Lou's Clues: The skinny on fat savings

I read a ton of advice on how to save money in the kitchen, and most of the advice comes from the very areas that make us spend more money!

I mean really, an appliance company telling us to buy a freezer so we can save money buying bulk, or, the mailed coupons that tell us that we can save 50 cents on a box of cereal, or with this coupon code, we can buy 10 boxes and save $5!

That's great, assuming I have any use for those 10 boxes, but most of the time... well, let's just take a look at some of the more practical things this old chef does to save.

1) You Can't Clip Yourself to Retirement Savings

I'm sure we've all heard of that person (usually a friend of a friend or someone's great aunt) who claims to save upwards of 90% on their grocery bill merely by clipping coupons. Well that's just fine if you want to exist on hygiene products at half price, plastic wrap at 20 cents off, and half a dozen large containers of cleanser, but let's get real.

Often, what you see a coupon for is not what you need, is a pricier brand than you normally buy, or it's in a quantity that you won't use up before it spoils.

Instead of planning your shopping from the pages of the local SuperSaver, I suggest working from the other direction. Make a list and stick to it. After your weekly menu is created, then turn to the coupons, and if you find one for an item you really need (and if the national brand is still less than a generic after the coupon price), then proceed to the scissors and clip.

This isn't to say that if you see a good deal on a food item, you shouldn't adjust part of your menu to accommodate it -- we spent three weeks doing exactly that with our ham on sale a few months ago. However, don't try to cobble together a meal from three jars of pickles, two shrimp rings, and four packs of chocolate pudding, just because they're on sale. Especially when you'll save money by buying more cost-effective items that can create a meal considered edible outside of college dorms.

2) What's in a Name: National Brands vs. Generic.

I know there are people out there who honestly believe that the national brands must be better than a store brand because they cost more or have cooler mascots in their TV commercial. Here's the skinny on this one: I have compared many canned veggies available on the shelf today, and the differences are minor.

Take green beans. The national brand might advertise on the can "fancy" or an artificial grade. When compared to, say, a leading dollar store brand, the difference is that the "brand" is often made up of the center cuts of the green bean, whereas the off brand one might have the end pieces of the same string bean. Big deal. Veggies are veggies, and unless you're buying fresh and in season from your local farmer's market, your best deal is with the store-brand frozen variety.

Frozen veggies are usually left to ripen fully, then picked, processed and flash-frozen, typically within 24 hours. This process is the same no matter what name gets slapped on the label. The generic, or store brands, don't have the advertising and possibly the same processing costs that the big brands have, thus the savings.

My favorite example of this? Dollar General. I used to swear by their prices, but now that they advertise, send out circulars, and have a cup car in Nascar, their prices have shot right up. I still think their baked beans are fabulous, but they were even better when I could get them for a buck.

3) Watch Your Waste.

Notice I said "waste," as in what you are throwing out, not "waist" as in what may be rapidly expanding on some of us. I have preached until blue in the snout: don't throw what you can use.

Save all the trimmings from your veggies and stash them in the freezer. When you have a full bag, hit up the store and treat your family to a chicken dinner. Then toss the leftover chicken and bones into a giant pot with your leftover veggies and voila -- you have chicken stock without having to buy bouillon cubes for flavor.

Not a fan of soup? Anything can be recreated as a leftover feast. Grab that leftover roast, chop it up good, add BBQ sauce and you have a great late night sandwich. Or shred it and add small cubed potatoes, and put them into a frypan in the morning for some great pot roast hash.

Stretch your food dollar by stretching your food. You won't be sorry, and you may even come up with a new signature dish that you can share with your friends and family.

Chef Louie hosts
Good Day Food & Wine, a nationally syndicated weekend radio show. A culinary veteran, Chef Louie pledges to empower you in the kitchen and supermarket, and help you eat better, entertain better and keep more of that hard-earned money close to home. Sign up for his free e-newsletter here.
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