Simple tips to keep the quality of your food up and the prices down


The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released a report recently 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 Farmers' 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.

1. Look for alternatives to meat: This may sound like an obvious one, but replacing meat with vegetable sources of protein such as 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 (EWG), a nonprofit organization, recommends reducing meat-based meals by two additional meals per week, replacing them with lentils or beans for significant savings.

2. Skip pre-packaged meals: 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, according to the EWG.

3. 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. Thinking ahead may help you avoid buying more than what you need.

4. Preserve! 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 National Center for Home Food Preservation, a government resource that provides guides on safe canning, pickling, and other forms of preserving.

5. Clip coupons: This is another 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 organic brands like Cascadian Farm, Muir Glen, and Amy's often have coupons attached to their packaging.