Summer may not have arrived according to the calendar, but it sure seems like it's arrived based on the weather.
The sunshine and balmy breezes may have you dreaming of backyard barbeques, luscious produce, and fresh salads. But your grill's charcoal might not be the only thing on fire this year. Some food prices are heating up too, so watch your food budget.
After planning your menu for your backyard barbeque, your guests might be tempted to ask, “Where's the beef?” Why? Almost every single cut of beef has a beefier price this year, compared to last year. (source).
Droughts (one of the factors in higher beef prices) in prime grassland areas of the U.S. drove beef prices up due to higher feed costs. Recently, Texas and Oklahoma received lots of rain, but it will take time for lower beef prices to be seen in supermarkets. So for now, enjoy beef sparingly — or replace it with something less expensive. Instead of a Black Angus burger, maybe consider a black bean burger.
Before tossing white meat on the grill, you should know that poultry costs are also higher than last year. Yes, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the retail price of chicken went up; however, turkey's price is lower, although customers haven't been gobbling it up as a replacement to chicken too frequently.
If you are not a fan of turkey, the other white meat (pork) has lower prices on almost all retail cuts.
If you haven't noticed higher egg prices, you probably will soon. An avian bird flu affected over 46 million laying hens in the U.S. (source), around 10 percent of the laying hens. Because these chickens must be destroyed, egg production dropped. This has suppliers scrambling to find enough eggs to meet the supermarket demand.
If prices continue to climb, you may want to try less expensive egg substitutes in baking, such as flax meal and water, or vinegar and water.
Animal protein isn't the only thing that is commanding higher prices at the supermarket. Again, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, iceberg and romaine lettuce are up 10.8 percent and 19.1 percent, respectively, since April of 2014. Prices are no doubt influenced by California's drought as California, along with Arizona, produces over 90 percent of the lettuce in the U.S.
Instead of lettuce salads, consider eating cabbage in the form of coleslaw or similar salads. If you must have your salads, eliminate food waste of this perishable product by adding it to soups or to smoothies before it must be thrown out.
On the other hand, growing your own lettuce, especially if you live in a region with slightly cooler weather, is an easy, cheap alternative.
What is the most popular fruit in the United States? If you initially thought about bananas, you are correct. Handy to take in lunches, deliciously creamy and sweet in fruit smoothies, and a good source of potassium — no wonder they are popular.
If you like bananas, they are irreplaceable: Nothing else tastes even close the same. But you could always grab for the second most popular fruit in the U.S. … the apple.
Unfortunately, the price of bananas has increased substantially over the last few months, most likely due to a fungal disease that is threatening the global banana crop — and it's nothing to monkey around with.
If you still get your hands on some bananas, don't waste them either. If they ripen too quickly, make banana bread. Another great idea is to peel and freeze them on a cookie sheet (then place in freezer bags) to add to smoothies later.
Strawberry shortcake, topped with a dollop of whipped cream, is an iconic early summer dessert. But guess what? Strawberries, again according to the average retail food and energy prices data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, are more expensive this year than last year at this time.
But strawberries have an advantage: We are in the middle of strawberry season. Search farmer's markets, pick-your-own-produce farms and, yes, even your local supermarket. It's possible to find reasonably priced strawberries with a little bit of effort.
And if all this talk about higher food prices makes you want to grab a glass of wine, be prepared for a little bit of sticker shock here too: White and red wines are also more expensive this year. (Of course.)
What drives food costs
There are multiple reasons behind rising food costs — and they don't even consider what you can spend on food. Droughts or other natural disasters, disease, animal feeding costs, and labor all influence the price of food.
But there is another cost too. Transportation costs also influence the price of food. Any increase in fuel costs impact wholesale food prices … which then influence the retail prices you pay at the supermarket. While transportation allows year-round consumption of most foods in most the country, it does come with a cost that is difficult to quantify.
Here is some good news, though. Fuel prices are lower than last year. And also? Many regions in the U.S. are in the middle of their growing seasons. Offset the higher cost of some of the previously mentioned foods by growing your own or contacting local farmers.
Tips to lessen the impact
Other ideas to keep your food budget in check, even though prices of some popular summer foods are higher? Make your purchases carefully and plan your meals. When planning your meals, center the meal around inexpensive foods and use smaller portions for more expensive foods. Eliminate your food waste by using up food before it spoils.
You may need to shop more frequently, for smaller amounts of food, particularly for perishable produce. If you are unable to use up foods quickly enough, freeze them. Be creative with leftovers. (Soups and smoothies are great ways to disguise foods when the need arises.) Share your food with a neighbor or family member.
Whatever your method for keeping your budget in check this summer, may your plates be full of good food and may you have plenty of time to enjoy the weather and your friends.
What grocery items have you noticed increasing in price this year? What is your strategy to contain your food budget, and how much do you estimate you have saved?
Lisa Aberle is a college professor by day and a freelance writer by night. Always an aspiring writer with an interest in money, she once ironically misspelled “mortgage” during a spelling bee. Most of her current adventures take place on the four-acre mini-farm she shares with her husband in the rural Midwest (where she writes with gel pens whenever possible).