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The economics of eating

Smaller portions will reduce your food bill (and your waist).

By Karen Datko Oct 1, 2009 11:57PM

This post comes from Abby Freedman, a freelance writer and daughter of Smart Spending blogger Donna Freedman.

An MSN article about portion sizes got me thinking about the economics of eating. Food is, arguably, one of the most expensive aspects of modern life, whether you make your meals at home or eat out.

We order our days around meal breaks. We deny ourselves some foods and force others down our throats -- when was the last time someone willingly ate a rice cake? Finally, we pay tons of money to gyms so that we can work off all that food.

I don't have diet foods or delivered meals worked into my spending plan. But I do have to fit into a wedding gown in 5 1/2 months. So I decided to try a little experiment with portion size, and see if I couldn't make food a bit more affordable at the same time.

Breakfast of (frugal) champions?

The box of Kashi GoLean cereal claims to hold eight servings of one cup each. But somehow I got just over three breakfasts per box, even though I ate only one bowl each morning.

Measuring-cup time! Once I started measuring my servings, the box magically held the advertised amount. Turns out I had been eating anywhere from two to 2 1/2 cups at a time -- an entire extra serving.

These days, my serving size is a cup and a half. Even so, measuring the portions gets me two extra breakfasts per box, which means I will buy 22 fewer boxes a year. This will trim up to $100 from my budget.

Speaking of trim, I'm now eating 190 fewer calories per day -- 38 percent of the daily amount you need to cut in order to lose a pound a week.

Noontime numbers

Multigrain bread is expensive at $3 to $4 per loaf. One day I realized that I care a lot less about the bread than I do about what's between it.

My solution: Cut one big slice in half but use the same amount of filling. I get twice as many sandwiches with the same amount of substantive stuff, be it meat and cheese or peanut butter and jelly.

If you have a sandwich even three times a week, this means nine fewer loaves per year, a savings of $27 to $36. Four sandwiches per week? That's 12 fewer loaves, or $36 to $48. And let's not forget the savings of 80 to 100 calories per slice.

Don't want to cut out bread? Ease off on the cheese. Most folks use hefty amounts, and cheese goes for $3.50 to $6 per pound. Instead, use a super-thin slice or even sprinkle grated cheddar or Muenster and then microwave the sandwich. The cheese spreads as it melts, so you can use less without sacrificing taste.

Super, slimmer suppers

The average American ate 200 pounds of animal protein in 2005, or about 0.54 pounds per day, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Like many folks of my generation, I pay a bit more for convenience: frozen boneless, skinless chicken breasts for $11 to $12 for about three pounds. The bag lists 10 servings, but most bags have only six breasts.

What gives? It turns out the serving size is 4 ounces, not one breast , as I had assumed. An entire breast is about twice the recommended serving, so cut it in half. Each piece should be about the size of a deck of cards. You now have a second meal.

In the end, you'll get twice as many meals. Assuming even $2 per pound of chicken, beef or pork -- and that's unlikely these days -- you're seeing a savings of $100 to $200 as portions stretch farther.

Bonus: If you eat just one serving of chicken instead of two, you're skipping about 200 calories.

These three simple changes add up to $200 to $300 in grocery savings each year -- about one-tenth of our average annual grocery costs, according to the USDA.

Meanwhile, I'm taking in 1,500 fewer calories. My grocery bill isn't the only thing slimming down.

Published Dec. 26, 2007



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