How to save on groceries and save money on meals are questions everyone is asking these days.The only thing higher than unemployment, are food prices. They rose between 5-9% in 2009 and will rise another 5-9% in 2010. When prices aren't going up, packages are getting smaller and the same amount of money no longer buys the same amount of food. However, the good news is there are grocery store savings to be had, if you know the secrets of cheap grocery shopping.

Here are ten things you need to know about saving money on groceries.

1.The Truth About Grocery Coupons

Know the limitations and pitfalls of coupons for grocery items. Coupons for groceries save money at the expense of your health. They are very often for highly processed overly salted and overly sugary foods that are also high in fat. They may save your family money but they won't prevent Type 2 Diabetes.

Grocery coupons can also tempt you into buying things you don't need. Only use coupons for items you actually use and items actually on your list. Resist the lure of 'it's such a bargain'. If it's not on the list and not part of the menu plan, it's not a bargain for you. Don't worry, there will be more coupons and the food will still be there next week. Move on to the next item on your list.

Further, some items are more expensive than other brands or off brands even with coupons. Just because there's a coupon doesn't mean it's always a good deal.

Finding coupons for grocery items you actually want can be difficult. It seems we are always clipping coupons for some other brand or food that we don't regularly eat. One way to address this is to visit manufacturer websites and see if they offer free coupons online. You can also call them or email them and request a coupon packet. If you ever get a product that does not live up to your standards, don't hesitate to call the company and complain. So long as you have the batch number of the product, you should be able to receive coupons for the replacement value of the item.

2. Have a Menu Plan

Meal planning or making a menu plan is the key to saving money on groceries. Over and above anything else you do, having a plan is half the battle. Why? Because meal planning ensures you buy only what you need and reduces the number of impulse buys.

In addition, a concentrated meal planning strategy can help families identify grocery items that should be purchased in bulk for additional savings. The key to menu planning is to have a good number of recipes in your repertoire and draw on them to create meal plans for 7 to 14 days.

3. Shop in Your Pantry First

Know what is in your pantry and freezer and use it. Don't let food languish uncooked and untouched in your kitchen. Actively root out items squatting in your cupboards and use them up with creative meal planning. Using what's in the pantry means less money spent at the grocery store.

Likewise, keep your pantry well stocked. When items are on sale, buy a stash.

4. Check the Sales Ads Before You Leave the House

Never go grocery shopping without checking the sales ads. Don't finalize your menu plan until you've checked the ads either. The great thing about the internet is most grocery stores post their weekly sales ads online so you can comparison shop at home. Price comparison is the key to cheap grocery shopping. If you haven't Googled your grocery store, you are missing out on saving money on groceries.

5. Compare the Right Prices: Net Price vs. Purchase Price

Check the net price on the barcode shelf label. The total price, the one we all pay attention to, is meaningless. It's the net price on the shelf label that tells you whether you're getting a deal or not. Once you get into the habit of checking the shelf label, you won't believe the inequities in prices that you'll find. Some 'deals' are really a scam and some pricier items are actually quite competitive. Bigger isn't always better and smaller isn't always cheaper--the only way you'll know for sure is to compare the net prices on products.

6.Generics Are Cheaper Than Coupons

Try off brands, store brands and generics. Generics have come a long way, but there are still some stinkers, so buy with caution. Start out with one unit just to try it and see if your family likes it. Generics are worth a try because they can save you tens of dollars in just one grocery trip.

7.Know Where the Deals Are

Look on the bottom shelf for the best prices.They key real estate in grocery stores are the shelves at eye level. This is where the most expensive items will be. An example, one grocery store sold the expensive shredded cheese in the dairy case at eye level while burying the cheaper bulk bag of off brand shredded cheese in the refrigerated bin below. It was actually hard to even find the barcode price tag for the bulk cheese. Cheap grocery shopping takes an eagle eye and a conscious effort to look in to the low places and dark corners of the grocery store.

8. Shop Outside the Grocery Store

Use alternatives to the grocery store. Dollar stores will often carry food items and the savings are significant enough to put up with the fluidity of their inventory. One week you might find pasta for $1, the next week spaghetti sauce. If you are meal planning consistently and stocking your pantry dollar stores can save money on groceries. Farmer's markets can also be a good place for savings, however, shop carefully because farmer's markets can also be grossly overpriced. Another alternative to the grocery store is a non-profit organization called Angel Food Ministries. They distribute food through local churches at a steep discount. Anyone can buy food through Angel Food Ministries, but they also accept food stamps. Visit their website to learn more, but note that sometimes their prices are not as competitive as they claim depending on the grocery market in your area--you still have to do the comparison shopping.

9.Learn to Cook

Cooking at home is cheaper than eating out. Americans have become overly reliant on expensive convenience foods and take out. Make your own pizza and save $15 instantly. Learn to make a steak house dinner (with filet mignon!) and save $30 (or more) instantly. Do that twice a month for a savings of $45 which translates to more than $500 in savings yearly. Just from cooking two simple meals at home.

The same goes for frozen meals. If you take one serving from every meal you make and freeze it, you'll have a stash of ready made meals in no time for a fraction of the cost of a Lean Cuisine or Healthy Choice meal.

Cooking doesn't have to be labor intensive or a time suck either. Sure, the learning curve will require a lot of time and effort, but once you master some key kitchen skills you will find all sorts of shortcuts, simple recipes and time savers. If you invest the time and energy in honing your culinary skills, it will pay off for years to come. So buy some cookbooks and take a cooking class or two. Take your time and turn cooking into an enjoyable hobby that just so happens to save you money.

10. Be Patient and Stick With It

Saving money on groceries does not happen overnight. Nor does it happen without mistakes. Things will go wrong. There's no magic to grocery store savings other than time and experience. With perseverance and always learning from mistakes, you can save on groceries.

photo credit: Alvimann via Morguefile