10 Tips for Home Made Meals and a Fatter Wallet

cooking for lessEating out at restaurants is one of the leading culprits of overspending in this food-centric culture. It’s easy to justify the steep prices of going out to eat because it’s social, convenient, and exciting to try new flavors and local restaurants. Throughout my endeavors to reduce this expensive habit, I’ve identified 10 tips to make eating-in delicious, manageable, on budget and entertaining.

1. Cook in Pairs:

Dining at home can be just as social as going to a restaurant when you cook with a friend or partner. Between the washing, chopping and cooking, there are plenty of tasks to keep two or three people busy and working together. The downtime of waiting for the meal to cook can be spent at the table just like at a restaurant. Plus, the actual consumption of the meal is more rewarding because it was created together. There is no pressure to leave the table once the meal is finished, and there’s no tip necessary.

2. Double the Recipe:

Preparing meals for one or two individuals can be expensive and exhausting. A fast $5 burrito is a better deal than buying $15 worth of ingredients to make one burrito at home. In order to make eating at home a frugal practice, you must make extra servings to use up the remaining ingredients. Doubling or tripling your recipe will reduce wasted food and overall time spent in the kitchen. When you have a busy schedule, it’s tough to make time to cook, yet simple to swing by a local restaurant. Spending two of the five weeknights cooking large meals is much more manageable than cooking one or two servings every night.

3. Choose Recipes That Reheat Well:

When making meals in bulk, it’s important to select dishes that taste just as delicious reheated. Otherwise, it won’t seem appetizing and an inexpensive restaurant will win the flavor debate. Some easy meals that reheat well are: stuffed peppers, casserole, spaghetti, enchiladas, meatloaf, stir fry, chili, lentils or stew. If salads are your preference, bake multiple chicken breasts at once, chop extra veggies and wash all the lettuce. Tossing a salad together will be much quicker and just as tasty on day two or three.

4. Eat All the Leftovers:

It’s challenging for me to get excited about leftovers, especially when eating the same meals back-to-back. If I stick to meals that reheat well, I can rotate my leftovers for taste bud confusion. Packing leftovers for lunch is a huge money saver and an opportunity to mix meals up. Try filling plastic containers when you’re finished cooking so lunches are packed and easy to grab. If you can’t see yourself getting to the remaining food before it spoils, freeze it for next week. Lastly, placement in the refrigerator is essential to consuming all of the leftovers. If the pot pie is covered in foil on the bottom rack of the refrigerator, it may get forgotten like the bag of brown lettuce in the vegetable drawer. Keeping things visible, freezing meals, packing lunches and rotating leftovers will assure nothing goes to waste.

5. Plan the Menu Before Shopping:

It’s imperative to make a meal plan and itemize the grocery list before leaving home. Get inspired by what you already have and create meals that only require a couple fresh items. I like to try out new recipes, so it’s helpful to double-check my cupboards before accidentally buying yet another bottle of white wine vinegar. Having a list helps me stay on track at the grocery store, avoiding extra snacks and gathering everything necessary for the planned meals.

6. Use Coupons:

Using coupons is a great money saving strategy for some. I’m either too busy or too lazy to clip the coupons and remember to bring them with me to the store. Many grocery stores have coupon booklets at the front which are great to flip through while shopping. It’s a bonus to get a few of my list items for an extra discount.

7. Where to Shop:

I get accustomed to my local stores, but they aren’t always the best bargains. Depending on my grocery list, I adjust where I shop. QFC is a great starting point because it often has discounts on meat, which tends to be the most expensive portion of meals. After I stock up on the two-for-one deals and specialty items, I drive over to Trader Joe’s for produce, flavorful sauces and extras. Costco is a great option for bulk items, and Grocery Outlet is a bargain for canned goods. Wherever I shop, I make sure to have a free membership for those valued customer discounts.

8. When to Shop:

I prefer to shop ever week or two, usually in the evening after work. Some stores like Fred Meyer have reduced prices on rotisserie chickens after 8 pm. It’s a risk because they may have sold out, but the remaining chickens are only $3.49. Take advantage of these simple discounts. Sunday and Monday nights are generally very crowded, so try to avoid those rushes. Most importantly, don’t shop hungry! It’s too easy to let your stomach make foolish decisions.

9. Use Everything:

The real trick to saving money on food is to not let anything go to waste. In addition to the tips above, a great way to decrease wasted food is to save the less favorable items for a morning smoothie. Broccoli stems, greens that have lost their crisp, brown bananas or anything else you might otherwise toss can blend into a tasty and healthy breakfast smoothie. The really slimy spinach or moldy berries can go into the compost for your fertilizer next season.

10. Regrow:

There are several fruits, vegetables and herbs that require little attention to reproduce. For example, green onion can be regrown by simply replanting the white bulb that is generally thrown out. Plant the bulbs in soil or place a few in a cup of water with the roots facing down. Soon, you’ll have fresh green onions for your next dish. Over-ripened garlic cloves can be replanted as well as avocado pits and citrus or pomegranate seeds. This is a free method to maximize your produce. Herb gardens are another frugal way to save a few bucks. Herbs can be pricey at the store, while growing at home is easy and fruitful in the windowsill. Try picking up some inexpensive seeds and planting chives, basil, cilantro, oregano, mint or parsley.

Hopefully these tips will inspire you to make eating at home achievable and satisfying. Challenge yourself to stick to a meal schedule, grocery list or food budget. Try new recipes with friends, and enjoy the social aspect of dining outside of the restaurant setting.

photo by ReneS