Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Save Money on Food: Buy it Whole Rather Than Pre-cut, Pre-Cleaned, or Pre-Whatever

When it comes to saving cash on food, hard and fast rules are few and far between. Yes, we should bring our lunches to work. Yes, we should buy from ethnic grocers whenever possible. Yes, we should stick to the handful of ideas mentioned in Spend Less, Eat Healthier: The Five Most Important Things You Can Do (now with flavor crystals!). But beyond that, it’s kind of subjective to a person or family’s needs.

Oh, wait! Except for this: buy whole foods.

And by that, I don’t mean, “Avoid food that is bad for you.” I mean, “When you purchase a pineapple, get the whole thing. Don’t buy chunks.”

See, generally speaking, the more food is manhandled, the more it will cost. Carrot sticks cost more than whole carrots. Grated cheese is pricier than a block of cheddar. Just about every slice a butcher makes to a chicken raises its dollar value. And the same goes for most meats, seafood, dairy products, produce, and staples.

Plus, often enough, pre-grated, pre-chopped, or pre-disassembled edibles will not taste as good as those that haven’t been touched. If you’ve ever compared pre-grated cheese to cheese you grated yourself, you know what I mean.

Of course, there are exceptions to the rule. You might find a bottle of generic ground black pepper for less than a jar of delicious whole peppercorns. Or maybe there’s a humongous bag of pre-chopped onion on sale. And, honestly, if you want three pounds of chicken breast, you’re better off buying a package of torsos rather than three separate birds.

Still, as a rule, whole-er is better. To prove this, I took five different foods available in A) whole form and B) the same exact form only smaller, and compared their costs. All the prices come from Peapod, which is an online grocery store and a partner of Stop & Shop (a supermarket chain in the Northeast). You’ll notice, for all five examples, the more a food is cut, cleaned, or cooked, the more expensive it is.

(Please note that all calculations are for the amount listed next to the product, NOT for the size of the bag in which the product is available. If you’re curious about my math, shoot me an e-mail. But I double-checked. I promise.)

BLACK BEANS (6 cups cooked)
Dried: $1.50
Canned: $3.42

CARROTS (1 lb)
Stop & Shop Brand
Whole: $0.90
Baby carrots: $1.79
Cut into sticks and mixed with celery: $3.41
Shredded: $4.00

Cracker Barrel Extra Sharp
Whole bar: $7.60
Cheese Sticks: $8.98
Cracker Cuts: $12.28

CHICKEN (1 lb)
Whole: $1.59
Whole, cut up: $1.79
Thighs: $1.99
Skinless breast with rib: $3.29
Boneless, skinless breast: $4.99
Boneless, skinless breast tenders: $5.49
Note: Leg quarters were actually $1.49 per pound, and the only cut-up food I saw that was cheaper than buying it whole.

PINEAPPLE (1 lb) Stop & Shop Brand
Whole: $3.33
Chunked: $4.78
Note: Approximately 60% of a whole pineapple is edible. The average pineapple weighs about two pounds.

Of course, chopping, cleaning, and boning takes time, and lots of folks are willing to sacrifice a few bucks for the convenience of having it done for them. No big deal. If it works for you, go for it. Especially if you have kids. It’s tough wielding knives when a three-year-old won’t detach herself from your ankle.

However, if you’re trying to save a few extra bucks, buy whole foods and cleave them yourself. This post should help you get started, and taking a knife skills class would be immeasurably beneficial, as well.

Readers, what do you think about this rule? Do you find it’s true, or do you think it’s crazy talk? Fire away in the comment section.

(Photos provided by Web MD, Sweet Blog, and DCFud.)

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Erica said...

On chicken hindquarters (which I buy when they go on sale, a 10lb. bag for $3.90 - crazy cheap):

Most people consider chicken breast to be the "good" part of the chicken, and people pay a huge premium for boneless, skinless chicken breasts. Hindquarters are likely cheaper because they're cast-offs of the more lucrative breast meat. Ultimately, if you add the hindquarters and breast meat together, I'm sure you're still paying more for cut-up overall.

Emily @ Relishments said...

So true!! Thanks for the reminder (I forget my own rules sometimes...) Plus, if you buy something whole, you can use it for more things. For example, a big chunk of cheese can be shredded for pizza AND sliced for snacks. You're ready for anything!

Meags said...

I think it's mostly true. I have on occasion bought the pre-shredded cheese rather than the block because I was short on time and ounce for ounce, it was the same price. Although I will say, pre-shredded cheese does not have the same "je ne sais quoi" as block cheese. It doesn't melt or mix as well, and the taste is just ... different.

Kev said...

In my town, a whole, unsullied pineapple costs the same as one that has been skinned and cored and stuck into a plastic container by the produce department. Not chopped, of course, the cans of pineapple chunks still cost more.

Other than that, the rule holds true and I usually stick to it. When did we all become so affluent that we could start paying people to shred our cheese for us?

Anonymous said...

This is tricky for a few reasons:

For the chickem, is this really true if I’m not going to use the whole thing? Yes, I SHOULD make broth with the carcass, but I won’t, I don’t have the freezer space for it and I don’t use broth often enough to need much of it. I have no interest in the dark meat, and I’m not a fan of the boney wings or legs, I don’t like the skin being on, and I will only eat the breast meat, which goes on sale for $2/pound every other week. Completely worth it for me, I will use every bit of that $2/pound rather than spending money on something that goes straight to the trash. I have noticed that the chicken breast tenders or “thinly sliced” chicken breasts are usually double the price of the boneless skinless whole breasts.

The grated cheese thing? SO true about quality, except I’ll be more likely to buy the pricer cheese in a block, when it’s pre-grated I tend to just pick up whatever’s cheapest (or if it's parm, Kraft! which isn't expensive compared to a good block of parm). Once it’s pre-grated, the quality’s lost anyway, not worth extra money between brands.

I’ve also seen that the produce’s pineapple that has been cored and skinned and put in a plastic container is just slightly more money than the whole that I just get it. It’s fresh (my supermarket uses same day expiration dates for that, I’ve asked, which also means late night store visits yield half price pineapples if they have any left!), and I have no knife skills, so I end up wasting enough pineapple trying to cut it up to make up the small extra cost. Yes, I'm sure it would improve with trial and error, but I just have no motivation to do so for only 10cents more.

Paula said...

I agree 100%, er, except when it comes to carrots. I love 'em and eat them raw and whole all the time, or in chunks in my salads. But I HATE shredding the little suckers. I use the food processor sometimes but will occasionally end up with carrot puree instead of sticks. I waste less (and use fewer band-aids) when I buy them pre-shredded. :)

DMBY said...

Normally I totally agree with this. . .but last night, I really, REALLY wished that I had spent the extra $2/lb for shrimp that had already been peeled and cleaned. By the time I finished with them, I was so annoyed my husband had to take me out for a drink!

Elizabeth said...

I love the cost comparison. Thanks!

Tracy said...

I couldn't agree more with what you've written. Why pay someone to chop your food for you? Another thing you can do is prepare your own portion control meal (if you are trying to watch your weight) Instead of expensive diet food delivery programs. Basikbox is a great tool eating healthy on the go. You can store fresh fruit, vegetable and meals in it to carry to work or anywhere. It's really affordable and offers an online meal planner.
Great Blog.

Nancy said...

Excellent points. For the most part I buy foods in their 'whole' form but once-in-a-while I cave and pay for convenience.

This weekend I cooked a 1# bag of black beans in my crockpot overnight and packaged them in 2 c. portions for the freezer. Now I'm ready for using them in soups & chili.