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How to Navigate Rising Food Prices as Inflation Surges


Sticker shock is becoming a regular feature of many consumers’ grocery store trips. Given it is unlikely to dissipate anytime soon, consumers should evaluate changes to their shopping habits.

The consumer-price index, which tracks what consumers pay for goods and services, hit 7% in December, marking its fastest pace since 1982. The increases were broad-based with the cost of rent and a host of other regular budget items rising fast.

Among the largest are refrigerator staples including meats, poultry, fish and eggs. Those items rose 12.5% over the past year as food distributors and retailers tangle with supply-chain disruptions and rising labor costs.

“Food prices have been increasing over the past six months or so at rates we haven’t seen in decades,” said

Jayson Lusk,

a professor and head of agricultural economics at Purdue University.

While controlling costs in the kitchen is new for many consumers, it is a way of life for chefs, restaurant owners and others in the food industry. Here are some strategies they use—and consumers might benefit from—as they navigate the rising cost of food.

Plan, plan, plan ahead

Though it might seem like an obvious pointer, planning your grocery trips is more important than ever right now—and can make the difference between staying within your budget or blowing it up. Plot your meals for the week, and know whether or not what you need to bring them to life is in your pantry or fridge.

“If you have a plan for what you buy, you are way more likely to actually use it and then stuff won’t go to waste,” said Beth Moncel, creator of the food blog Budget Bytes and author of the cookbook of the same name.

As the cost of groceries, clothing and electronics have gone up in the U.S., prices in Japan have stayed low. WSJ’s Peter Landers goes shopping in Tokyo to explain why steady prices, though good for your wallet, can be a sign of a slow-growing economy. Photo: Richard B. Levine/Zuma Press; Kim Kyung Hoon/Reuters

Ms. Moncel also said it is important to pick recipes that have some flexibility, so you can make substitutions easily.

Another crucial part of planning your grocery shopping is checking store sales and coupons before your trip, she said, rather than waiting until you get there. She suggested using an app like Flipp, which aggregates deals based on your location, and then incorporating them into your meal plan.

Substitute brands and ingredients

Substitution is also key, experts said. This may require some pre-shopping planning as well.

For example, since meats are more expensive right now, you might use half the usual amount of ground beef when making a chili, Ms. Moncel said, and compensate by using lentils or other legumes to achieve a similar heartiness.

You might even be able to make some expensive items at home, said Alex Hill, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based recipe developer and creator of the food blog Just Add Hot Sauce. For example, the ingredients for condiments such as mayonnaise and other dressings—which likely will see considerable price increases in 2022—might be sitting unused in your kitchen.

Put your pantry and freezer to work

Mix in shelf-stable items that can be used in a versatile array of dishes and aren’t as subject to inflation as fresh produce. This includes dried rice and canned goods such as beans and tomatoes, which chefs say can be easily given a little flare.

“Depending on where you come from in the world, that could mean a million things,” said Alex Guzman, co-owner of Archer & Goat, a multicultural restaurant based in New York’s Harlem neighborhood.

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Ms. Moncel cautioned against bulk-buying as a default, though. While buying in bulk can result in savings, that isn’t always the case, so consumers should carefully calculate the price and supply of the item.

“I think a lot of people get caught up in buying in bulk and then they just never use the stuff and it might actually go bad,” she said.

She also suggests freezing certain foodstuffs to cut down on waste and lock in lower prices where possible. She pointed to cheese and bread as examples of items that keep well in the freezer but aren’t a first thought for consumers.

Do the cooking

If shopping for multiple meals a week seems daunting, Ms. Moncel said to start with one meal a week and work your way up from there. That way, you will start to get a sense of the regular items you should snag on grocery trips, and you will be less likely to waste money on products you won’t use.

In general, experts agreed that trying to cook at home more is likely a good step toward successfully navigating this inflationary period, since eating out is pricier than usual.

“You can often pay lower prices doing old-fashioned things,” said Mr. Lusk. “If you’re able and willing to spend more time doing that cooking and cleaning yourself.”

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