Grocery bills have been going up every month, with no sign of stopping.
“I like to find bright spots, but it's hard to find bright spots right now. We're in a tough time,” said agricultural economist Zoe Plakias, an assistant professor at Ohio State University.
“Prices across the board are higher,” she said. “Early in the year, I might have said, if pork or beef is expensive, you might buy chicken. But now, chicken has gone up, in part probably because people have switched from beef or pork. It's a little bit of a whack-a-mole.”
Year over year, food prices have increased about 10%, with more of a hit likely to come later in the year.
“The forecast range for 2022 for some categories, such as meats (including hot dogs and lunch meats), poultry, eggs, dairy products, fats and oils and cereals and bakery products, is now revised upward to be in the double digits,” Plakias said. “It's very hard right now to capture all the things that are happening. And this is on top of the inflation that we've seen the past couple years.”
Food prices: Why do groceries cost so much?
The causes for food inflation are multiple. Most recently, Russia's invasion of Ukraine impacted oil and gas prices, which have only slowly started to come down.
Fuel is used both in agricultural production and transportation, so it affects grocery prices.
In addition, supply chain issues are still impacting the production of food.
“I always like to remind folks that even if you, as a food processor, can access all the ingredients that you need, it may still be that a part that you need for your assembly line or your meat-cutting facility or whatever, is stuck in a container somewhere. Those supply chain issues can rear their heads in ways that we might not think of right away,” Plakias said.
Plus, "avian influenza in the U.S. and elsewhere is also impacting supply of poultry and eggs, and contributing to higher prices," she said.
Saving money on food: This website can help
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services have created a website that is useful for everyone, regardless of whether a family is receiving government assistance.
The website celebrateyourplate.org provides easy, healthy, economical recipes, with an emphasis on fruits and vegetables.
“It is designed for people who are needing to stretch their food dollars,” said Jenny Lobb, an educator with the Ohio State University Extension in Franklin County.
“All of the recipes on the website are designed to be low-cost and fairly easy, with no fancy equipment required. They feature fruits and vegetables. They're healthy and low-cost, and we like to think that they're tasty and appealing.”
The website offers tips for grocery shopping, cooking and gardening, and includes hundreds of recipes for meals and snacks, including 5-way Cincy chili, after-school hummus, banana split oatmeal, black bean soup, broccoli salad and more.
Lobb also recommends shopping local this time of year.
Summer produce provides a healthy, affordable option
“We're right in the middle of peak harvest season here in Ohio. It's a good time to look for what's available and what's on sale in the fresh produce section or at the farmers market," she said.
"A lot of the farmers markets in central Ohio have programs where you can use your SNAP benefit and double your food dollars. I always try to get farm-fresh corn. I'll even freeze that to use throughout the year because it's more flavorful than frozen corn from the grocery store.”
For those who would like to prepare or preserve local produce, the Ohio Extension Service's “Ohioline” has dozens of fact sheets on preparing and preserving foods such as greens or tomatoes, as well as recipes for salsa or sauerkraut, and information on saving money with coupons or storing food in the refrigerator.
On the other hand, Lobb says, fresh isn't always necessarily the way to go.
“Fresh, frozen, canned all count. Look for the best ways to get fruit and vegetables in your diet. Oftentimes in the winter, frozen or canned may actually be more nutritious, because those items are picked at their peak of freshness and preserved right away. “
Consider a meatless meal
Lobb also recommends that those looking to save money consider the occasional meatless meal.
“You don't have to go totally vegetarian. But if you're looking to save money, maybe choose a couple days a week to cook a meal with an inexpensive protein like beans.”
Tricia Wheeler, owner of The Seasoned Farmhouse, a Clintonville cooking school, has also been thinking about how to help cooks save money. When she had time off from teaching during the pandemic, she developed the “Peaceful Dinners” book and system, which gives cooks menus to take them through the week on a single shopping list, with a 30-minute prep time for each meal and no wasted food.
“I've been teaching cooking classes at The Seasoned Farmhouse in Columbus for the last 11 years and I had always envisioned creating a system for people to make dinnertime easier. I had just never had the long stretch of time I needed to do it until quarantine,” Wheeler said.
“The system is that you have a menu for the week and you use up all the ingredients that you buy,” she said. “I think a lot of people walk around the grocery store kind of aimlessly and not know what to buy. People told me, 'I buy all these ingredients, and I don't know how to use them up. I waste food. I spend too much on my grocery bills and I come home and I don't know what to make.'”
The menus are heavy on vegetables, and often make use of ingredients cooked ahead of time and used more than once. A sample week, for example, uses brown rice cooked ahead for both fried rice and Mexican stuffed peppers.
“The goal was to have great recipes,” Wheeler said. “And to give people peace around the table.”
10 tips for lowering your grocery bill
For suggestions on how to save money on groceries, we turned to Tricia Wheeler, owner of The Seasoned Farmhouse, a Clintonville cooking school. Wheeler offers these tips:
• Know what ingredients you have on hand and build weekly menus and shopping lists around these items before you shop.
