The U.S. Department of Agriculture released a report late last week predicting an increase in food prices, especially among animal products. That's thanks to a hard crop year in the Midwest, where droughts drove corn and soybean prices up. Those two items have a domino effect on all other food prices, including meat and dairy, as corn and soybeans are used for animal feed.
Among the predictions: Beef and veal will rise by an estimated 5 percent by 2013, pork will rise 3.5 percent and dairy will rise 4.5 percent during the same period.
Couple that with the premium health food seekers pay for farmer's market fare and organic staples, and you're looking at one whopper of a grocery bill. So what can you do? Here are some top tips to keep food prices down and quality up.
Find Meat Alternatives
This may sound like an obvious one, but replacing meat with vegetable sources of protein like rice, beans and lentils, will always help reduce costs. That goes double during this period, when the USDA specifically predicts a price hike in animal protein. The Environmental Working Group recommends reducing meat-based meals by <a href="http://static.ewg.org/reports/2012/goodfood/pdf/goodfoodonatightbudget.pdf" target="_hplink">two additional meals per week</a>, replacing them with lentils or beans for significant savings.
Skip Prepared Foods
Not only are boxed, frozen meals, pizzas and burritos more likely to be processed and laden with excess sugar, fat and salt, they're also generally more expensive, <a href="http://static.ewg.org/reports/2012/goodfood/pdf/goodfoodonatightbudget.pdf" target="_hplink">according to the EWG</a>.
Plan With A Shopping List
Grocery stores are designed to encourage more purchases, so walking in without a game plan can be dangerous for your bottom line. Instead, come equipped with a list full of staples that get you the most bang for your buck. This WebMD list of <a href="http://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/features/cheap-healthy-15-nutritious-foods-about-2-dollars" target="_hplink">15 healthful foods for under $2</a> is a good place to start.
Think About The Nutrient You Want
Want fiber? Black beans and popcorn may be the cheapest sources. Need to up your protein intake? Go for canned tuna. For a more complete list of swaps, <a href="http://fitbie.msn.com/slideshow/8-ridiculously-cheap-healthy-foods" target="_hplink">check out Fitbie's suggestions</a>.
Buying in bulk is a cheap way to get a lot of food in your larder, but healthful fruits and veggies can go bad before you can eat them. That's where pickling, jarring and canning can come in handy -- it's a cheap, healthful way to keep seasonal produce all year round. Start by checking out the <a href="http://nchfp.uga.edu/" target="_hplink">National Center for Home Food Preservation</a>, a government resource that provides guides on safe canning, pickling and other forms of preserving.
Another form of preservation, freezing is a good option for perishable items like meat and cheese, in addition to produce. The <a href="http://static.ewg.org/reports/2012/goodfood/pdf/goodfoodonatightbudget.pdf" target="_hplink">EWG also points out</a> that freezing allows buyers to bring home family-sized packs that are on sale, further helping with savings.
Dried beans are cheaper than canned. Dry milk, mixed with water, makes <a href="http://static.ewg.org/reports/2012/goodfood/pdf/goodfoodonatightbudget.pdf" target="_hplink">a cheaper and no less healthful</a> substitute for recipes. Get bulk bags of dry oats for oatmeal, rather than the more perishable boxes of cereal. Dried fruits are another way to keep vitamin-packed goodies on your shelves for longer periods.
Grow Your Own
Though there's an initial investment in starting a garden -- the seedlings, planting boxes, fertilizers, tools and other instruments do add up -- there are incredible gains, too: a steady source of organic, fresh fruits and veggies. If you don't have a backyard, rooftops, balconies and community plots work just fine. Want to learn how to create your own veggie garden? <a href="http://www.realsimple.com/home-organizing/gardening/outdoor/garden-starting-checklist-00000000002180/index.html" target="_hplink"><em>Real Simple</em> has some good tips</a>.
This is an obvious one, but so many people don't do it. Using coupons is a great way to get organic and other pricier health foods at a discount. And, as BankRate points out, organic brands like Cascadian Farm, Muir Glen and Amy's <a href="http://www.bankrate.com/brm/news/cheap/20040901a3.asp#15" target="_hplink">often have coupons attached to their packaging</a>.