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How to save most on weekly meal planning - Jill Cataldo

Photo by Hugh Osteen

Photo by Hugh Osteen

Q: "I am a mother of four and there are six people in my household. I try to save money every way I can. Do you have any advice on whether it is better to budget dinners around sale items for the week, or by using coupons?"

A: It's an often-repeated piece of advice: "Plan your meals around what's on sale this week." But in my experience, this isn't the best way to save money. If you limit meal planning to weekly sale items, there's a strong possibility you will still overspend on what you buy.

Let me give you an example. There is a wide range of per-pound prices for meat, poultry and seafood. One week, a pound of ground beef may sell for $2.49. A few weeks later, the same beef may be on sale for $1.59 per pound. Whole chickens can sell from 89 cents per pound to more than $1.89 per pound. A one-pound bag of shrimp can sell for $9.99 or as low as $3.99.

If you want to enjoy a shrimp dinner, and this happens to be a week in which that bag of shrimp is priced near ten dollars, you'll pay twice as much as you would if you waited to buy that shrimp a few weeks from now. And, in turn, if I buy a few extra packages of ground beef when its price is low, then keep them in the freezer, I won't pay a higher price for it when I need more for meals during the next few weeks.

These price cycles are a huge factor in influencing what I buy. Once you start paying attention to the highs and lows, you'll start intuitively noting what the "good," per-pound prices are for meat, poultry and seafood. As you recognize these, keep them in mind as mental benchmarks for what to pay in the future.

Want some examples? My column is syndicated nationally, so keep in mind that these prices will vary in different parts of the country. But in my area, my personal benchmark for most meat is $1.99 per pound or less; bone-in chicken, 89 cents per pound or less; pork chops, 99 cents per pound or less; fish fillets or shrimp, $3.99 per pound or less.

If I want to serve chicken breasts and they're not selling for a good price at the moment, I won't pay whatever price they happen to be. I simply won't buy them that week. But when they do go on sale, I'll stock up, buying enough for the current week's meals and then some. This is also where having a second freezer is extremely helpful. Meat can be stored for many months at a time. I'm never afraid to buy big when a great sale comes around! If I have enough freezer space, I'll buy just about as much as I can store and know that we'll use it in the next few months. When one of my stores priced ground turkey at 99 cents a pound, I bought 20 pounds of it, froze it and ate it for many months after the sale. Right now, my freezer contains five whole chickens. They were a steal at 69 cents per pound; near the end of the sale, my store marked them down an additional 50 percent. I took those 5-pound chickens home for less than $2 each!

If you don't have an abundance of extra freezer space, you can still adopt a per-pound pricing benchmark strategy by learning the best prices for what you buy and then sticking to your benchmarks. Be open to planning weekly meals around sales, but only buy when the per-pound price is at a low point in the cycle. And, know that the cycles repeat frequently, too. If there are no good sales on chicken this week, rest assured more will come around.

Next week, we'll discuss more strategies for meal planning and how to best use your stockpile for keeping weekly meal prices low for your family.

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.jillcataldo.com. E-mail your own couponing victories and questions to jill@ctwfeatures.com.