A family of five now spends an average of $135 a week on groceries, according to the Food Marketing Institute's U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends report for 2008 released this week. But rising fuel costs and other economic concerns could force that grocery bill to climb even higher.

Consumers are already feeling the pinch of high food costs on their pocketbooks and many have changed their eating and shopping habits, the survey found.

Consider:

• 71 percent of American consumers say they're cooking more at home and eating out less often;

• American families now eat at restaurants 1.2 times per week that's down from 1.3 times per week in 2007 and 1.5 times per week in 2006;

• 67 percent of consumers say they're buying fewer luxury foods;

• 60 percent now buy more store-brand items;

• 58 percent eat more leftovers;

• Consumers now make fewer trips each week to the grocery store -- less than two per week;

• 37 percent of consumers list "low prices" as the main reason for where they shop that's up from 31 percent in 2007.

Steps to take

Budget busters

These foods cost more and some will increase the fat, sugar and salt in your diet:
  • Frozen vegetables with seasonings and sauces
  • Out-of-season fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Ready-made or ready-to-bake cookies, cakes, pies and buns
  • Sugar-coated cereals
  • Cream, ice cream, cream cheese, yogurt and specialty cheeses
  • Many ready-to-eat dishes
  • Some cuts of meats, poultry and fish
  • Snack foods, such as potato, corn or cheese chips or puffs
  • Soft drinks and candy
Source: The University of Maine Cooperative Extension

As concerns about rising food costs continue to grow, consumers can take some simple steps to save money on their grocery bills.

The first is to plan your meals, says Kate Yerxa, a registered and licensed dietitian with the University of Maine's Cooperative Extension.

"Make a plan for the week either starting with dinners or dinners and lunches," she says. "Look at your family's schedule and plan your meals according. You also want to plan for a 'leftovers night.' If you make a big casserole, you can have it another night.

"The biggest thing is to plan your meals."

The next money-saving tip is to make a list of the items you need for those meals.

"Check your pantry to see what you have on hand and make your list from there," Yerxa says. "Use a list at the grocery store and stick to that list. Try to avoid impulse buying."

Yerxa also cautions consumers to use coupons carefully.

"They can be deceiving and you have to compare prices to be sure you're getting a deal," she says. "Is a coupon for a brand item, for example, going to make the price less than a store brand?

"You also want to be sure the coupon is for an item that you need and use. You don't want to spend money on something you don't use. Coupons can be a great or not so great."

Dollar stretchers

Yerxa also recommends these tips to stretch your food dollars:

• Shop alone when possible. "You're more focused when you're alone," she says. "If you have children, they might want you to buy a certain item that is targeted at their age group;"

• Avoid prepackaged items. They tend to be more expensive. "If you look at prepackaged snacks, like microwave popcorn, what you're really paying for convenience," Yerxa says. "It would be cheaper to make popcorn with a hot air popper. You can make a large bag of popcorn and use it for snacks in a lunch box. It all goes back to convenience."

• Limit foods like soda pop, candy, alcohol, coffee and tea. These items are high in cost and low in nutrients;

• When shopping for milk, cheese and yogurt, buy the largest containers you will use. Large containers usually cost less;

• Buy cereal in large boxes. Small, individual packages are more expensive;

• Buy fruits and vegetables that are in season. They will be less expensive. "But if fresh produce is something your family tends not to eat, don't buy it," Yerxa says. "You don't want to waste money on something your family doesn't eat;"

• When planning a meal, look for lower cost items. "Consider lentils, dry beans, and even eggs," Yerxa says. "And remember that it's okay to plan breakfast for dinner. You don't have to focus all your meals around meat;"

• Consider lower priced meats. Ground beef or turkey, chicken, beef chuck steak, and turkey parts are usually good buys. Try combining small amounts of lower-cost meats, poultry, and fish with bread, cereal, rice, pasta or potatoes for main dishes. Dry beans, dry peas, eggs and peanut butter can also be used in casseroles, soups, salads and snacks. And lentils and dry beans can be cooked in a crock pot;

• Avoid vegetables sold with seasonings and sauces. Plain frozen and canned vegetables often cost much less;

• Ask a store manager about any weekly sales;

• Limit the number of trips you make to the grocery store. "You don't want to keep going back to store everyday." Yerxa says. "There's a tendency to say 'I need a gallon of milk' and then walk out $20 later;"

• Compare prices. This includes store brands versus name brands. "It's all comparison shopping," Yerxa says. "You have to look at the unit prices." Some consumers carry calculators to help them determine the lowest unit prices;

• Buy and freeze bread when it's on sale. "The cost of bread is increasing due to the cost of flour," Yerxa says. "But bread has such great health benefits. If you find it on sale, buy it and freeze it;"

• Make your own snack mixes. "Instead of buying prepackaged cereal and nut mixes, make your own," Yerxa says;

• Buy regular rice, oats, and cereal. The instant ones cost more than twice as much per serving;

• Plant a garden. Consumers can start with something as simple as growing a few herbs. Many consumers also plan community gardens;

• Research the cost of bulk items. "This is again where you need to figure out the unit price," Yerxa says. "Sometimes the warehouse prices are not less expensive than store prices; sometimes they're a great deal. You also want to be sure the items you're buying in bulk are ones your family uses and that you have adequate storage for them."

• Track your food costs. "This should include the food you eat at home and any food eaten away from home," Yerxa says. "I think people will be surprised to see how much they spend (on food) away from home and how much they can save by not buying things on the go. That $10 you spend on lunch could be spent on fruits and veggies for the week."

The increasing costs of groceries, however, might trigger a positive trend.

"Food retailers can turn these economic challenges into benefits for consumers and the industry," says FMI President and CEO Tim Hammonds. "As people eat out less often, we can help revive the great American home family meal tradition. This presents retailers an opportunity to win back a share of the meal-time market long owned by restaurants, and it provides American families' important health, economic and social benefits."

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