Jan 25, 2010

Ways to Make & Save Money #4: Cook More & Eat In

You can read the rest of the Ways to Make & Save Money series here.

Unless you already eat in every meal, the easiest and biggest savings in your monthly budget will probably come from food. When you eat out, you pay a huge markup for the convenience of having someone else buy, prep and cook the food for you.

Sometimes, that's okay. When the boys were younger and the before-dinner hour was a nightmare, we made a conscious decision to spend more on food to save our sanity. We also spent a lot of money on takeout and fast food during last year's hospital crisis.

But most of the time, it's best for your wallet and your health to eat in. It's just not that easy to do – and especially, to maintain.

The two keys to eating in consistently are menu planning and cooking ahead.

Even if you never shopped a sale and didn't use coupons, your bank account would be better off if you planned your meals and had a few extra meals in the freezer. Add in sales and coupons, and you can save a ton of money. I've discussed saving money and other benefits of menu planning here.

I wrote a beginner's guide to menu planning that's a few years old but still applies. I've been planning my menus weekly, because my attempt at planning monthly menus hasn't gone well.

I do have some things I keep in mind as I plan my menu:

Variety. We get sick of eating the same foods pretty quickly, so variety is key. I'm very lucky that my husband is quite tolerant of experiments, and very understanding when they don't come out great. I have a huge stack of recipes to try, and that helps keep the meals fresh and interesting.

Time requirements. I am very careful to plan meals that don't take a lot of time or that can be done mostly ahead of time. I try to get dinner on the table within an hour of walking in the door after I get home from work, and that hour includes changing my clothes, checking my personal email, and so on.

Use what I have. I'm trying to make the switch to buying only sale items, plus perishables, each week, and basing my meals on what I've already got on hand. Some bloggers who do this extremely well are A Thrifty Mom and Money Saving Mom.

Make extra. Even as I use up what's on hand, I try to fill up the space in my freezer with ready-to-go meals, like baked pasta and meatloaf. Being able to pull a couple of meals out of the freezer each week makes my meal planning that much easier.

Leftovers. On weeknights, I try to plan for leftovers so that we can brown bag our lunches. If you figure lunch costs at least $5 per meal, the savings really add up!


Unknown said...

I'm not always great about menu-planning, even though it does make life easier. However, there is one area where anyone can save time, and that's to prep your meat ahead of time! Instead of browning a pound of ground beef for spaghetti, brown five pounds (I do it in the oven, in a big lasagna pan. You just have to keep breaking it up until it's all brown) and divide it into meal-sized portions. I'll add Italian spices to some, Mexican to others and keep some plain. On a night you don't feel like cooking, take out your prepped ground beef, add tomatoes or sauce, boil up some pasta (or get out the tortillas) and you're ready to go!

Sahail Ashraf said...

Agree on all of this...

Especially making extra. Ingredients go further, and you can really cut down on costs.

And excavating the freezer is a win-win too. All of these ideas are great.

perhaps you could have the seed of a business idea here...


Unknown said...

This is so true! Our family is lucky to get out of a sit-down restaurant for less than $40. And fast food - cheaper but the waistline hates me afterward! The savings are incredible if you can brown bag lunch the next day, as you said.

A couple of things that help me in planning the menu. I create categories:
-Once a week is always leftover night.
-The kids love pizza, so once a week is always pizza!
-We have designated Ethnic Food nights: Italian, Mexican, etc.

When you put that together, your 5 day work-week menu is pretty much done.
Monday - Italian
Tuesday -
Wednesday - Pizza
Thursday - Leftovers
Friday - Mexican

See? You just need to pick one more "category" for Tuesday. From there, then I start narrowing down the recipe based on what I have. For example, if I have some chicken breasts and tortillas in the fridge, we might have chicken enchiladas. If we don't have enchilada sauce, and I don't feel like buying it, maybe Quesidillas (?sp). Buy some onion and bell peppers, whip up (or buy) a marinade, and you have fajitas.
Throw some rice in the rice cooker with some lime and cilantro, you have a side of Cilantro Lime Rice. Or heat up some refried beans for a nice side. Tacos, burritos, casseroles, etc, all can be made very healthily, cheaply and quickly.
Same for Italian...it can be anything from Wedding Soup to Lasagna...Salami Sub Sandwiches to calzones. Even if you use a similar type of meat (chicken) between dishes (so that you can cook a bunch ahead of time), the variations are so easy, it won't get boring (Chicken parm is so different than chicken fajitas).

If your family has a favorite "category" of food (Chinese? Meat and Potatoes?), simply assign it a day. The kids will be like Oh It's Italian Night!

Before I started doing this, the WHOLE WEEK of meals seemed daunting! How do you come up with a good mix of variety over the course of the week!? And you don't have to assign a DAY to your category, even if you just say, every week we will have 1 leftover night, 1 Chinese Night...etc...then you can pick the day it goes to depending on the recipe and prep time (and activities scheduled that night).

I also agree on the taking 1 hour or less. But for me, it needs to take 20 minutes or less from door to table (due to our schedules). Browning up large batches of meat and freezing them ahead of time as Michael said makes this possible. Same for chicken. You can buy a big package of chicken breasts, throw them in a ziplock back, pour in a marinade, then freeze. When you pull them out the night before, and place in the fridge, they will marinate all day long! Saving you a ton of time spent waiting!

Once I have the menu, then I turn the paper over and write out all the ingredients required for all the dishes on the back (I actually have menu planning sheets that have the shopping list on the back, but I've used graph paper in a pinch). I go to the fridge, freezer and pantry and cross off anything I already have. The remaining becomes my shopping list. I add to it the non-food items. Then I estimate the cost (1 gal milk - $4.00) and make a subtotal (This way I can adjust the menu if it's a budget buster BEFORE leaving the house). As I go through the store, I write the actual price on the other side of the item, and carry a total forward. I know if I've blown my budget before I even check out. I've done this so many times, I can literally go back to my planner archive, pick out a week from the previous year, and simply reuse the menu/shopping list.

I'm just getting the hang of not eating out so much. We go through periods of faithfully eating in, then abusing dining out. I simply use it as a reward WAY too often. My budget is thanking me, though (and my bank account).
Anyway - thanks for letting me add my $0.02.