When finances get tight, luxuries are the easiest and most obvious things to cut.

When finances get tight, luxuries are the easiest and most obvious things to cut.

Not always so obvious is how to cut spending on essentials, such as food. But with the price of what we eat predicted to soar at near-historic levels this year, it's well worth looking for ways to cut spending.

This year the overall cost of food is expected to rise between 3 and 4 percent, which is on top of a 4-percent hike last year, the highest jump since 1990, according to federal data. Average years see increases of just 21/2 percent.

This year's increase could translate into hundreds of dollars for many families. The typical family of four spends more than $8,500 a year on food, according to 2006 data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Sharp increases in fuel and commodity prices take most of the blame, says Ephraim Leibtag, an economist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And some products are being hit harder than others.

Cereals and baked goods prices, for example, are expected to rise by as much as 6 percent, while fats and oils could go up by 61/2 percent.

But there are many things a family can do to cut food costs that involve more planning than sacrifice.

"The first one is start paying attention to what you throw away," says Beverly Mills, one of the authors of the cookbook, "Cheap. Fast. Good!" "The most expensive food you buy is the food you don't eat."

One good trick for cutting down waste is to pay attention to portion sizes. Mills says she saves food by noticing how much her family eats, then preparing only that much.

Medford dietician Julie Anderson advocates eating less, in general. Cultures with the longest-lived populations also typically have the most minimal food supplies, Anderson says.

"When you go to other countries, it's not as abundant," she says. "We eat too much."

But eating less doesn't have to mean going hungry. Mary Shaw, culinary educator for Ashland Food Co-op, accepted a challenge thrown down last year by Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski: Live on the average weekly food stamp budget of $21 per person.

Although purchasing fresh produce at the Co-op proved difficult within Shaw's budget, beans and whole grains added bulk. While the governor purchased Cup-O-Noodles, canned beans and a box of macaroni and cheese, Shaw spent the same amount on ingredients for a wholesome chili eaten at three meals.

The following frugal food tips were collected from various extension services:

Before you shop

Create a budget by tracking your food expenses (everything, including your morning coffee at the gas station) for a week. It's much easier to save money once you know where it goes. Use your budget to find spending areas that could be painlessly cut. Coffee on the road, for example. A dollar a day doesn't seem like much, but it can add up to hundreds of dollars a year. A better value would be investing in a travel mug and bringing your coffee from home. Set firm weekly spending limits. Be sure to include some discretionary spending. Special events such as birthdays might justify splurging now and again. But otherwise, avoid deviating from your plan. Scan grocery ads for bargains, then use them to plan your meals for the week. If chicken breasts are on sale, work chicken into the meal plan several times that week.

At the store

Whenever possible, shop alone. Children often pressure parents to buy costly extras. Don't shop hungry; everything will look better and you'll be inclined to buy more. Stick to your list, but also be flexible. If you had planned to buy ground turkey but see a great deal on chicken breasts, modify your plans. Shop by unit price (the section of the shelf price tag that lists cost per ounce or pound). This allows you to compare prices across brands and package sizes. Buy in bulk. Shaw notes that 2 cups of dried beans purchased in bulk for 89 cents yields 6 cups of cooked beans, compared with 11/2 cups of canned, cooked beans purchased for $1.16. Store brands are often — but not always — a bargain. Many retailers now offer upscale store brands that don't always offer savings. But most still offer budget varieties that offer good value and quality. Be selective when you buy convenience foods. Don't pay a premium for foods easily prepared at home, such as diced onions. Whole chickens often are a better bargain than pieces; buy whole, then roast it for one meal and use the leftovers for sandwiches, soup and casseroles later in the week. Snack and junk foods have a lousy nutrition-to-cost ratio. Set a strict budget for spending on these items.Try to shop just once a week. You save gas, time and any impulse buys are limited to just once a week.Compare prices between stores. There can be substantial differences. Day-old bread can be a real bargain. Use it in French toast, bread pudding, tomato and bread soup and many salads. Don't rush. Give yourself time to look for bargains. And don't go at peak hours, such as during the evening commute and on weekend afternoons, when the store are most crowded. When selecting meat, select cuts that are trimmed of most fat and bone. Meat is sold by weight, which means you're paying for fat and bone that you won't eat. Compare prices of different forms of the same item, such as fresh juice and concentrate or fresh and frozen produce. Scan the shelves carefully when hunting for deals. The costliest items tend to be placed at eye level.Bring a calculator to help figure out the cost per serving.

During and after you cook

Consider eating one meatless dinner per week, Anderson says. Meat is always among the most expensive food commodities, and daily consumption is not essential to a healthy diet. Use "stretch foods" — healthy ingredients that add bulk and flavor to your meals, while stretching out the costlier ingredients. Beans, pasta and brown rice are excellent for this. Make soup, Anderson says. Incorporating stretch foods, soup doesn't cost much and is nutritionally sound. Made on the weekend, it's a convenient dish to have on hand throughout the week. "It's the original fast food," Anderson says. Cook extra servings that can be packed up as lunches for later in the week. Ditch the frozen french fries. Potatoes (sweet or white) are inexpensive and make great "oven" fries when thinly sliced, tossed with oil and roasted.Make your own salad dressings in large batches, Shaw says. Cheaper than store-bought dressings, homemade ones don't contain thickening agents, making them healthier. To make up for buying fewer convenience foods, pick one night a week to chop onions, grate cheese and clean the vegetables for the rest of the week's meals. "The more you can be your own sous chef on one day, the easier it is on you the rest of the week," Shaw says. Periodically check the refrigerator for items nearing expiration. Work those foods into the next day's meals. Wrap leftovers in single-serve portions. This makes it easier to pack them for lunch. Tortillas, Shaw says, can be kept on hand and used to wrap up just about any leftovers. If you use prepared foods for breakfast, switch to making them from scratch, but do the bulk of the work ahead. For example, mix up batches of dry and wet ingredients for pancakes, which are easily combined and cooked the next day. Cut down on the cooking time of whole cereal grains, Shaw says, by putting them in water the night before.