Food Is Taking a Bite Out of Your Income. These Consumers Are Getting Creative.

Some consumers are imposing new limits on eating out, and coupons are table stakes for many at grocery stores.
Some consumers are imposing new limits on eating out, and coupons are table stakes for many at grocery stores.

Summary

Shoppers share strategies for coping with a blistering patch of food inflation, including potluck dinners, gardening and even hunting.

Eating rice and beans instead of meat. Planning out meals a month in advance. Trying to raise more food in backyard gardens. Americans are changing the way they eat, shop and live to cope with a stretch of record food inflation.

Hundreds of readers responded to a Wall Street Journal article last week that illustrated how food has come to consume the biggest portion of Americans’ income since 1991, sharing strategies they have adopted in their kitchens.

Some are imposing new limits on eating out, and coupons are table stakes for many at both grocery stores and restaurants. Readers are buying more in bulk, while purchasing less packaged food, meat and organic vegetables.

The changes have some consumers feeling healthier. Others are making difficult sacrifices.

Chicken cacciatore to tuna noodle casserole—Sarah Smith, Las Vegas

For years, Sarah Smith and her husband loved making elaborate dinners such as chicken cacciatore or stuffed pork chops with fresh spices and herbs. Now the couple is cooking simpler meals, such as meatloaf or tuna noodle casserole.

“It’s just egg noodles, canned tuna, canned cream of mushroom soup, onions and garlic," said Smith, a 54-year-old marketing professional in Las Vegas, referring to her casserole recipe. “It’s not healthy, but it’s food."

Smith has changed her shopping habits, too. These days she scours the bargain bins at her local grocery store, picking up discounted meat that is expiring that day. A nearby dollar store is now her go-to for fruits and vegetables.

Avant gardening—Bernard Brothman, Morris Plains, N.J.

Bernard Brothman has scaled up his gardens into money savers.

The 67-year-old retired human-resources executive now grows more than a dozen crops from spring to fall in a community garden and another he built at his son’s house nearby. He spends about $200 on fertilizer and seeds for the kale, carrots, squash, tomatoes and other food he grows, but winds up saving hundreds in grocery bills across the season, he said.

“It makes a difference going to the grocery store," said Brothman, of Morris Plains, N.J., who is teaching his grandchildren how to grow vegetables.

Brothman tries to cook food in batches, freezing portions of salmon and other meals for future occasions. He recently bought out all of the roast at a local kosher butcher when it was on sale for $5.99 a pound, and filled a separate freezer with it.

On the hunt—Nancy Randall, Houston

Nancy Randall’s family is making more use of the food they harvest themselves—the deer they hunt and fish they catch. Her family fishes for snapper in the Gulf of Mexico and shoots about eight deer a year, processing the meat into venison sausage and hundreds of tamales.

Typically, Randall’s family of six freezes and eats the meat gradually throughout the year. Now they are buying less protein at the grocery store and consuming their own supplies more quickly, sometimes as often as four times a week.

After watching their household expenses surge, Randall cracked down on her family’s spending, insisting that everyone cut their expenses by 30%. For the 56-year-old retired dietitian in Houston, that has meant more discipline in the grocery store and the kitchen.

Randall said she used to live in the cheese aisle, but has eliminated those luxuries from her shopping cart: “No more charcuterie boards, we’re having salsa and chips."

Maxing out the senior discount—Kathleen Glindmeier, Phoenix

Kathleen Glindmeier used to shop grocery stores during a monthly 10% off senior day—when she remembered. Now she plans for it, making sure that is when she buys laundry detergent, cat food and other items that are rarely marked down.

“We are just getting more creative," said Glindmeier, a 69-year-old registered dietitian from Phoenix.

Glindmeier began tracking the cost of some items since the pandemic, noting canned peaches are now $2.99 from $1.89 and a pound of butter is up to $3.50 from $2. She and her husband now eat some canned goods past their best-by dates. After a recent lunch with friends cost $150 for entrees and a glass of wine each, the group has shifted to a regular potluck at one of their houses, she said.

Glindmeier is involved with a local food bank, and sees more new faces lately. Even the group’s board members, many who are retired executives and other professionals, shop at discount grocery chain Aldi these days, she said.

Meals by spreadsheet—Alexandra Blom, Oak Park, Ill.

To get a handle on grocery bills, Alexandra Blom and her husband turned to a computer spreadsheet.

In a February file they listed 60 food items, comparing prices at Costco with those from their local supermarket. Costco, it turned out, offered savings of up to 80% on all but a few goods.

The couple is buying less organic produce and locally sourced meat and eggs for their family of four, said Blom, a 43-year-old massage therapist in suburban Chicago. They are eating more lentils, beans and rice—big pot meals that can be stretched over the course of a few days or frozen for leftovers.

Takeout and delivery multiple times a week are a thing of the past, Blom said. She said she feels uneasy seeing avocados rotting in the kitchen, or her husband pouring her kids too much organic milk—at $6 per half-gallon—for their cereal.

“The Rice Krispies are going to get soggy and I know they’re not going to eat it," she said.

Write to Heather Haddon at heather.haddon@wsj.com and Jesse Newman at jesse.newman@wsj.com

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