A restaurant menu—no big deal, right? It’s just a list of the food items that a restaurant offers its customers. Sure it is. Plus a whole lot more.

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Before menus ever make it to the printer, restaurant owners hire menu engineers and consultants to bury super sneaky psychological tricks into the pretty pictures and mouth-watering descriptions for one reason only—to get you to spend more money. 

Want to beat restaurants at their own game? Here’s your cheat sheet listing the sneakiest of sneaky tricks.

Dollar signs

Sophisticated research tells restaurants to stop including dollars signs on their menus because a dollar sign—or even the word “dollar” spelled out instead—triggers negative feelings associated with paying. Both the sign and the word remind customers that they’re spending money. (Well, imagine that!)

Number choices

Menu designers work under a strict list of rules, one of which has to do with the number 9. Consumers have been taught to believe that prices that end with 9, such as $7.99, offer value but not necessarily quality. And get this, prices that end in .95 instead of .99 are more effective, meaning subconsciously, customers are more likely to choose them because the way the price appears to be friendlier.

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Friends. Valentine’s Day is next Thursday. This is Friday. Get the picture?

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Thankfully, there’s a big beautiful weekend between now and then—plenty of time to make a few of these fabulous homemade treats and sweets!

 

Mini Pies in a Jar

Could there be a better gift for co-workers, neighbors, friends, teachers—and any number of other people—than a single-serving, mini pie in a small jar? I think not!

I have detailed written detailed instructions including recipes here:  The Perfect Small Gift: Pie in a Jar. It really is quite easy and the results are fabulous!

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Eggs. They’re nutritious, delicious and cheap! Cooking them properly is quite simple, provided you know a few secrets.

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A perfectly boiled egg has a yolk that is set all the way to the center and it is clean, beautiful yellow color with no hint of ugly green where the yolk and white meet. A perfectly boiled egg slides smoothly away from the cracked shell.

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Has this ever happened to you? You’re well into preparing a meal or recipe when you discover you’re all out of a required ingredient. I hate when that happens.

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I know myself well enough that I don’t want to run to the store. For me, an unscheduled trip like that could easily cost $40, maybe more. That’s just how impulsive I can be. I’ve learned that when I’m in a pinch—I need a pinch-hitter!

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Recently, I had the perfect opportunity to test this tip sent in by a reader: “Before you pay full price for ground beef, look at other cuts of beef that might be on sale. If the price is better, ask the butcher to grind that roast or steak.”

plate of raw ground beef with raw onion garnish 

This particular day 80-percent lean ground beef was $4.99 a pound, but boneless flank steak was that week’s loss leader at $2.47 a pound. Wow! What a difference.

I selected three large flank steaks that had the best marbling and the butcher was more than happy to grind them. Just like that, I saved $2.52 a pound. When I got home I broke it down into six packages of about one pound each and froze them. 

So what can you do with just one pound of ground beef when you have many mouths to feed? Check out three of favorite family-friendly, comfort-food meals, just perfect for a cold wintry day!

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Whether you are naturally gifted in the kitchen or had the pleasure of growing up with some talented cooks who were happy to give you a few pointers along the way—lots of people shy away because they find cooking complicated, and even a bit confusing.

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Fortunately, there are tons of great little tricks that can help anyone improve their cooking game, and maybe get some interest in further developing their skills. Here is a run-down of some really fun and useful cooking hacks that can benefit everyone, regardless of skill level.

Ice cream—it’s in the bag

Ice cream can get rock hard in the freezer and it takes ages to thaw out just enough that you can eat it. A simple trick to keep it just the right consistency is to put the container in a plastic freezer bag before throwing it in the freezer.

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No doubt, you’ve noticed that some food products come with dates and codes printed on them. Does that mean it has to be consumed by that date or just sold by that date?

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Or what about canned or packaged goods that show only a date like “2.01.14.” Does that mean you could end up in the Emergency Room if you consume it after that date?

Other food products don’t seem to have any date at all. Confusing, isn’t it? That’s why I thought today would be a good time to bone up on food dating.

Only baby food and formula?!

While most food processors date and code their products, it is the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) that mandates dating.

Under Federal law, only infant formula and baby food are required to have product dating. Everything else is voluntary.

Meat, poultry and egg products fall under the Food Safety and Inspection Service and dates may be voluntarily applied as long as they are truthful and not misleading.

Beyond that, the food industry generally follows certain guidelines suggested by the FDA. Yes, suggested.

Food safety or quality?

Phrases like “Best Before,” “Better if Used Before,” or “Best if Used By” tell you how long the product will retain its best flavor and highest quality. You will find these phrases on products like baked goods, cereals, snacks, and some canned foods.

Food product dating

The food is still safe to eat after this date but may have changed somewhat in taste or texture. Read more

Have you noticed? The cost of food is once again soaring. In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported last week that inflationary food prices are going up at nearly double the uptick seen last year.

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This is not the first time in this column that we’ve visited the subject of how to get out of the supermarket with at least some money left in your bank account. Still, who doesn’t need an occasional reminder—a mental tune-up—to remain vigilant and razor-sharp when it comes to making our food dollars stretch until they scream.

1. Don’t go in hungry

You believe that you can simply dash in to pick up the infamous few things. But if you’re starving, you’re a dead aim for a couple of steaks and a load of snacks. You know what I’m talking about. This is because anything can happen when you are hungry.

2. Don’t try to remember

Sure, playing Brain Age on your kids’ Nintendo Switch has revitalized your dead brain cells, rendering you the mental acuity of a youngster—but don’t push it. Without a list of the exact items you’ve come to purchase, who knows what could happen? It’s normal for our brains to slip into neutral in the face of fabulous food. A written list is the crutch you need desperately to make sure you do not slip and fall, so to speak. Know before you go.

Hint: Go to your supermarket’s website where you can see its weekly sales flyer as well as the entire contents of the store. It’s easier to make your list at home away from all of the marketing ploys of a typical supermarket. Use the search function to find the exact brand, size and price for each item on your list.

3. Don’t pay full price

Here’s the Golden Rule of Groceries: Eat the sales. Don’t put anything in your basket that is not on sale. If it’s not on sale this week, it will be next or soon enough. If chicken is the loss leader this week, don’t plan meals around beef. And when that happens, try to buy enough chicken to last until the next time it’s on sale. You may need to stop being so brand loyal. Typical supermarkets and grocery stores work on a 12-week rotation. That means everything will be on sale at least once every three months.

Hint: Consider the sales in several stores.

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