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Take a Bite Out of Your Family’s Food Bills in the New Year

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If it seems like your grocery store bills are getting bigger, you’re not imagining it: food prices are on the rise, and poised to go higher.

Scarce rainfall plus last summer’s record-breaking heat wave resulted in scorched crops in many of the nation’s grain-producing regions. The reduced fall harvest has created higher prices at the supermarket now, for products ranging from boxes of cereal to bottles of soda, and from bacon to beef.

The World Bank has even warned that high and volatile food prices may be the “new normal.”

Luckily, shoppers can take a few easy steps to help ease the bite on food budgets.

• Buy fewer processed food products. That means buying fresh fruit instead of processed packaged fruit snacks, or peanuts in the shell rather than shelled, roasted and salted peanuts in a can. Less processing equals greater value, explains Kara Newman, author of “The Secret Financial Life of Food: From Commodities Markets to Supermarkets.”

“When you buy packaged food, only 15 to 20 cents of every dollar goes toward the raw commodities used in that product,” Newman says, citing a USDA study that focused on price inputs for a typical box of corn flakes. In that box, 15 percent to 20 percent of the price goes toward the raw corn, she explains — the rest goes toward processing, transportation and fuel, advertising, and other expenses related to getting a box on a retail shelf. “In the end, you pay more for the packaging than you do for the corn in your corn flakes!”

• Try out “Meatless Mondays.” Consider preparing vegetarian meals at least once a week. In 2012, the steepest food price increases were among beef and veal, and poultry products, according to USDA figures — and those products are expected to trend higher still in 2013. By comparison, fresh vegetables were the only category that saw a decline in prices last year.

Can’t bear to go completely veggie? Try subbing eggs, dairy and fish for beef and poultry — those products have had slightly gentler price increases.

• Cut out the middleman. “One of the secrets nobody tells you is that you can opt out of buying ‘commodity products’ if you want,” Newman notes. “To do that, shop at greenmarkets where you can buy direct from farmers and other food producers.”

There are many different factors that influence food prices and many ways the financial markets influence prices in the supermarket, points out Newman, whose new book, “The “Secret Financial Life of Food,” explores the mysteries behind culinary trends, grocery pricing, and restaurant dining.

Thankfully, there also are many different ways you can help lower your family’s food bills.

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