Regardless of your financial situation, if you’re like most Americans, you’re likely feeling the pinch from rising food prices.

Since 2007, the cost of store-bought food has increased more than 10 percent in the United States, and this year it’s expected to inch up another 3.5 percent to 4.5 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

That’s a significant jump, and if you’re on a tight budget to begin with, it can mean the difference between serving steak or canned beans.

But experts say there are several practical ways you can stretch your food dollars and still make nutritious, tasty meals with fresh meat and produce for you and your family. The key is to plan ahead.

“The foundation of it all is planning,” said Beth Reames, a professor and extension specialist at the LSU AgCenter. “If you sit down and come up with a meal plan and a grocery list to go along with it, you can make wise buying choices and avoid waste.”

Granted, that’s not as easy as it sounds. Often we’re so busy we dash off to the store at the last minute in search of an easy dinner because it’s the best we can do. Unfortunately, that’s not the way to make smart buying choices because it leads to impulse purchases and waste.

“Probably most people know what they should be doing,” Reames said. “It’s just a question of forcing yourself to get organized and do it.”

Reames and her colleagues at the LSU AgCenter are a font of knowledge on this subject, and she suggested several steps to make meal planning and grocery shopping on a budget more manageable and efficient.

She also recommended several online resources that have great information on stretching your food dollars, one of which even gives an estimated cost-per-serving analysis of hundreds of manageable recipes.

We’ve tested some of those recipes and also listed some of the key recommendations from the AgCenter and other government websites.

Whether you need to cut back on your grocery bill or just want to save more money, try following their advice. You’ll be surprised at the difference it makes.

Tips on stretching your food dollars

HOW TO PLAN

•Make a meal plan for at least three main-course meals over the course of the week and build a grocery shopping list around it.

•Build your main-course meals around pasta or rice-based casseroles, preferably whole-wheat pasta and brown rice. These don’t require as much meat and go a lot farther in feeding a crowd.

•Plan for leftovers. Figure out ahead of time how you can use your main-course meals for additional lunches and dinners later in the week.

•Plan to cook in big batches. Buy the ingredients you need to make a large quantity of a single dish that you can portion out and have on hand in the freezer when you’re too busy to cook.

•Invest in a slow cooker. A good one might cost $150 or more but you’ll save money in the long run by being able to cook soups and stews, which can be made with inexpensive cuts of meat and go a long way toward feeding a crowd.

•Check newspaper ads for sales and shop for the best prices, clip coupons for staples like coffee flour, and cereals. Research has shown doing that will save you 10 percent on average.

•Resist the temptation to impulse buy. Coupons and sales can entice you to buy items that aren’t on your shopping list or in your budget.

•Take advantage of seasonal specials, especially where fresh fruit and vegetables are concerned. You’ll get better produce and save money.

Tips on shopping

These are some great ideas for good buys on cost and nutrition that come from a USDA website Food Plans Recipe book.

BREADS AND GRAINS:

Buy regular rice, oatmeal and grits instead of the instant and flavored types, for which you pay a premium. Try whole-grain bread and brown rice to add nutrients and variety.

VEGETABLES AND SALADS:

Buy large bags of frozen vegetables. They’re usually good bargains and you can use only the amount you need for the kinds of dishes that go far ? and reseal the bag, saving it until you need it again.

Buy in bulk ? but only if you’ll use it. The pre-mixed bags of salad or salad bar are more pricy per serving, but if you’re cooking for one, you’ll save in the long run because it won’t go to waste.

FRUITS:

Buy seasonal fruits; they typically cost less.

MILK:

Buy large containers, half-gallon or gallon, which cost less than quarts.

Shop price; generic brand milk costs way less than dairy-brand milk.

MEAT AND POULTRY:

Shop the specials. You can save lots by buying what the butcher has on sale. But be careful of package dates and don’t buy anything past its expiration date - or even close to its expiration date if you don’t intend to use it the same day.

Buy whole chickens or bone-in skin-on chicken pieces rather than boneless and skinless.

GREAT RESOURCES:

There’s a wealth of really useful information online about managing your food dollars. Some, like the LSU AgCenter site, have good general information. Others, like Snap-ed from the USDA, have hundreds of budget-friendly recipes that actually break down the cost per serving of each dish. We’ve tested several of the recipes and reprinted them.

•ON THE INTERNET:

http://www.lsuagcenter.com

http://www.snap.nal.usda.gov/nal_display/index.php?tax_level1&info_center15

http://www.cnpp.usda.gov/Publications/FoodPlans/MiscPubs/FoodPlansRecipeBook.pdf