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Here's a true confession: we ate out a lot when I was growing up. The times my mom or dad cooked were more the exception than the rule. I carried on in this manner as an adult. Unlike my parents, I actually love cooking (thanks, grandmothers!). However, my cooking tended to be very involved affairs with various spice profiles and multiple pots.
Not sustainable. Especially after J and I married I needed to churn out inexpensive, budget friendly, tasty meals on the regular. We both really enjoy cooking, so for awhile every night was a culinary adventure.
This was also unsustainable. I read around on the internet on "how to eat cheaply" and "how to eat at home." I didn't find these ideas especially useful, either. These plans were usually extremely complicated, full of processed ingredients, and involved freezing complete meals. I didn't think this was workable either.
So here is how I went from eating out to eating in, and saving money along the way.
1. Avoid The Chicken Nugget Conundrum
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A friend recently commented that she and her husband need to save money and decided to cut out restaurants, but inevitably ended up grabbing fast food because they were exhausted and fast food is quick.
This is where I break away from most "save money on food" advice.
As you move from eating out (and grabbing take out) on a regular basis to eating in, you need things in your freezer that don't require forethought, a lot of time, or preparation.
You need to hit up the frozen food aisle. Yeah, I said it. At any given time our freezer is usually home to various frozen pizzas, chicken pot pies, and taquitos. Over in the pantry I keep a few cans of clam chowder.
Now this stuff can be ridiculously expensive. Never, ever pay full price. Friend the makers of your favorite frozen meals on Facebook; occasionally you'll score a coupon. Watch the frozen food aisle for sales and decide what your acceptable price is. I never pay more than a dollar for chicken pot pies, $4 for a big box of taquitos, and $5 for a large, specialty frozen pizza.
It might not be the healthiest choices EVER, but it's much better to spend $4 on a 20 count box of taquitos and add on $.50 of salsa than to buy dinner for both of us at Taco Bell, which would definitely clock in at over $10.
We also don't do this all the time. Maybe once a week.
By the way, rotisserie grocery store chickens can be a fantastic deal. I buy them at our local store for $5 and usually get at least three meals for both of us at out of it (sliced chicken, various chicken bits in a pasta dish or salad, and the carcass as the basis for chicken noodle soup).
2. Develop A Collection of Quick Recipes
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I love long simmered braises and stews. Those don't happen on a regular basis. If turning out dinner becomes an involved, hours long affair which results in fantastic food but multiple dirty pots...you are going to resume your first name basis relationship with the nice person at your favorite drive-thru with a quickness.
Create a collection (and record them somewhere easily accessible; I actually have a private blog where I keep all my recipes) of easy, quick dinners.
One of our favorites is a spinach salad with either boiled eggs (which I try to keep ready in the fridge) or sautéed chicken with sesame dressing. Delish. Another quick favorite is curried carrots and lentils (I sauté onions with curry powder, add chicken broth, add diced carrots and lentils, cook for 30 minutes). I adore eggs in purgatory , which is basically poached eggs in tomato sauce, which I eat with toast.
One pot meals are awesome. Orzo pasta can cook with the pasta toppings. Sauté tomatoes, onions, and mushrooms. Add in broth, add in orzo...and you have dinner.
Sandwich fixings (we both ate roast beef and cheddar sandwiches for dinner last night and were very happy) are also awesome for turning out quick meals AND bringing your lunch.
Any sort of "flat" sandwich also make for great dinners. I'm a big fan of bean and cheese quesadillas. Super cheap, super easy.
3. Decide On What's Convenient For You
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There is nothing I love better than a long simmered, homemade chicken stock. I wish I was the kind of person who always has some stashed away in her freezer. I'm not. So I have beef and chicken stock bases in my cabinet. I'm not going to pretend that dishes made with prepared broths and stocks are as good as those made with homemade stock; they aren't. But with most dishes the prepared stock is fine. It's a really rare dish that's going to be severely comprised by using commercial stock base.
Usually I cook up huge batches of dried beans, divide them up into bags, and freeze them. If I'm running low and know I'm not going to cook up another batch I'll buy canned beans. Canned beans are still a good deal. They can help make a salad, pop into a pasta dish, be part of a rice and beans dish, or go into a quesadilla or burrito.
Other "convenient" items I keep on hand are bread, tortillas, a couple of jars of pasta sauce, salsa, and lots of canned tomatoes. Sometimes I buy hummus.
(Stuff I never buy? Canned soup (other than clam chowder) because I think it tastes weird.)
The biggest thing here is to be realistic. I often think that I'll just grab a huge country ham, cook it, and we can make sandwiches off of it for months! In reality, I know that although deli ham isn't as good of a deal, it means we'll actually have sandwich fixings.
4. Don't Come Home From The Grocery Store And Decide You Have Nothing To Eat
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We've all been there. We've gone to the grocery store, spent lots of money, come home, put away bags and bags of groceries, looked in the fridge, and felt like there was nothing in there to actually eat.
I think this phenomena occurs because people shop for recipes instead of for food they actually eat. When I walk into the grocery store I rarely have specific recipes in mind (unless its for a special occaison). Instead I focus on the kinds of food we like to eat and zero in on sale items.
I buy different things at different times of the year. During the winter we eats lots of beans, potatoes, and cheap cuts of meat because we eat a lot of braised dishes and soups. During the spring and summer we eats lots of vegetable based dishes.
Later I'll post about exactly how I save money grocery shopping, but right now I just want you to focus on keeping your kitchen stocked with food you genuinely like to eat. If you eat lots of pasta dishes, make sure you keep pasta on hand.
What tips do you guys have for cutting out restaurants and take-out?