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If you've been to a grocery store lately, you know that meat, dairy products, cereal, coffee and pop have all seen double-digit price increases in the past 12 to 18 months. Even worse, more hikes are predicted.

This year's wild weather and roller-coaster oil prices are partly to blame. And unless things stabilize, shoppers are looking at food prices being 3 to 4 percent higher next year, said Michael Swanson, an agricultural economist at Wells Fargo.

When prices climb too high, thrifty consumers can always find alternatives, said Bea Krinke, a registered dietitian in St. Paul, Minn. But quitting a favorite food is rarely easy, even if you treat yourself once a month, as Krinke suggests.

If deprivation isn't on your menu, supermarket gurus -- Carrie Rocha of Pocketyourdollars.com, Karen Gunter of Creativecouponing.com and super shopper Kim Crumb of Bloomington, Minn. -- suggest ways to save on budget-busting foods. Their best tip? Keep track of prices on 10 to 15 of the staples you regularly buy so you can recognize a good deal when you see one.

If you'd rather beat the price hikes instead of waiting for a sale, now is the time to buy peanut butter and popcorn. Both are expected to rise by 25 to 30 percent in the near future. Luckily, both have a long shelf life.

> Bacon

Why so high? With the price of feed rising, the hog industry has cut back on production to prevent losses. Not as many pigs, not as much bacon.

How to save:

Choose other pork products that are on sale, such as pork loin, or skip it all together.

Buy on sale at stores with double coupons.

Stock up when it's on sale, typically before Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter, and then freeze excess.

Substitutes:

Buy sausage or breakfast links, which are cheaper than bacon, a premium pork product.

Try turkey bacon, Bacon Bits or soy-based bacon pieces.

> Beef

Why so high? "The export market is on fire in China, Korea and Mexico," said Swanson.

Less inventory here means higher prices.

How to save:

Look for items with a "reduced for quick sale" sticker. Ask the meat department when reduced items are put out. Freeze or cook immediately.

Embrace smaller portions. It's an easy way to reduce beef consumption and eat more healthfully, said Krinke.

Buy better cuts of meat for less at Costco or sign up for your grocer's weekly email for savings and a coupon.

Substitutes:

Chicken, pork and turkey are often cheaper. Stock up on turkey at Thanksgiving and freeze.

Tenderize cheaper cuts of meat with acidic marinades, such as Italian dressing, or chop meat into small pieces and put in a slow cooker.

Get protein from whole grains such as quinoa or soy and dairy products.

> Cereal

Why so high? A large portion of corn supplies is being diverted to ethanol. Oats and wheat prices are higher.

How to save:

Clip cereal coupons that are featured in the circulars, or print coupons from Smartsource.com, Coupons.com, Bettycrocker.com, Pillsbury.com or other company websites.

Buy in bulk at warehouse clubs or co-ops.

Substitutes:

Experiment with store brands, especially corn flakes or other standard fare.

Mix cheaper store brands with brand-name cereal.

> Cheese

Why so high?

Prices have doubled in the past year, and coupons are scarce.

How to save:

Buy in larger quantities at warehouse clubs.

Shred and freeze cheese when on sale. Shredded cheese tends to freeze better than blocks.

Shop for cheese in the dairy case, not the deli or the specialty cheese case, where prices are higher.

Substitutes:

Experiment with reducing the amount of cheese on a pizza, for example, to what's palatable for you, said Krinke.