It's not unusual to have a severe case of sticker shock at the grocery store. Sliced deli meat skirts $10 a pound. Chicken is now as pricey as steak and a bag of prewashed spinach is like a precious metal. Cereal, chips and cheese also run up the bill pretty quickly.
Get ready for prices to jump again and stay up through 2013, mostly because of oil prices and the severe drought in the Midwest. We haven't seen much drought effect yet, but the damage to commodity crops, chiefly corn and soy beans, will eventually boost meat and poultry prices because of the rising cost of feed, the Agriculture Department reports. It'll take about 10 months for consumers to see the effect on processed foods, including cereals, frozen dinners, chips, cookies and other snack foods. According to statistics from the Labor Department, nearly 25 percent of our grocery budgets is spent on processed food.
Since the U.S. economy began to sputter in 2008, shoppers have become coupon fanatics and lovers of buy-one-get-one-free deals (the "BOGO"). Bulk shopping and regular stops at big-box discount stores have also helped keep the weekly bill manageable.
Some of you have built-in radar for low prices and the stores that offer them. The rest of us need help. Here are some tips:
Keep a stocked pantry.
Or at least know what's in yours. If you buy staples on sale, you'll always have the building blocks for meals. This will save you money over time. Also, assess your shelf-stable and frozen foods. You'll likely find items you didn't know you had. Cans of tuna fish and condensed cream soups plus boxes of dried pasta? You've got tuna noodle casserole.
• Use less meat in recipes.
Meat is pricey and nutrition experts say we eat too much of it anyway. Unless you are feeding a bunch of marauding teenage boys, you can reduce quantities by 25 percent in most casseroles and pasta dishes. Add more vegetables for bulk, flavor and nutrition.
Going to the store with no list or plan is asking for trouble. You'll spend more money and will be casting about for menu ideas once you get home. Plan meals, keeping in mind the sales and what's in season. Grocery store websites plus newspaper ads will tell you the week's deals. Know before you go.
Seriously, kids add to the grocery bill by begging for special treats and other stuff not on your list like coloring books, toy cars and rubber balls — or even iTunes gift cards. Even the sternest of parents can be worn down. It's not just children who can throw you off your game. Beware of the spouse with a wandering eye for European ice cream and premium beer.
Buy store brands.
Canned and frozen foods, staples like sugar and flour, and condiments are cheaper and usually just as good — maybe better — than name brands. Get over your loyalty issues. Sometimes, store brands are cheaper even when you have a coupon for a name brand.
• DIY fruits and veggies.
Cut vegetables and fruits yourself. The more that is done for you, the more you'll pay. Though it's not produce, chicken is a good example of this: Boneless, skinless breasts cost more than skin-on, bone-in breasts. You're paying for convenience and labor.
Shop high and low.
The most expensive items on the shelves tend to be at eye level. Look up and down for better deals.
• Think outside the (cereal) box.
Start getting your family used to something other than cereal for breakfast in case prices do spike in coming months. Even with a hike in prices, eggs are still a bargain. Scramble them and mix with refried beans and salsa for a breakfast burrito. Other alternatives include toast with peanut butter, apples and cheese sticks, fruit and tofu smoothies, even leftovers.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8586.