Remember all those tips saying you should cook rather than eat out? Well the USDA says we might just be wrong about that in the near future. A recent study by the government agency estimated the price gap between eating at home and dining out will narrow even further in 2012. Grocery prices are expected to rise 3 percent to 4 percent, while menu prices will likely go up 2 percent to 3 percent.
That doesn't mean you have to resort to the McDonald's Dollar Menu, however. It's still cheaper to eat at home, but amateur chefs will have to cut even more corners this year. Here are a few tips on dining at home frugally in a dine-out world.
1. Shop on Tuesdays
Wednesdays are the heaviest shopping day for supermarkets as that's when they often publish their weekly newspaper ads (your supermarket may publish their newspaper ads on a different day). (Manufacturer ads are usually distributed with the Sunday paper.) That means grocery stores are interested in ditching last week's produce and meats on Tuesday night. Talk to the butcher and produce clerks about slapping a better price on those products they're about to toss.
2. Use Mobile Coupons
Shopping on Tuesday means you can't take advantage of Wednesday coupons. Happily, you can access mobile coupons right there in the store from the Coupon Sherpa app. This fab app allows you to search for your favorite local store, access desirable coupons, then download them to your store loyalty card.
3. Plan Your Meals Around Ads
If you plan on shopping after newspaper inserts are printed, plan your menu around featured items and build a list before you hit the store. You can use apps like Grocery Gadget (Apple) and Grocery IQ (Android) to create lists based on your supermarket's layout.
4. Shop Stores That Double Coupons
Not all supermarkets are willing to double-up on coupons, and not all maintain such a policy continuously. The acceptance rate has gone down since the advent of "Extreme Couponers," so check before you start clipping. This practice is usually limited to specific days and allows you to double the face value of a coupon, up to a certain amount.
5. Don't Overbuy Bulk
It may be tempting to buy the super-sized box of Cheerios, but you have to consider whether you'll actually eat all those little oat donuts before they turn into rocks. Buy just enough to last until the next sale.
6. Limit Produce Purchases
Americans throw away roughly one quarter of the food they buy. For a family of four, that figures out to $2,200 a year in food, according to "American Wasteland" author Jonathan Bloom. Rather than grab fruits and vegetables that look appealing, stick to your list and avoid spoilage. You're also more likely to use produce if you don't hide it away in your refrigerator's bins. Keep it in plain site or make a list of contents that you stick on the fridge drawer as a reminder.
7. Avoid Temptation
Some supermarkets are laid out so when you walk in the door, you're immediately assaulted by the smell of stunning flower arrangements, fresh deli items, and beautifully arranged produce. It's tempting to fill your cart in this section, so be on your guard. Also beware of the non-food items for sale, including everything from furniture to high-end jewelry.
8. Don't Use a Cart
Ditch the carry-all cart and carry a basket for quick trips. The less room you have to fill, the less likely you are to make impulse purchases.
Andrea Woroch is a consumer and money-saving expert for Kinoli Inc., and has been featured among top news outlets such as Good Morning America, NBC's Today, MSNBC, New York Times, Kiplinger Personal Finance, CNNMoney, and many more.