• When a favorite ingredient you use often is on sale, stock up!
• Vegetarian cooking is less expensive and has good health benefits — go meatless more often.
• When fruits and vegetables are on sale, they are often in season — buy those.
• Eggs are a great protein and cost-effective — omelets make a fantastic dinner with a salad.
• Fill your freezer with things you like to eat — frozen produce costs less and stays fresh longer. Chef tip: Thaw frozen vegetables in a colander, toss with olive oil, and roast at 425 degrees on a baking sheet for about 20 minutes.
• Make extra when you cook at night, so you have leftovers for lunch the next day.
• Make your snacks — popcorn, dips with fresh veggies and homemade salsa.
• Cook a grain, a skillet of greens and beans once a week, and you will have great building blocks for a variety of meals.
• Improve your cooking skills and don’t ever waste anything.
MEXICAN STUFFED PEPPERS
Makes 8 servings
This is an easy and delicious way to have a Mexican meal without flour or corn tortillas, and it can be made vegetarian by omitting the ground chicken.
Recipe courtesy of Tricia Wheeler of Peaceful Dinners.
2 cups brown rice, cooked
8 bell peppers, red or green
1 tablespoon olive oil for peppers and 1 tablespoon olive oil for chicken
1 pound ground chicken
1 small onion, diced
1 envelope taco seasoning
¼ cup water
1 can black beans, drained
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon salt
1 (8-ounce) block Monterey Jack cheese, grated, 1 cup reserved for topping
½ cup sour cream
Optional garnishes: sliced jalapeno, cilantro, diced avocado, salsa
Heat oven to 400 degrees. Cook rice according to package directions. Cut peppers in half horizontally, remove seeds and brush with olive oil. Place on a foil-covered sheet tray or in a 9- by-13-inch baking dish. Bake for 15 minutes.
While peppers are baking, heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add 1 tablespoon olive oil and cook chicken and onion, stirring only once. Cook for about 5 minutes until lightly browned. Add taco seasoning and water. Stir in black beans, cumin and salt. Stir in cooked rice. Let cool for five minutes, stir in cheese.
Fill peppers with rice mixture, top with remaining cheese. Bake for 25 minutes. Top peppers with sour cream and optional ingredients.
5-WAY CINCY CHILI
Makes 4 servings
Recipe courtesy of Celebrate Your Plate
8 ounces whole wheat spaghetti
1 tablespoon olive oil or vegetable oil
1 pound lean (85% or leaner) ground beef
1 medium onion, diced
2 teaspoons cocoa powder
2 tablespoons chili powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 (15-ounce) can no salt added crushed tomatoes
1 (14-ounce) can reduced-sodium beef broth
1 (15-ounce) can no salt added kidney beans, drained and rinsed
1 cup shredded low-fat cheddar cheese
Before you begin, wash your hands, surfaces, tops of cans, and utensils.
Cook pasta in a large pot of boiling water until just tender, 8 to 10 minutes or according to package directions. While pasta is boiling, begin the next step. Drain and set pasta aside.
Heat oil in a large frying pan over medium-high heat. Add beef, onion, cocoa powder, chili powder and cinnamon. Cook, stirring and breaking up lumps with a spoon, until the onion is beginning to soften, about 5 minutes.
Stir in tomatoes and broth; bring to a boil. Reduce heat to bring contents to a fast simmer and cook, stirring frequently until the chili is thickened, about 15 minutes.
Stir beans into the sauce. Cook, stirring, until heated through, about 1 minute more. Serve chili over pasta, and top with shredded cheese.
Makes 6 servings
Recipe courtesy of Celebrate Your Plate
3 cups raw broccoli, chopped into small pieces
1 medium carrot, peeled and diced
2 ribs celery, thinly sliced
1⁄2 cup raisins (optional)
1⁄4 cup onion, chopped
1 cup cooked ham, chicken or turkey (optional)
1⁄4 cup light mayonnaise
1⁄2 cup plain, non-fat yogurt
1 teaspoon vinegar (any type)
Before you begin, wash your hands, surfaces, utensils and vegetables.
In a large bowl, mix together broccoli, carrot, celery, raisins, onion and meat.
In a small bowl, mix together mayonnaise, yogurt and vinegar.
Add mayonnaise mixture to the vegetable mixture and stir well to combine.
Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes before serving
Makes 4 servings
Recipe courtesy of Celebrate Your Plate
1 medium zucchini, diced
1 onion, diced
3 Roma tomatoes, diced
1 jalapeno pepper (optional)
4 cloves garlic, minced OR 1 teaspoon garlic powder
½ cup fresh cilantro or parsley, chopped
½ teaspoon salt
¼ cup lemon or lime juice
Before you begin wash your hands, surfaces, vegetables and utensils.
If using a jalapeno, put on latex gloves and remove the jalapeno seeds and dice small. If you don’t have gloves, wash your hands with soap and water after handling the pepper.
Combine all ingredients in a medium bowl and stir to combine.
Chill in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes before serving so flavors can blend.
This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Stretching food dollars: Shopping, recipe tips to save you big