Reader asks: Can couponers save too much? - Jill Cataldo

In the past few columns, I've addressed some reader concerns about some aspects of coupon shopping. Wrapping up my series of "inbox complaints," here's a letter from a reader who wonders about the health consequences of eating low-priced meats:

Q: "I truly admire your talents for shopping. However, when it comes to saving money on meats, I wonder if you ever question the quality of them. Saving money by feeding children animal products that have been subjected to hormones is not worth the long-term effects on their health."

A: I'm always concerned with the quality of the food I serve to my family, as I'm sure every parent is. You may be comforted to know that it has been against the law for more than 50 years to administer growth hormones to chickens or pigs. All poultry and pork products are free of growth hormones, whether or not it's printed on the labels.

My family decided several years ago to switch to organic beef for health reasons, and we now prefer the flavor of grass-fed beef. It is more expensive, so it's an occasional meal, not a weekly one.

All fresh meats will eventually leave the store, if they don't sell by their expiration dates. One of my local stores donates expiring meats to a local food bank - a wonderful cause. Another store drastically cuts prices on soon-to-expire meats, including organic varieties. Ask your store's staff what happens to their expiring meats. Your supermarket may hold clearance sales on a specific day of the week. Learn to take advantage of those price drops. I've seen organic beef and poultry regularly dropped from $6.99/pound to $1.99/pound as it nears the expiration date - that's a great per-pound price for any meat! If you have a freezer, you'll want to stock up when these sales come around. Time your purchases well, and you may be buying higher-quality meats for low prices on a regular basis.

You didn't mention seafood in your letter, but this is another area to watch prices and variation in quality. Farm-raised fish will always be cheaper per pound than wild-caught. Many shoppers prefer wild-caught fish, which have subsisted on a wild diet, citing health reasons. But "wild" does not automatically mean "healthier." Some varieties of fish are actually healthier when farm-raised. Catfish are a great example. In the wild, catfish are "bottom feeders," taking sustenance in shallow, muddy and possibly polluted water. They can be exposed to toxins and pesticides, which ultimately end up in the fish itself... and in us. By contrast, farm-raised catfish typically eat a diet of corn and rice and are raised in clean pools of water. They're healthier and less expensive than their wild counterparts.

If you like fish, don't be afraid to fillet them yourself. Whole fish are often priced significantly lower. Even if you've never cleaned a fish, it's not hard to do (you can even learn how on the internet) and you may find you're saving big over pre-filleted portions. I'll never forget the time my supermarket's seafood department had an overstock of catfish. They had a sign up advertising whole catfish for a fabulously low 29 cents/pound!

I bought nine big catfish and I spent the rest of the afternoon cleaning and filleting the fish, then freezing those portions for many meals down the road. (My big fish stock-up also turned into an impromptu fish-cleaning lesson for my daughter.)

As with many of the shopping and product-choice issues readers raised, the decision ultimately lies with you. Skilled coupon shoppers are able to "coupon down" the prices of so many products to rock-bottom levels, thereby freeing up more of the grocery budget for the kinds of meats and seafood they prefer. The dollars you save using coupons on toothpaste and shampoo can help pay for the higher prices of items you might love, like organic, grass-fed meats or wild-caught fish.

Jill Cataldo, a coupon workshop instructor, writer and mother of three, never passes up a good deal. Learn more about couponing at her web site, www.supercouponing.com.