Over the last two years consumers have noticed that many of the grocery items they use on the regular have been in short supply or completely missing from the shelves. Unfortunately, this trend has continued, with supply chain issues, shipping delays and now, winter weather at the center of the problem.
Inflation has caused prices to rise on some of our supermarket staples, including milk, eggs and ground beef. "Just about everything is going through the roof," Phil Lempert, food trends analyst and editor of SupermarketGuru.com, told NBC News correspondent Tom Costello. Consumer prices rose by 7% in December over the previous year, as companies tried to offset pandemic shipping issues and make a profit on consumers' return to spending. All this adds up to a recipe that may be tricky to follow when key ingredients are too pricey or missing from grocery shelves.
Experts projects that prices will rise 5% in the first six months of the year. NBC News senior consumer correspondent Vicky Nguyen spoke to Consumer Reports who pointed to a few things we can do to take the sting out of increasing grocery prices. The first item that should be on your to-do list: Take stock of your pantry. Americans often throw out food or buy more than they need, so get a handle on what you already have before heading out to the store.
Another strategy is to meal plan. You'll not only waste less food, but this way you can create meals around what's on sale (or what you already have) when you're not shopping an hour before you need to get food on the table.
Consumer Reports also says that Costco and Trader Joe's rank very high for their store brands, so that can be another way to keep your bill a little lower. Consider buying items in bulk (if you'll actually eat them) and don't neglect the store's clearance section where you can often find great price cuts. Just be sure to do that meal planning so your great buys don't end up in the trash.
Jayson L. Lusk, a distinguished professor and head of the Department of Agricultural Economics at Purdue University told TODAY Food that according to data from IRI items in the bakery category and refrigerated dough will be difficult to find right now. "The supply chain issues that have been leading to food prices increases and that are hampering food supplies are continuing," he said. "On top of that, the omicron variant is leading to rapid rise in COVID cases across the country, and workers in food processing, distribution and retail calling in sick have hindered the ability to keep shelves full of all items in some locations."
So what to do if you can't find the ingredients on your shopping list? Marisa Moore, RDN, a culinary and integrative dietitian told TODAY that keeping an open mind and being creative are the best strategies.
"If you can’t find your usual jarred marinara, simmer canned tomatoes, onion, fresh or dried basil or Italian herbs and extra virgin olive oil for a simple sauce instead," she said. "Or try a pesto."
With impending winter storms, you might see less bread on the shelves. Moore said to use a lettuce wrap or tortillas or check the deli section of the store for pita.
"If you want tacos but cannot find your usual tortillas, buy masa harina and make them fresh at home," she suggested. "You’ll only need masa harina, salt, and water. Or switch it up and add your taco toppings to rice or salad greens for a taco-style rice bowl or salad."
If ground beef is your go-to but it can't be found or the price is too high, consider making a meatless lasagna or a plant-based burger instead.
"You can try a ground meat substitute or if you want to stick to meat, look for ground chicken or turkey," she said. "This is also a good time to try stretching meat by adding in finely chopped mushrooms. With this the meat you buy goes further but you also add fiber and more flavor to the meal."
Nguyen suggested shopping at international and ethnic markets for lower prices on different cuts of meats. You can also sub in beans in place of half the meat in your recipe. She even suggested saving on items like mayo by making it at home (it's easier than you think!). Skip the pre-cut fruits and veggies at the store to save even more.
Susan Greeley, RD and chef-instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education said that stocking a few key items can help prevent a kitchen emergency.
"When fresh milks and other dairy items are lacking, I make it a point to keep the UHT (boxed) versions of most milks on hand," she said. "From whole milk to non-dairy options including almond, oat, soy and hemp, there are endless non-refrigerated options these days." Greeley said that canned evaporated milk is also a way to always have milk on hand and that it’s great in recipes for cream-based soups, for use in baking and even in your morning coffee.
"Ground poultry and also pork have been hard to come by recently," she said. "If you are looking to add more meatless meals to your repertoire and simply forgo the ground meat, be sure to stock up on canned beans. You can also use tempeh or tofu in place of the meat. Otherwise, simply swap the ground meats for skinless, boneless chicken thighs that can be used in many of the ways that ground chicken or turkey would be, such as a chili, casseroles, soups or stews." Greeley said you can also switch things up by buying fresh wings and drumsticks which may be more readily available.
"When fresh herbs are lacking, check for frozen versions, and stock up on jarred herbs, spices and seasoning blends," she said. "Fresh garlic and onions are pantry staples as well."
Nguyen reminded us to make sure to join the loyalty program at your local store. Flipp and Ibotta are two websites you can join to find the best prices and even get cash back on your purchases.