below the sale price. You may need a calculator to figure this out and many stores discourage this comparison by making the print very small, so bring your reading glasses.  You’ll be surprised how often a sale is no bargain.

5.    Look for the generic – When it comes to canned or dry items, there’s usually a generic, or “packer brand”, alternative. In many cases, these come from the exact same production line as the name brand, but are less expensive because there are no marketing
and advertising expenses built into the cost of the item.

4.    Don’t shop hungry – It’s a physiological fact: People who have not eaten before going to the store are more likely to load up on unnecessary items. Make sure to eat a little
something so you are not at the mercy of low blood sugar or hunger pangs. Be strong! Your family is depending on you.

3.    Use Store Card – Many big chain stores now offer deep discounts on certain items to customers who use their loyalty cards, which also allow store owners to track your purchases and market directly to your preferences. But the costs of these discounts are
simply added to all the other items that are not discounted. Sign up for these free cards at the big chains, but try to buy only the discounted items. You usually will be able to find the non-discounted items on your list for less somewhere else.

2.   Zone Your List – Grocery stores are like casinos: The more time you spend in them, the more money you’ll spend. Remember, marketing experts work hard to convince you to buy their products. Minimize your exposure by zoning your grocery list for maximum efficiency – group produce with produce, canned goods with canned goods, etc. Also, spend less time shopping by going during the least busy hours  — after dinner or early in the morning, if possible. If you only shop weekend afternoons, odds are you’ll be stuck in an aisle longer and end up buying more items.

1.    Stick to your list – This is the most important rule: If it isn’t on the list, don’t buy it. Carefully create your shopping list before you set out, listing every item you need for the menus you have planned. Before you leave, double check to make sure you don’t already have any of these items. While shopping, if you are tempted to reach for an item not on your list, resist this temptation and make a note to come back for it another time. You’ll be surprised when you get home how much you really didn’t need that item.

Coupons, Who Knew?

I admit it, coupons have never been my thing.

Occasionally, I would half-heartedly wade through the Sunday paper and clip out a few coupons for products we sometimes use. But to me, the whole thing seemed like a lot of
work for very little benefit.

And then there’s the embarrassment of pulling out my coupons at the checkout line, inconveniencing the cashier and causing shoppers behind me to roll their eyes.

What’s next, a coin purse?

Well, that was all before our stagnant economy forced us to reconsider every aspect of our spending. Coupons are now a necessity: deal with it.

Fortunately, using coupons is a lot easier than I thought. It turns out there’s a whole community of people in the same boat, so there are sophisticated resources available to share information about what’s on sale where, and how to maximize the use of coupons and other discounts.

Tap into some of these resources you can easily slash your monthly food bill with very little effort.

For example, instead of going through Sunday’s coupons page by page every week, just write the date on the front page of the coupon packet and throw it in a pile. You can save these up week after week.

Then, when it’s time to shop, go to a website that catalogues every one of these coupons –  http://couponmom.com or http://hotcouponworld.com, for starters – and search for the items you already are planning to buy. These free sites tell you the dates these coupons appeared and when they expired. Go to that date’s packet and clip only the coupons you need.

These cataloguing sites also list any online coupons currently available, either from
individual stores or directly from manufacturers.

Easy, right?

Instead of searching through store sale pages (nine came in our mail Monday), try visiting a site that already has done the comparison shopping for you, such as http://www.facebook.com/ChicagoFrugalista or http://moneysavingmom.com/. There’s also forums for users to share money-saving tips and special offers they have
found.

Another great tip is to not throw away those printed coupons some stores give you with your receipt after you check out. These are called Catalina deals and are usually future discounts for products you just bought – so you’ll likely be buying them again soon. Other times, they are for cash or percentage discounts on future purchases – such as $10 off your next purchase of $40 or more.

Catalina Deal

Catalina Deal

Here’s some other great coupon tips I found:

  • Use coupons only if the item already is on sale. Grocery stores typically put items on sale once every six weeks. Wait long enough, and you’ll be able to substantially increase your savings.

  • Don’t worry if coupons expire. There will always be more coupons.
  • Look for stores that offer double coupons, either every day or on a particular day of the week.
  • Obviously, don’t buy something just because you have a coupon for it. An exception would be if the coupon makes the product free, such as when a double coupon combined with a sale price brings the cost to at or below $0.00. This actually happens.
  • Don’t throw out your junk mail anymore, you can’t afford it. Instead, mine it for treasures. Some of those offers you won’t find anywhere else.
  • To minimize embarrassment, find the right checkout line. Younger, less experience male cashiers typically will check you out quickest and with minimal fuss. Older, female, veteran cashiers hate coupons and are  more likely to slow  you down, according to one coupon website.
  • Sign up online for free sites such as Living Social, Groupon, or CouponMob. Sure, you’ll get a lot of junk emails, but occasionally there will be steep discounts on products or services you really use.
  • Planning to eat at a restaurant? Go to Coupons.com, input your zip code under “Restaurant Deals” and up pops dozens of local places offering deep discounts on gift certificates (such as $20 for a $50 gift certificate at Leona’s in Oak Lawn, one of our favorites). There’s usually a  minimum purchase, but if you’re planning on dining there anyway, that’s free money.

Let’s face facts: Times are tough right now. We can no longer afford the luxury of ignoring the discounts offered to us every day. Fortunately, there’s an entire subculture out there anxious to share information to make using these tools simpler.

Now, where’s my coin purse?