Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Save Money on Food: Buy it Whole Rather Than Pre-cut, Pre-Cleaned, or Pre-Whatever

When it comes to saving cash on food, hard and fast rules are few and far between. Yes, we should bring our lunches to work. Yes, we should buy from ethnic grocers whenever possible. Yes, we should stick to the handful of ideas mentioned in Spend Less, Eat Healthier: The Five Most Important Things You Can Do (now with flavor crystals!). But beyond that, it’s kind of subjective to a person or family’s needs.

Oh, wait! Except for this: buy whole foods.

And by that, I don’t mean, “Avoid food that is bad for you.” I mean, “When you purchase a pineapple, get the whole thing. Don’t buy chunks.”

See, generally speaking, the more food is manhandled, the more it will cost. Carrot sticks cost more than whole carrots. Grated cheese is pricier than a block of cheddar. Just about every slice a butcher makes to a chicken raises its dollar value. And the same goes for most meats, seafood, dairy products, produce, and staples.

Plus, often enough, pre-grated, pre-chopped, or pre-disassembled edibles will not taste as good as those that haven’t been touched. If you’ve ever compared pre-grated cheese to cheese you grated yourself, you know what I mean.

Of course, there are exceptions to the rule. You might find a bottle of generic ground black pepper for less than a jar of delicious whole peppercorns. Or maybe there’s a humongous bag of pre-chopped onion on sale. And, honestly, if you want three pounds of chicken breast, you’re better off buying a package of torsos rather than three separate birds.

Still, as a rule, whole-er is better. To prove this, I took five different foods available in A) whole form and B) the same exact form only smaller, and compared their costs. All the prices come from Peapod, which is an online grocery store and a partner of Stop & Shop (a supermarket chain in the Northeast). You’ll notice, for all five examples, the more a food is cut, cleaned, or cooked, the more expensive it is.

(Please note that all calculations are for the amount listed next to the product, NOT for the size of the bag in which the product is available. If you’re curious about my math, shoot me an e-mail. But I double-checked. I promise.)

BLACK BEANS (6 cups cooked)
Dried: $1.50
Canned: $3.42

CARROTS (1 lb)
Stop & Shop Brand
Whole: $0.90
Baby carrots: $1.79
Cut into sticks and mixed with celery: $3.41
Shredded: $4.00

Cracker Barrel Extra Sharp
Whole bar: $7.60
Cheese Sticks: $8.98
Cracker Cuts: $12.28

CHICKEN (1 lb)
Whole: $1.59
Whole, cut up: $1.79
Thighs: $1.99
Skinless breast with rib: $3.29
Boneless, skinless breast: $4.99
Boneless, skinless breast tenders: $5.49
Note: Leg quarters were actually $1.49 per pound, and the only cut-up food I saw that was cheaper than buying it whole.

PINEAPPLE (1 lb) Stop & Shop Brand
Whole: $3.33
Chunked: $4.78
Note: Approximately 60% of a whole pineapple is edible. The average pineapple weighs about two pounds.

Of course, chopping, cleaning, and boning takes time, and lots of folks are willing to sacrifice a few bucks for the convenience of having it done for them. No big deal. If it works for you, go for it. Especially if you have kids. It’s tough wielding knives when a three-year-old won’t detach herself from your ankle.

However, if you’re trying to save a few extra bucks, buy whole foods and cleave them yourself. This post should help you get started, and taking a knife skills class would be immeasurably beneficial, as well.

Readers, what do you think about this rule? Do you find it’s true, or do you think it’s crazy talk? Fire away in the comment section.

(Photos provided by Web MD, Sweet Blog, and DCFud.)

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