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How To Save Money On Your Grocery Bill This Year

Best-before dates are not your best friends.

January was a wild ride as far as the markets were concerned. At one point last month, you could have bought a barrel of oil for the same price as three heads of cauliflower!

We may already be dreaming of the locally grown bounty that late spring and summer will bring, but until then, most of our produce is brought in from California, which means we are paying U.S. prices for it. As the loonie's worth continues to hover around 70 cents U.S., we are paying much more for our fruits and vegetables.

It is estimated that the average household will pay an extra $345 on food this year. And that's on top of the increases from last year. But there are a few ways you can save some money on your grocery bill this year. Yes, save money. Here's how:

1. Waste Less

It sounds simple, but it is challenging not to waste food. About 40 per cent of all food produced is wasted, and about half of that is happening in our homes. The average household of just over two people wastes about $1,500 a year in food.

To reduce food waste, make a meal plan for the week and buy only what you need for the perishable items, such as produce and meat. Learn how to properly store fruits and vegetables so that they last longer, and save the fruits and veggies that last the longest for the end of the week. Produce such as apples, pears, cabbage, carrots and sweet potatoes can be stored for longer than other items.

If the quality of your fruits or vegetables deteriorates, don't throw them out! Instead, toss limp greens into your smoothie; freeze brown bananas for baking or banana ice cream; add less-than-perfect vegetables to your soup; make an apple/pear sauce; or blend wilted herbs into a pesto. There are so many options besides the compost!

Ensure you use every edible part of your produce. For example, use beet roots in a stew, and sauté the greens and stems with soy sauce, garlic and tahini for a nice side dish.

Be creative when it comes to food scraps. Keep a large Ziploc bag in your freezer and add vegetable scraps to it on an ongoing basis to make homemade stock. Anything goes: onion, onion peels, celery, carrot ends, leftover herbs and their stems, the tops of leeks, kale ribs, mushroom stems, and so on. If you roast a chicken or turkey, keep the leftover bones in the bag as well to add flavour to your stock. For extra flavour, roast the bones first.

While reducing your food waste is very important, try not to overeat just so you don't have to throw food away. Instead, plan ahead to use up leftovers the next day.

2. Learn How To Interpret Best-Before Dates

Just because a best before date has passed doesn't mean you have to throw the item out. Best-before dates are mandated on foods that are fresh for less than 90 days. This relates to freshness and quality — not safety. However, you still have to use your food safety skills. If in doubt, throw it out.

Foods past their best-before date may also have lost some of their nutritional value. Note the difference between best-before dates and expiration dates (on items such as baby formula and meal replacements), which are related to safety.

3. Prioritize Your Spending

On average, Canadians spend less than 10 per cent of their income on food, which is quite modest when compared to what many other countries spend on food (some spend 30 per cent or more of their income on food).

I love a glass of wine with dinner and a morning latte as much as anyone else does. But if your food budget is tight, save these luxuries for special occasions. Make buying healthy food a priority instead. Suffering from a chronic disease because of a poor diet will end up costing you a lot more in the long run.

4. Make A Budget And Stick To It

With tip three in mind, decide how much you can afford to spend on food each month and stick to your budget. Budgeting is tedious, but knowing how much you spend on food, including eating out, is important.

Try this: dedicate a credit card (with benefits at grocery stores) to food-related purchases. This makes it easy to compare each month and pick out problem areas, like eating out too often or buying too many $5 lattes.

Seeing these costs added up at the end of the month can be just the motivation you need to change your spending habits. Also, try not to shop when you are hungry, as this often leads to buying foods you don't need.

5. Be Flexible And Eat With The Seasons

If your usual shopping routine includes cauliflower and it happens to go up to $8 a head, you're best off finding a replacement. Why not stay within the brassica family and try broccoli or cabbage instead? A hot oven completely transforms broccoli into something wonderfully unrecognizable. Roast it with some garlic, lemon juice, lemon zest and olive oil, and then top it with sunflower seeds and Parmesan for a decadent side dish.

Keep staple recipes on hand for the winter months that use seasonal produce, and learn to adapt recipes to reduce costs. If your go-to salad includes pecans, but walnuts are on sale, switch it up. Being flexible and knowing how to make substitutions in recipes can save you money.

6. Learn New Cooking Skills

Cooking on a budget takes skill. You have to know how to make things that taste good without buying expensive pre-made or processed foods. Learn to cook dried pulses, like beans, chickpeas and lentils. Practice making air-popped popcorn to replace salty snacks, such as potato chips. Choose hot cereal (or overnight oats) made from scratch over pricier cold cereal. Learn to cook cheaper cuts of meat to make them tender.

Invest in a basic cooking class or cookbook tailored to cooking on a budget. Once you have increased your cooking skills, it will be easier for you to buy what's on sale and turn it into something that's nutritious and delicious.

7. Explore The Grocery Store Aisles

Leave the produce section. That may sound very un-dietitian of me to say, but there are some nutritious gems to be found in the other aisles when fresh produce gets too pricey. And frozen fruits and vegetables can actually be cheaper and more nutritious in the winter. Fresh produce may have less nutrients than frozen if it is picked before ripening or if it takes a long journey from the field to your fridge. You can often find canned fruits and vegetables in those aisles for a bargain, too.

8. Get Nutrient Bang For Your Buck

Buy nutrient dense foods that will provide plenty of nutrition with each bite. Skip the ultra-processed foods like snack cakes and boxed mac and cheese, and try making some nutritious swaps. For example, try having bulgur or barley instead of white rice.

Follow these tips and tricks this year, and you will find yourself spending less money on food, not more. Invest in your health and prioritize eating well — it is worth every penny.

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