Checkout counter blues: 5 ways to eat cheaper as food costs inflate

Mackensy Lunsford
Southern Kitchen

Brace yourself. Food costs, like fuel costs, are higher than ever and could climb higher.

Over the past year, grocery prices have spiked 7.4% overall, according to the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics. "By far the largest increase was that of the index for meats, poultry, fish and eggs, which rose 12.2% over the year," the bureau's most recent economic news release said. 

Russia and Ukraine together account for 30% of global wheat exports, and the continuing Ukrainian conflict is likely to put pressure on wheat prices. As you're likely already aware, energy costs are skyrocketing, which means increased shipping costs trickling down to shoppers. The news, overall, is not great.

But you can save money at the store by shopping smarter and using some of these tips. 

Be flexible

Restaurant chefs often create dishes around what's in season, inexpensive and easy to source. It's time to think like a chef. Instead of flipping through cookbooks trying to plan meals, head straight to the grocery store so you can see what's cost-effective and build meals around that. 

If you have a few staple recipes you like to cook, think about what sort of substitutes you can make. Ground turkey, for example, is about half the price of ground beef, so try turkey meatloaf, meatballs or burgers. A tip to keep your ground turkey recipes moist: add some bacon fat to the mix.

Use meat sparingly

Instead of putting meat at the center of the plate, use it to flavor more inexpensive ingredients. To make one of my favorite dishes, I stir-fry green beans with garlic and about a half-pound of ground pork, add some gochujang (Korean chili paste) and soy sauce, and eat that over a big bowl of rice. 

You can also bulk up burgers with ground or chopped mushrooms, and no one will be the wiser. Chopped mushrooms also help fill out spaghetti sauce and allow you to cut back on the amount of meat you need. 

Dishes like turkey tetrazzini, chili and soups help you stretch small portions of meat to their max. 

Buy frozen, dried or canned

Fresh spinach looking expensive? Buy a big bag of frozen spinach instead. Peas, green beans and edamame are also staples in my freezer. 

Fresh fruit can be pricey, and its shelf life is fleeting. Frozen fruit tastes just as good in smoothies and in oatmeal. As an added bonus, you can buy it when it's on sale and keep it in your freezer until you need it. 

Dried beans are much less expensive than canned beans and easy to make, especially if you have an Instant Pot. You can make them in bulk and freeze what you don't need right away in quart containers. Beans add bulk to chili and tacos, helping stretch your meat even further. 

Canned salmon or tuna makes a fine alternative to fresh fish. Try tuna or salmon salad melts on toast with a side salad for a casual weeknight dinner. 

DIY everything

Instead of buying bags of grated or sliced cheese, grate or slice it yourself.

Instead of buying pre-washed, bagged salad mixes, buy a couple of heads of lettuce, chop and wash them, and bag them up with a few paper towels to absorb extra moisture. 

Cabbage is very inexpensive, while coleslaw mixes are not. Shred cabbage and carrots by hand.

Pack your own salads rather than buying expensive pre-made salads at the store. 

More:How to stock your pantry

Make things from scratch

Boxed cereal is expensive, and that's not likely to change soon. Oats, however, are not. Two pounds of Amazon-brand oats cost about $3 right now at about 10 servings per pound.

Oatmeal, which requires only water to make, comes alive with a little sugar, fruit and cinnamon. The ratio of oats to liquid is 1 to 2.

Simply simmer oats on the stovetop with the liquid of your choice — a mix of water and milk is perfect — and then stir in your toppings.

For a perfect kid-friendly combo, try cooking your oats with brown sugar, cinnamon and chopped apples. You can add toasted almonds at the end for extra protein. 

A twist on the South Carolina rice dish, purloo, made with Sea Island Red Peas and Carolina Gold rice

Inexpensive ingredients shine in 'Purloo' 

Rice dishes are both filling and inexpensive to make, and this vegetarian "purloo," a regional word for "pilaf," is no exception. 

This Low Country dish calls for Sea Island red peas, but you can substitute black-eyed peas or other field peas. 

Serves: 8 to 10

Ingredients

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 small butternut squash, peeled, seeded and diced

1 yellow onion, diced

4 cloves garlic, minced

2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme or pinch of dried

2 cups medium-grain rice

3/4 cup dry white wine

8 cups vegetable or chicken broth

2 cups cooked Sea Island red or other field peas

2 cups blanched broccoli florets

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/4 cup chopped Italian parsley

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Instructions

Heat the olive oil in a large Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the squash and onion, and cook, stirring frequently, until the onion is soft and translucent, 6-8 minutes.

Add the garlic and thyme and cook, still stirring, until aromatic, about 1 minute. Add rice and continue to stir until the rice is completely coated with the oil in the pan and has turned shiny and translucent, about 3 minutes.

Stir in the wine, bring to a simmer, and cook until it has been completely absorbed by the rice. Add 2 cups of the broth and cook, stirring occasionally, until the rice has absorbed nearly all of the liquid. Continue to add the broth, 2 cups at a time, until all of it has been used. 

Cover, reduce the heat to medium-low, and cook until rice is tender but still retains some texture, 10 to 15 minutes. Fold in the peas and broccoli and stir until heated through. Remove from the heat and stir in the butter and parsley; let the butter completely melt. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve.

Mackensy Lunsford is the food and culture storyteller for USA TODAY Network's South region and the editor of Southern Kitchen.

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Reach me: mlunsford@southernkitchen.com