Archive for Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Store bargains aren’t always what they seem

February 20, 2008

Strolling through the supermarket last week, I spotted a cherry pie on sale for $2.99. If I pick and pit the cherries, I can make a cherry pie at less cost, but if I have to use canned pie filling, I can't beat that price.

The $2.99 pie was passable, for a mass-produced dessert, though it wouldn't win any ribbons at the county fair. This item may have been a loss leader, an item set at an artificially low price to draw in customers who would pay full price for other merchandise, such as the vanilla ice cream that goes with the pie. The pie's pull date also was far in the future, which meant it was loaded with preservatives.

But at $2.99, I didn't ask questions.

Buying groceries these days, when a gallon of milk is $3 or more and a dozen eggs on sale for $1.50 seems like a steal, taxes the wits of even the savviest consumer. Filling the grocery cart is nothing more than a series of strategic moves in which shoppers try to beat the supermarket at its own pricing game. We all know who wins in the end, but the shopper who must stretch every grocery dollar as far as it will go has no choice but to play.

The consumers who face impossible choices when food prices are high are those who must feed a family. As an empty-nester, I grouse about feeling nibbled to death every time I enter a grocery store, but my discomfort is no match for the shopping experience of, say, a mother feeding a household that includes three teenagers.

While the temptation for people buying groceries on a budget will always be to buy the greatest quantity of meals for the lowest price, that isn't always the most prudent move. What often gets lost in the quest to buy the most and pay the least is the nutrition value of the cheap food, particularly where prepared and processed food is concerned.

The $1 frozen pizza specials that pop up every so often are a case in point. Consider also this gem from a grocery ad in last week's paper: 59 cent Banquet TV dinners, but you had to buy 10. Such volume discounts are tantalizing, but the nutrition content of such food items, which are high in carbs and preservatives, should give shoppers pause.

With a bit of finesse, even the most budget-conscious consumer can find alternatives. If you shop the meat sales, you never have to pay more than $2 a pound for meat. Granted, you won't be eating steak, but so what?

Pork is on sale this time of year. Although shoppers may have to front the money for a loin, boneless pork shops can be had as low as $1.88 a pound. When on sale, chuck roasts also fit into this category of below-$2 meat. A chuck roast can be eaten as a post roast or used in stews and soups. In any case, a moderately priced piece of meat can be stretched through several meals.

Chicken also is an option, although the real economy is in a whole chicken, on sale lately for 68 cents a pound, and in dark meat pieces, meaning legs and thighs, which also come in under $1.

If the price of fresh produce is frightening, go back to basics. Week in and week out, the best value in fresh vegetables is the noble but underappreciated carrot. A 2-pound bag is often priced under $1. Carrots offer more bang nutrition-wise, and they keep a long time in the crisper drawer.

The point is to shop wisely for the components of a balanced diet, to plan menus that will provide nutrition as well as low cost. If you take home a $2.99 pie every once in a while, at least it will be capping off a good meal.

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