Cost doesn’t tell the whole story. You can lower your food bill but end up getting less for your money. Sometimes the more expensive food turns out to be the bigger bargain. And we all have different definitions of value. For some people, the extra cost of organic vegetables is worth it to them. Other appreciate the value of high-quality oil or flour.
Here are some things you need to take into account when you are comparing prices at the grocery store.
- Cost per serving. This is a simple way of looking at an item. A whole chicken might make you two, three, ten, or twenty servings, depending on how you cook it. It doesn’t matter if you calculate meals according to individuals or a family meal, as long as you are consistent. If you serve it with frozen peas, calculate how many servings you will get out of the package. Don’t forget leftovers.
- Calories. To maintain our weight, or in the case of children, to grow, we need a certain number of calories each day. There usually isn’t much variation in our caloric intake from day to day, and adding twenty extra grams of food a day would make us gain several pounds over the course of a year. Our food budget needs to cover the minimum amount of calories that we need. But food with excess calories should be avoided.
- Nutritional value. Very poor people will choose the cheapest calories, like white rice or flour, to satisfy their appetites. Foods like vegetables will be second choice, especially if they are hard to find or out of season. We should also look for a variety of foods as close to their natural state as possible. If brown rice costs the same as white (it should, but unfortunately doesn’t), brown is the better value because it has more vitamins and fiber.
- Cooking costs. To continue the analogy of brown rice vs. white, you’ll need to factor in the longer cooking time for brown rice. The cost can be reduced by using a pressure cooker, cooking in large quantities, or cooking in the same pot or oven with the other parts of a meal. You can buy pre-cooked brown rice, but it will usually cost more and be less nutritious.
- Convenience. Sometimes we do need to pay extra for convenience. If paying for the butcher to cut up the chicken means you’ll skip the grocery rotisserie chicken, it may be worth it. On the other hand, convenience often means lower value. All of the processing done in the factory means the food is less fresh and the vitamins have been lost. Adding vitamins, like in children’s foods, isn’t the same as getting them straight from the source.
- Unwanted extras. Often when we buy processed food we pay for extras that we don’t need. Some brands of cheap tomato paste contain glucose and fructose (sugars). I almost never add sugar to meals with tomatoes, but if I did I would want to be in control of the amount. And since tomatoes cost more than sugar it’s safe to assume that that sugar is overpriced. Other unwanted, cheap additives that you may or may not want include soy (in ground meat), starches (yogurts), corn (everything), food colors, preservatives, and sodium, and MSG. The cost of these foods to your health may never be known.
- Waste. Some of the food we buy ends up in the garbage. Using chicken skin and bones for stock will add value to your chicken, but if you don’t eat, they have no value for you. Hidden waste can come from buying more than we need (even if we eat it!).
- Disposal. If you live in an area where you pay according to the amount of garbage you generate, you’ll pay more attention to packaging. If you buy disposable garbage bags, more garbage may mean more expense. Convenience foods tend to have excess packaging, both for freshness and to take up more room on the shelf. My son noticed that the larger package of chips actually contained fewer grams of the product.
- Travel time and expense. If you are paying for fuel to get to the store, you must count this as part of your food expense. It can be cut down by making fewer trips, carpooling, or getting food delivered.
Have I forgotten anything? What is important to you when you compare prices at the store?