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How to cut your grocery bill this spring

Most Aussies spend hundreds on food each week. But there are easy ways to save big at the checkout, without cutting fresh produce from the shopping list.

EAT SEASONALLY

The year-round availability of everything from asparagus to blueberries is pretty much ubiquitous in Australian supermarkets. It's easy to forget it was only until recently human diets were determined by the seasons; these days we glide through the aisles on autopilot, tending to pick up the same things each week. We add apples and tomatoes to our trolley for their shape and colour, and because they're dependable - they're always there, no matter the weather outside.

And while it's handy to have a perfectly ripe orange in the middle of winter or fennel ready to spice up a salad in summer, it pays to take notice of what's in season. The truth is, convenience comes at a cost.

"Buying vegetables in season is always much cheaper because when products are abundant and in demand, prices go down," Penina Peterson, author of the popular book and blog series, Savings Room says. "Plan meals around vegies in season and you will win at the checkout."

It all comes down to supply and demand. It's that simple.

Eating imported produce is often more expensive because of the transport costs and human handling required - think of the difference in transporting food from the US rather than from an orchard on a nearby farm.

There are the obvious environmental benefits of reducing food miles, refrigeration and human intervention, too. And because seasonal produce is picked at its optimal time, rather than when it's still green and later frozen, it'll taste a lot better.

Bottom line: Find out what's in season, add just one ingredient you don't usually cook with and get creative in the kitchen. Check out these ideas [link through to another article] from food writer Melissa Leong. Eating seasonal can enrich your diet rather than restrict it.

SO, WHAT IS ACTUALLY IN SEASON?

To help take the guesswork out of seasonal eating, here's a handy little guide:

Snow Peas

How to select - Look out for waxy, plump and bright green pods.

How to store -  Store in the crisper section of the fridge in a sealed plastic bag

Asparagus

How to select - Pick stems that are bright green, firm and straight. The tips should be dark green and tightly closed.

How to store - In a bag, chilled until ready to use

Mango

How to select - Use your nose to find one with a fragrant tropical fruity aroma.

How to store - Ripe mangoes should live in the fridge, avoid putting them in a plastic bag as they need the natural air.

Avocado

How to select - Gently apply pressure on the stem end. If it gives slightly, it is ready to eat.

How to store - Ripen in a brown paper bag with an apple or banana and keep at room temperature. Store ripe avocados in the fridge.

Strawberries

How to select - Look for firm and bright berries.

How to store - Keep berries refrigerated to stop them from spoiling quickly.

Blueberries

How to select - Clean and bright with good colour.

How to store - Keep in the fridge.

Spinach

How to select - Look for clean, fresh leaves.

How to store - Store in the crisper section of the refrigerator in a sealed plastic bag.

Spring onion

How to select - The tops should be bright green and firm while the onions should be glossy.

How to store - Store in the crisper section of the fridge in a sealed plastic bag.

Leek

How to select - Clean, fresh stalks with very white stems. Small to medium-sized leeks are tender with a mild, delicate flavour.

How to store - Store in the crisper section of the fridge in a sealed plastic bag.

Radish

How to select -  Firm to touch with smooth skin. Avoid any that are spongy.

How to store - Remove tops and store in a plastic bag in the fridge crisper.

SET  REALISTIC GOALS

Rather than setting yourself a goal that's sure to fail ("Only packed lunches at work for the rest of the year!") make small changes over time. For example, just because vegetables are significantly cheaper than meat, doesn't mean you have to become a fully fledged vegetarian. To reduce overall food costs, try making two meals a day meat-free. Bulk up your stir-frys, pasta and sauces with grated vegetables, or go one better and make vegetables the star act on your plate.

ENJOY LEFTOVERS

Leftovers are handy; it's almost a crime to throw them away. Spice up leftover dishes with just one more fresh ingredient. Grated carrot or crunchy snow peas can liven up a stir-fry. Blend avocado with pesto to bring last night's spaghetti back to life. Still-good vegetables can go in casseroles, stir-fries, frittatas and plenty of other dishes.

Prepare and freeze your meals weeks in advance so you always have a packed lunch ready to go for work, or a dinner handy for when cooking feels like a struggle. Or simply turn last night's dinner in tomorrow's lunch.

MAKE MOST OF WHAT IS ALREADY AT HOME

It's estimated Australian households throw away an 4 million tonnes of food which ends up as landfill, enough to fill 8400 Olympic-sized swimming pools. There's no dancing around the fact we're a wasteful nation.

"Always shop at home first before shopping again. Think of your kitchen as a mini supermarket," Ms Peterson says. "The goal is to reduce both food waste and packaging so you can become a good-karma home cook."

It seems ridiculously basic, but planning meals and writing a shopping list is the simplest way to avoid buying ingredients you don't actually need.

"Grocery budgeting is all about planning well," Ms Petersen says. "If you plan using a strategic grocery list, you will avoid throwing random items into supermarket trolleys. You will also avoid making extra trips to the shops."

Take a good look in the fridge and pantry before heading to the shops to avoid an over-abundance of tomatoes but not enough zucchini. Throwing away expired food is basically like throwing money down the drain, and our eating habits shouldn't cost the earth, either.


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