For many families, food is one of their largest expense categories.  And you’ve no doubt noticed that food prices have been on the rise.

It’s obvious to me that there are fewer discounted items at the grocery store these days.  And, when I reached for a can of one of my favorite brands of coffee recently, which was promoted with what looked like a nice discount, it didn’t take long to realize that the can had shrunk (Consumer Reports has chronicled the incredible shrinking container in everything from dish soap to hot dogs and from orange juice to ice cream).

So, getting a good deal today means being especially vigilant about cost per ounce or cost per count comparisons, along with all of the other typical tactics for maximizing your grocery dollars like following the advice of super couponers, buying store brands, and using a list.

But there is one money-saving move that’s especially worth putting into practice in these inflationary times: cherry picking.  That’s where you buy the marked-down milk at one store, the bargain bologna at another, and the super saver sugar at a third.

It’s Not Worth My Time – Or Is It?

The common complaint about cherry picking is that it takes too much time to visit all those stores.  But a well-designed research study conducted at the Wharton School of Business a number of years ago concluded that it is, in fact, worth our time to cherry pick, especially if we follow two key guidelines.

First, the item must be something we need anyway.

Second, we stock up on the item.  So, while it may be worth our time to cherry-pick perishables like milk, it works best for non-perishables.

Advanced Cherry-Picking Tactics

Here are two other guidelines that I recommend.  First, be disciplined about buying what you set out to buy.  Of course, the reason retailers mark items down is to draw shoppers into their stores with the assumption that they’ll pick up plenty of non-bargains as well.

And second, make sure you don’t let marketers get the last laugh.  While we often think we’re getting a great deal when we buy the huge “value” size, marketers know that when we buy the jumbo crate of cookies or anything else, we tend to consume more of the item per usage occasion than when we buy the smaller package size.  The same principle can easily apply to stocking up.

So, use a list to cherry-pick the items you’d buy anyway and stock up.  Then keep all the extras out of sight until you need them.

What other tactics are you using to deal with food inflation?

Matt Bell is the author of three personal finance books published by NavPress, including the brand new "Money & Marriage: A Complete Guide for Engaged and Newly Married Couples."  He teaches a wide variety of workshops, including MoneySmart Marriage, at churches, conferences, universities, and other venues throughout the country.  To learn more about his work and subscribe to his blog, go to: www.mattaboutmoney.com.