To shave off more money, I should also consider adding at least three bean-based meals to my week, whether it's a burrito, bean soup or rice and beans for dinner, she said.

My other expert, Cynthia Sass, a dietitian and the nutrition director of Prevention magazine, advised me to consider canned products, such as salmon, tuna, chicken and clams, when the butcher department got too expensive. These are fine in pasta and rice dishes, wraps and casseroles.

A crockpot, Sass said, would be a good way to tenderize inexpensive and often-tough cuts of meat.

But, most important, she said, was the planning.

"People tend to buy less food than what they really need," Sass said. And that means going out again, which often leads to greater spending (and impulse buying).

Most people could reap the biggest benefits from stockpiling a few weeks' worth of items in their pantry or freezer when they see a good sale. (MSN Money columnist Liz Pulliam Weston outlines this strategy in "The emergency fund you can eat.")

Smart shopping is the key

On a Saturday morning, I sat down with the sales circular from my local store (something I had just tossed in the past) and started planning my attack. I looked to see which meat, fruit and vegetables were the cheapest and put those on my list, devising a rough menu in my head. I later cracked open a few cookbooks to make sure I had everything I needed.

I made a list of snacks my family would eat that are healthful and dirt-cheap, such as:

-Raisins (from the big generic canister).

-Popcorn (made on our stove popper, rather than in the microwave).

-Carrot sticks.




"The most inexpensive snacks are also some of the healthiest," says grocery expert Stephanie Nelson, better known as The Coupon Mom.

I checked Nelson's Web site for a list of unadvertised specials at my local store and found a few other items that would round out my meals for the week. It also lists advertised specials for each store and region, so shoppers can compile a grocery list from all of the discounted items.

What was left off my grocery list were things packaged for convenience, like those 100-calorie snack packs or baby carrots, a lot of brand-name items (unless they were on sale) and processed foods such as cookies, crackers or waffles.

At the store, I was surprised to find out how little fresh produce I could get for my money, even with most of my choices -- including broccoli, cabbage, nectarines, green beans, carrots, zucchini and corn -- selling for 99 cents a pound or less. So, I added some canned fruit and frozen vegetables, such as lima beans and peas, that Sass said are almost as nutritious.

Into my cart went the cheaper two-packs of milk jugs, a canister of quick-cooking oatmeal, a bag of inexpensive puffed rice cereal and some eggs, a cheap source of protein. I bought diced tomatoes, beans, corn tortillas, pasta, marinara sauce and luncheon meat.