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Shopping for food bargains

How to find great deals in the supermarket or restaurant.
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Whether you’re walking down the aisle at the supermarket, or sitting down at this week’s trendiest restaurant... there are bargains to be had. ‘Today’ contributor Phil Lempert and Food & Wine magazine editor-in chief Dana Cowin give advice on how to find great deals.



THE FIRST THING you should do when it comes to keeping prices down in the supermarket is to shop the entire store. Products like cheese are sold in multiple departments at different prices because of their method of distribution and volume. Cheese is a great example of this: Aged cheddar cheese that is being sold in the gourmet department costs $6.38/pound. The same product in the deli costs $4.99/pound and in the dairy cases it’s $4.89/pound.


Not all store brands are the same quality as national brands, but in many cases you could save up to 20% by going “generic” or buying the store brand. Peanut butter and cereal are good examples of this. The nutritional information and ingredients for Jiffy Peanut Butter and the store brand may be identical, as well as Kellogg’s Rice Krispies, and the generic puffed rice cereal, so the only thing you are paying for is the name brand.

Most store brands also have a money back guarantee, so that if you don’t like it for whatever reason, you can just bring it back, and they will give you a full refund.


This is where the big savings can take effect. With today’s economy as it is, Americans are looking for ways to make every penny count. Coupons can help people save money. Industry experts estimate a whopping 400 billion coupons will be distributed this year in an attempt to build sales and convert shoppers to a particular brand. The face value of each coupon, plus a handling charge, is paid by the manufacturer. The other coupons, retailer coupons, are offered and redeemed by supermarkets. Many times, manufacturers pay promotional fees to grocery stores to compensate for the expense. Some supermarkets give shoppers two or three times what a coupon is worth, called double or triple coupons. Usually though, only manufacturer coupons up to a certain face value are accepted.

Coupons can be found in many places. You can find them in your Sunday newspaper, magazines, in-store circulars and coupon dispensers, direct mail promotions and Internet sites. Whether you’re looking for cereal or soup, makeup or aspirin, you can find coupons for almost anything. Have your scissors in hand when you read the Sunday paper; that way you can clip a bargain instantly.

Also, keep your coupons organized — many people keep them in little file boxes. You should organize your coupons by product type, expiration date, aisle location, or alphabetical order.

You can also call manufacturers directly to request coupons and they will send them to you. You can also check out coupon Web sites, and manufacturer’s Web sites — many of which offer printable coupons. Use your manufacturer coupons along with retailer coupons and retail frequent shopper card for greater savings.

Most stores put their products on sale Thursdays, but you should always check with your specific store, because some parts of the country differ. Stores tend to mail their circulars so most shoppers will receive them on that day, but you can also pick up the same circular at the store, once the sale starts and, if you want to get a jump on what’s on sale, log on to the store’s Web site; usually specials are listed about 24 hours before.


If your store offers these, and you don’t have one, then you’re just wasting money. Frequent shopper cards are special cards that you have to fill out a form to receive, but once you do, you become eligible for special promotions that non-card-holders are not. For example, the store may have a special sale of Haagen-Dazs ice cream that is exclusively for their frequent shoppers; if you don’t have the frequent shopper card, you can’t get the discounted price. These are a good deal, but as always, you should check to make sure you actually need the item — otherwise, you are just wasting money.


With the rise in popularity of warehouse clubs and super-size products more shoppers are finding themselves buying larger size packages. But, you should always compare the price to that you would find in the regular size on the supermarket shelves, because you might not be saving money — just buying more.

It’s also important to have an idea just how long it’ll take you and your family to use up a specific product. For example, that 2.5 gallon jug of olive oil may be a really great deal — that is, if you have a large enough family to use it up within 6 months. But if you are just cooking for two, it could take you three years to use it up, and by that time, it will spoil.

On average the warehouse products were half the per unit price of their counterparts in the supermarket. But, it’s the size you have to buy that makes the difference — if you wind up throwing it out you lose and if you don’t have the space you lose. So be sure that if you are buying in bulk, you have the space to store it, and the opportunity to use it.


Lunches are great alternatives to experience nicer restaurants, at a lower price. You can find many of the appetizers and entrees on the lunch menu for less money and smaller size. And, many cities, including New York City, have continued the Restaurant Week promotions that offer a first class lunch for $20.02 (it’s based on the year — 2002 — get it?). However, there are some drawbacks to lunch. For example, the atmosphere in restaurants in lunchtime is oftentimes different than that at dinner and many people find the lunch hour to be too stressful to enjoy a nice meal.

While lunches can provide real bargains, you may want to skip brunch. It’s much easier to do at home, and you can save the money for a good dinner, when the best dishes are prepared as opposed to eggs and pancakes.


“Priz fixe” meals can be great ways to eat at nice restaurants for a low price, but you have to be wary about additional costs. Many people are shocked when their $20 priz fixe meal turns into a $40 tab. Don’t be seduced by that great wine, or additional things that are not offered with your special deal. And, keep in mind that often when you order a “Priz fixe” meal, substitution may be added to your final bill.


Most local papers in this country have what they call weekly “food” sections, and that’s where you can find reviews of local restaurants, advertisements and promotions for restaurants in your area.

One of the best bargains out there is to go to a new restaurant’s “soft opening.” A soft opening for a restaurant is when it is open for business, but has not been officially reviewed by the critics. If you check out one of these places during their soft opening, you will find that you are most often charged up to 20% less than the actual prices. How do you find out about soft openings? Restaurants will advertise these in the local papers.

Another good bargain when it comes to eating out is to look for culinary school open houses. You can get a very inexpensive sampling of different dishes at some cooking school dinners.


If you’re looking for a restaurant city, hop in the car, over the bridge, through the tunnel, across the city line, and the odds are that you will pay less. There are restaurants that are just as good in Brooklyn, N.Y., or Evanston, IL., but much cheaper than what you would find in Manhattan or Chicago.


Don’t feel pressured to add-on extras to your meal. For example, bottled water can cost you $3 to $7 a bottle, depending on the restaurant. Also, double-check the prices of specials before you order them; they are often more expensive than the regular dishes on the menu.

You can save money, and calories, by sharing an appetizer with a friend or date. Order your own main course, but then perhaps share the dessert. Don’t worry about whether the waiter is annoyed that you’re eating too little. Sometimes you can be compelled into ordering more than you might want so you don’t seem cheap. The better places will never make you feel like a jerk for ordering light.


When it comes to finding bargains, don’t try to save money on the tip. If you’ve just had an incredibly cheap and enjoyable meal, don’t take it out on the server. On the same note, 2-for-the-price-of-1 restaurant deals should not be at the expense of your waiter. Remember, they have provided you a service, whether your meal was $20 or $60.

Dana Cowin is editor-in chief of Food & Wine magazine.

Phil Lempert, the Supermarket Guru®, analyzes the food marketing industry to keep consumers up-to-date about cutting-edge marketing trends. He is a regular “Today” show contributor, columnist for the Los Angeles Times, and host of Shopping Smart of the WOR Radio Network. For more food and health information, you can check out Phil’s Web site at: .