About six months ago my husband and I reviewed our budget. We really wanted to buy a house and wondered what we could comfortably afford. What we found out made us uncomfortable. We were spending $300 to $500 a month on dining out! What’s worse? We thought we were being “good,” him only eating out once a week for lunch and the two of us only eating out once a week.
Turns out those tasty meals could make our mortgage payments easier. That line item in our budget was probably the most obvious way we could cut way back and make a difference almost immediately. But we knew it would require some serious discipline and some changes to our lifestyle.
Those changes weren’t that obvious for me, which is why I want to share them with you. And I’d love to hear your feedback in the comments too. Any tips are appreciated!
1. Create a dinner calendar. It might seem a little overboard to schedule your meals out for the week. I always thought that when I saw articles online offering a week’s worth of recipes, but since what I was working didn’t seem to be working, I thought I’d try.
Hello freedom! I never thought it to be true, but coming up with a plan for dinner every night can be draining. So by doing it once a week and then just referring to your list means less stress and also helps you use leftovers in other meals. Added plus? You toss less food because you know what you know what’s in your fridge.
Having a calendar also helps to remind you to thaw meat for the next day’s meal or soak beans or cashews for a meal the following day. No more checklists in your head to remember. Since doing this, I haven’t gotten halfway through a meal before realizing I don’t have the garbanzo beans cooked. You know, the ones that take hours to soak?
Less stress please! I love my dinner calendar. I just write it on the back of old grocery store receipts, but you could use Google Calendar or your smartphone or whatever calendar you’re already using.
2. Create a list of meals you like to cook. I think I have a bit of culinary flair. I’m always down to try something new, be it nobeyaki or cornbread in a skillet. But it seemed like every time I sat down to plan my meals my mind went blank. I could make tacos … again. Wait. Didn’t I make something delicious a few weeks ago? What was that?
There’s nothing wrong with repeating meals (tacos are my favorite), but you don’t want to get sick of your own cooking. And if you are experimenting, you’ll want to remember what you liked and didn’t like. Just like creating a dinner calendar offers freedom, so does this list.
I just run down the list and pick a vegetarian item or two for the week. If I’m roasting a chicken, I try to pick a recipe that will help me use the leftovers. A task I used to agonize over now takes a few minutes. Solid!
3. Shop once a week. A professional organizer and time manager gave me this tip. (She also did a killer job in my hubby’s garage.) I used to stop at the store every few days to pick up a few things for dinner. In my mind, this was a very romantic, European way to do things, but I also had to shop every other day.
Not only is a weekly grocery run a huge time saver, but it also saves money. I’m not spending cash on gas getting to the store all the time (to be fair, I biked sometimes). But I’m also buying less of the same things, which means I’m throwing away less food, and (see last tip) I’m using ingredients for more than just one meal.
It took some getting used to. I had to freeze the meat I planned on using toward the end of the week, and fish was usually only served the day I went to the store, but when the afternoon rolls around I’m not worrying about how I’m going to find time to get to the store and cook. I can keep happily writing/knitting/yoga-ing away knowing everything is ready for me when I am.
4. Keep snacks around. If I ever get too hungry, I am a bear to be around. My husband calls it being hangry. Not everyone has this problem, but getting hungry is the surest way to short circuit your plans for cooking dinner. No one wants to wait around for the rice to cook when they can head down the street and grab a burger in 10 minutes. This is why snacks are essential.
Favorites around our house are chips and salsa or guacamole, crackers or veggies and fava bean hummus, and almonds and raisins. All of these are tasty treats that take the edge off without ruining your appetite.
5. Invest in good food storage. If you’re going to be storing leftovers, it’s best to use something that you’ll love, is non-toxic and has equal numbers of lids and containers. Skip the frustration and get ruthless with your tupperware drawer. Recycle containers without lids and old plastic that have seen better days.
Head to your local store and pick up some glass food storage containers of all sizes. Glass is non-toxic and easy to see through (you’ll always know what’s in your fridge). If you’ve got mason jars lying around, you can always use those too. Having something nice to store your food in will make leftovers more enticing and you less likely to waste food.
6. Practice, not perfection. We all have days where the site of the stove is enough to make us want to cry. And *no* we’re not being dramatic! Remember there is no prize for the one who suffers most. If you’re beat, order in. Ask your hunny to pick up something from the sandwich shop. You’re much more likely to keep up a routine if it allows for a few days off.
Since we’ve started our new plan, we’ve still budgeted for two meals a month out. There have been a few months where we didn’t see the inside of a restaurant, but last month we had friends in town and a lot going on, so we had several meals out. No biggie. Remember not to be too hard on yourself.
So has our experiment worked? Well, we’ve saved on average more than $300 a month. It doesn’t matter what you’re trying to buy (or not buy!), that’s a good chunk of change. That’s a nice trip somewhere in a year. That’s a car payment. That’s a great 401k contribution.
Do you cook at home a lot? Why or why not? Do you have any tips to help make it easier?