Oct 22, 2008

Our biggest spending pitfall: Eating out

I've mentioned previously that after dinner is our daily witching hour, when the boys are bundles of energy and emotion. (They're like that before dinner too, but it's even harder after dinner.) Although Marc didn't complain much, I could see that taking care of the boys while I made dinner and then cleaned up afterward was taking its toll. So for the last couple of months, I've mostly stopped cooking and we've been buying a lot of takeout and fast food.

The financial impact has been noticeable. It's been worth it, because I have my usual chipper husband back. And in some ways, the whole point of having money is to make life easier. Buying pre-made food definitely makes a big difference in our quality of life.

However, it hasn't been entirely easy for me to watch our spending go up and our saving go down, especially when our net worth is simultaneously heading south due to the stock market. So I'm ready to try making a few adjustments.

The main adjustment is going to be buying more convenience foods at the market. As we've noted in the past, pre-made convenience foods from the grocery store are still cheaper than fast food or takeout. But this adjustment to our eating patterns requires me to make a mental adjustment and forego the "all or nothing" approach that tends to come naturally to me.

For example, I'm very fond of my macaroni and cheese recipe. I can make it from memory, and it's really delicious. It's also, as far as macaroni and cheese goes, quite healthy. I use Barilla Plus elbow macaroni (because I've yet to find whole wheat elbows), add chopped spinach or grated carrot and lean ground beef, and use organic milk, RBST-free cheese and butter, and whole wheat flour. So the thought of serving a boxed macaroni and cheese to my kids, instead of this delicious wholesome meal, was downright repellent. And it pained me all the more because I knew they'd love the boxed mac and cheese and probably even prefer it over my from-scratch version.

But I used the $5 off $25 Whole Foods purchase coupon over the weekend to buy a few boxes of their store brand organic mac and cheese. The kids devoured it when I made it. And having made it once, I've realized that I can pretty easily add a few things to it to make it a little healthier.

The next time, I'm going to add a half pound of cooked lean ground beef and a jar of winter squash baby food. I bought some jarred organic baby food, and cooked up a pound of ground beef when I had ten minutes to spare. I froze the ground beef in two half-pound portions, so all I have to do is take it out of the freezer, put it in a colander, and drain the cooked macaroni over it. The hot pasta water will help defrost the meat. Then I'll make the sauce in the pan, stir in the baby food, and add the ground beef and macaroni. If I could just find a boxed mac and cheese that comes with whole wheat pasta, I'd actually be pretty satisfied with the nutritional content of this meal. And it'll take only a fraction of the time it would take me to make my from-scratch version, plus I can get most of the kitchen cleaned up and start prepping the next day's lunches while the macaroni is cooking.

I'm hopeful that adjustments like this will reduce the amount of money we spend on eating out, and on food overall. If you have any quick and easy meals that your kids love, please share them in the comments so we can all benefit!

Image credit: Amazon.com.


Tamara said...

Amy's has a whole wheat pasta one. I know for sure they do in the one that comes with a cheese packet, not sure if they do for the powdered cheese.

Another thought is if you have a little time on Sunday evening after the kids go to bed, you could make one or two big pots of something, soup, spaghetti sauce or homemade mac and cheese and that would give you at least 2 if not more dinners for later in the week.

Anonymous said...

I sympathize - the hour before dinner is definitely the witchy hour in my house. I have simply offered that my husband and I swap. He hates to cook, so he quits whining.

That being said, the crock pot and rice cooker are the busy family's best friend. I recently discovered that pre-cooking your pasta in the morning, tossing it with a little olive oil, then putting it in the fridge, wtih just running a bit of warm water or using the warm sauce, works great. On those days, I have a big crock pot of sphaghetti and meatballs going. And bird's eye makes some great steamed veggies and rice, including brown, that cook in your micro.

I have a bunch of recipes that are simple and can be made in under 30 minutes. Sometimes, if I was too tired to get the crock pot going that morning, we all have to deal. You can freeze the big portions that come out of the crock pots, too, for meals that just have to be plopped into a pot and heated, no defrosting necessary.

With some planning and practice, you can make healthy meals with a tight budget and time. I keep saying, I woudl watch a cooking show where the host is having to keep her kids entertained, or some game show based off that.

Anonymous said...

We have a 4, 3, and 4 month old, so I know where you're coming from! For us, I put the baby in the high chair where he can watch me, and then try to involve the other two in helping me cook. If it's something that's not safe for them to help with, I set them up at the dining room table with coloring or cutting or some other art project. I also keep all my meals to under 30 minutes to prepare, or make things that don't require a lot of hand's on time in the kitchen, like casseroles or pizza. The crockpot is a big help too! Also, I keep a few really simple dishes on hand for the days they absolutely won't calm down, like spaghetti and meatballs or quesadillas.

EJW said...

I second the crock pot idea. It takes a little planning ahead, but it's worth it. I also love the comfort food now that it's getting colder out.

Last night we did pork chops with cranberry stuffing in the crockpot. I used potatoes in the bottom, but next time I'll go for carrots. Took 3 minutes to prepare and made the house smell great.

I also cook for the week on Sunday afternoon. My husband watches football while the kid plays and I can usually make 2-3 casseroles or freezable pasta dishes (like lasagne or stuffed shells) and then just reheat during the week.

The hardest part about this is storage, but we live in WI and once the temp drops, I can safely leave food on our mudroom. It's the one perk of our horrible winters!

Quattro Stelle said...

I hear ya, sister. It's a struggle to keep my family's commitment to healthy eating while getting dinner on the table on time. When we use convenience foods, we're careful that they are only PART of the meal.

Last night we had CA Pizza Kitchen froz pizzas and salad made with farmers' market veg. We make boxed red beans-n-rice with fresh sausage and veg. One of my favs is breakfast for dinner: cheesy scrambled eggs, frozen hash brown patties baked in oven, sausage or bacon, sliced fruit. Another quickie is chicken strips (fresh chicken coated in breadcrumbs) with a side of raw veg and dip. Save time prepping the chicken by buying SmartChicken tenders. And there's always hot sandwiches with chips and either raw veg or fruit.

We eat out once a week. One night a week is leftovers night, and one is Poverty Night, when we try to make dinner super cheap, usually with one of the above mealplans.

Anonymous said...

Barilla now makes a whole grain pasta that is 51% whole wheat. It's more nutritious than plain pasta, but not too wheaty that it tastes like cardboard. My girls love it.

Gina @ MoneywiseMoms said...

It can be hard to do the crockpot when you're working, though, because of the long cooking time and having to prep in the morning when you're trying to get the four of you out the door!

I second the idea of a cooking session on Sunday evenings. You could make a casserole, lasagna, soup, etc. and plan to eat it again Tuesday night. Then plan some simple "convenience" meals for the other nights. I know Amy's has a whole wheat version, since we've had it. Maybe we bought it at Whole Foods because I didn't see it anywhere else? I may have actually found it at Target once.

Niki Jolene said...

Amen, sister!


I feel the same exact way about dinnertime. We often eat out too much and this is something I have to work at being better about too. I want to try freezer cooking.