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Monday, May 21, 2012

My top secret shopping spot for milk

This very selfish little voice in my head says, "don't tell them that secret.  Then there won't be any milk when you go there."  But, as my mission (should I choose to accept it) with this blog is to help others reduce spending, the bigger voice in my head says, "its okay.  There's enough milk for us all."  If there's such a thing as a frugal shopper's sweet spot, then this is it.  I'm talking about markdowns at the grocery store.  The truly frugal get giddy when they see those bright orange markdown stickers!

It used to be that markdowns were not taken on dairy products until the sell-by date.  That's just not so any more. At the store near us where I find the most markdowns on milk, they typically mark it down about 1 week before the sell-by date.  Which means it has about 2 weeks left for drinking fresh.

Not all markdown sections are created equal.  For milk and yogurt I find the most markdowns at the upscale grocery store (QFC) in our neighborhood.  My thoughts on why this is so?  It's their clientele.  Well-off families and older folks with generous retirement provisions, mostly.  These groups of people have a bit more disposable income than those who shop at the more budget-oriented supercenters/markets.  They can afford to pass up a markdown deal on milk that has just a few days till it's sell-by date.  Instead, they'll reach around the "deal" milk for a container with a longer fresh period.  This works out great for me.  I hit this grocery store (QFC in Mukilteo) Thursday midday.  An employee has just recently been through, tagging all the milk and yogurt for markdown.  I grab a cart and make a beeline for the dairy section.

When I find a good supply of markdown milk I do some quick mental calculations.  How many gallons can we go through by the sell-by date?  Then I add 1 gallon.

The sell-by date is not the same as the expiration date.  Milk has about a week beyond the sell-by date, if properly refrigerated.  The sell-by date is the date recommended to grocers to clear products from the shelves.  I add that extra gallon to get us till the expiration date (often not printed on the bottle/jug, just something you have to know).  And if we don't go through all the milk as quickly as I'd thought we would (sometimes an illness strikes the whole family), I try to use extra milk in puddings, cream sauces and cheese sauce.

After I've figured how much we can consume by expiration, I then calculate how much space is in our spare freezer.  When the spare freezer is empty I can fit 6 gallons upright and 3 gallons on their sides (these shelves don't have as much height). And that, combined with the milk we will drink without freezing, is what I buy.  So, freezer milk + fresh drinking milk = amount to buy.

Freezing milk
When I get it home, I put what we'll drink before expiry into the fridge.  And the rest I prepare for the freezer. I pour off about 1-2 inches of each jug of milk, into whatever current container of milk we have going. I screw the caps back on the mostly full jugs and put upright into the freezer. Liquids expand when freezing.  Pouring off this bit of milk makes head room for expansion.

As for the jugs that will fit on their sides.  I pour off 1-2 inches from those jugs as well, but refrigerate overnight, instead of freezing.  The next day, the other jugs are frozen solid, so I can take 3 and lay them on their sides (on the shelves that don't have as much height).  This leaves room for the 3 not-yet-frozen jugs.

Frozen, then thawed milk sometimes separates.  If this is a big problem for your family, you can recombine with your blender.  But milk separation has never been an issue for my family.

Some information on what packaging dates mean
Use-by date is not a safety date, the product is still okay to consume, but quality may deteriorate beyond this date.
Sell-by date, as said above, a date for retailers to move product off shelves.
Expiration date, a firm, do not consume after this date

Around here, the lowest regular price of milk is about $2.49/gal. for 2%.  Bought as markdowns, I can typically find milk for between $1.79/gal. and $1.99/gal., for a savings of 50-70 cents per gallon.  Often what I find is both whole milk (4%) and skim milk.  To get the 2% milk that my family is accustomed to, I simply buy a mix of the 2 kinds and blend them myself.

Buying markdown yogurt
In addition to milk, I also find yogurt on clearance frequently.  I look for a price of 19 - 30 cents per 6 oz. container, if in individual containers, or about $1.50-1.60 for a quart container.  The regular price on yogurt is 40 cents and up for 6 oz.

Yogurt will remain "fresh" for about 7 days past the sell-by date. You can freeze yogurt, as well. It's best to freeze it in portions that you will consume in one sitting, once thawed. So if you buy a 1 quart container of yogurt, it's best to repackage it into individual servings, before freezing. If freezing fruit at the bottom style yogurt, open and stir before freezing, for best texture. Frozen, then thawed yogurt will have a slightly different texture, which can be mostly remedied by a vigorous stir after thawing. For yogurt with live cultures, while frozen, the cultures will be dormant. Once thawed and warmed to room or body temp (in your tummy), the cultures will become active again, only a few will die off.

Fun treats for kids

  • Freeze go-gurt style yogurt for a yogurt koolpop version.
  • Poke a popsicle stick through the center of the foil lid, then freeze.  Kids will have a frozen yogurt pop.

If you think buying markdown dairy is not for you, have you checked the sell-by date on your current container of milk?  Have you ever eaten yogurt whose sell by date had come and gone, and thought "gee that was good!"

Even if you're not interested in buying markdown dairy, here's the take away for you.  If the milk/yogurt in your fridge is nearing or just past the sell-by date, you don't need to chuck it just yet.  Remember the sell-by date is about 1 week before the actual expiration date.  You still have time to finish or freeze it.

(Now don't forget to leave me a couple of gallons of milk next week!  This tape shall self destruct in 5 seconds. Five, four, three, two. . . )

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