Starting Food Preparation at Home

Connie writes in:

I just moved in with my husband-to-be and we’re discovering that we have very different lifestyles in some regards. The biggest challenge has been food. My husband is absolutely convinced that it is actually CHEAPER for us to eat out for every meal than prepare food at home. We have everything we need in our kitchen already to make meals, but I can’t convince him this is a huge financial loss for us.

Simply sit down with him and issue him a challenge. For one week, he can make all of the meal choices and you’ll eat out together as you normally do. Then, for one week, you’ll make meals at home. At the end of the week, tally up the receipts and see who’s ahead.

Unless your meals out consist of nothing but food from the dollar menu at a fast food restaurant or your meals at home are lobster and saffron and morels, I’ll virtually guarantee that your meals at home will be less expensive.

Here are ten tactics I would suggest that you try during this week to maximize the value of the meals at home by minimizing the total work, minimizing the cost, and making it clear that making food at home isn’t the hard chore that many people make it out to be.

Tactics for Making Meals at Home and Keeping Costs Low

Start with Grocery Flyers

The best first step to take on this journey is to start with the grocery flyers. Identify some of the lower-cost grocery stores in your area and seek out their weekly specials using their websites. Focus particularly on the fresh produce and meats. Why? These will be the things that you anchor your meals around. Make a list of these items that are on special and start from that.

Make a Meal Plan Together

Sit down with your partner and look at the list of ingredients. Brainstorm some main courses that sound tasty utilizing these vegetables and fruits and meats. Keep it simple – don’t go crazy with it. If you want to browse, visit a recipe website like Epicurious and search based on the ingredients you’re looking at, just to see what pops up. From there, sketch out what meals you’d like to have together (and apart) over the next week.

Stick to Simple Recipes (at First)

Don’t delve into anything that’ll take more than half an hour of prep time or require more than six or seven ingredients – at first (you’ll get there later on). Keep the recipes simple and appealing to both of you.

Make a Grocery List

Once you have a meal plan hashed out, prepare a grocery list from that meal plan. List all of the ingredients for all of the recipes, then start whacking off the things you already have on hand and merge the ingredients that the recipes share (like 2 cups of milk for one recipe and 2 cups of milk for another – just get a large container of milk).

Shop With Sense

Once you have that grocery list, head to the store(s), ideally focusing on just one store that has the best prices in your area. If you’re not sure which one that is, do some Google searching and get some pointers. If you’re still not sure, guess – you can always figure out of there are lower cost options later (just be sure to save your receipt for future comparisons). Again, don’t make this overly complicated for the sake of shaving a few more dollars off of it – don’t shop at four different stores at this point. Make it nice and easy.

Be Logical with Leftovers

You’re far better off preserving raw ingredients for future meals than preparing too much at a given meal and eating leftovers the next day. Raw ingredients – like a cooked chicken breast instead of a chicken-and-broccoli crepe – allow you the freedom to remix it in a lot of ways. That chicken breast can be diced and scrambled with eggs and cheese, sliced onto a sandwich, cubed into soup, and countless other things.

Use the Freezer

If you do make too much of something, freeze it. Give it some time to pass before reintroducing it. Eat it yourself for lunches. Leftovers are a good thing, but if someone is used to simply eating something different at every meal, you should give it some time between the main meal and leftovers. I suggest stocking some of them in clearly marked containers (like freezer Ziplocs) in the freezer. That way, at the end of the week, you can point to how many meals are just sitting waiting to be eaten.

Stock Your Pantry Carefully

It’s tempting when you start cooking at home to stock your pantry with every staple under the sun. Don’t fall into that trap. Buy ingredients as you actually need them and just put the excess of those specific purchases in the pantry for now. As your cooking skills and repertoire and adventurous nature grow, you’ll want more and more spices and ingredients, but if you buy all of it at this point, you’re simply putting the cart before the horse.

Don’t Only Cook at Home

One great way to make your case is to not eat every meal at home if your partner is not used to it. Go out one or two nights during the week. Remember, the key to lasting personal finance success is compromise, and you can make this entire change much more palatable if you do that right off the bat. Eat out a couple of nights and you’ll still be able to show impressive food savings from the week.

There are many, many great frugal tactics for minimizing your home food bill, but they really only work in a context where everyone is committed to doing just that. If you’re trying to simply show that you can save money by eating at home and that it’s pretty easy, make it easy. Compromise. Grow into this with your partner. Don’t make it a big, painful cold turkey switch. You can grow into the more challenging tactics later on.

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  1. EngineerMom says:

    I would love to see the response from this reader on the results of the challenge!

  2. Kat says:

    Well said Trent. Also; there are health savings which cannot be measured directly. When you prepare your own food you know what’s in it.

  3. moom says:

    If you don’t like to cook then you need to place a value on the time used too. Still, I find it strange that people don’t cook for themselves at all as a lot can be done in even 15-20 minutes.

  4. AnneKD says:

    Take a look at Allrecipes.com, too- there are tons of easy-to-make recipes there. Epicurious can be a bit overwhelming. Church/organization cookbooks (borrow from friends/neighbors/church library) are also full of easy good recipes- many people who donate recipes are concerned with their reputation as good cooks.

  5. Lauren says:

    Honestly, I started cooking everything at home and going out only twice a week for Dinner and saving around $100 a week! And epicrious is great but I’ve really been liking the Whole Foods App that allows you to input what you have in your fridge into and it will give you recipes for what you have, huge saver for those days when you think your fridge is ‘empty’ when it really isn’t.

  6. AndreaS says:

    It can be deceptively expensive when first buying ingredients to prepare foods at home. For example, you might buy a few jars of spices (expensive) but use a teeny fraction to prepare food the first week. You might decide on the big bag of frozen peas because it is cheaper by the pound, even though most will be put back in the freezer for another week. So rather than saving your receipts for the week, it would be more accurate comparison to figure roughly the cost of the percentage of these foods you eat.

    If you buy food properly, you will not spend the same amount every week. This is because when you see really good deals, you will want to stock up.

    It is not hard for two people to eat on $200 per month.

  7. I hope Connie made an official bet because she is going to win hands down. Cooking at home is a much better economical choice than eating out.

  8. MikeTheRed says:

    What I remember most about making the transition from eating out all the time to cooking was how ridiculously expensive those first few shopping trips were. When you’re paying $10-$20 at a shot for meals out, it *feels* like less than a single $200 grocery bill that will feed you for most of a month.

    It’s sticker shock, which has little to do with the reality of how much is actually being spent.

    I think the two-week challenge idea is great. It will force him to look at the spending as a whole and realize that maybe it is more expensive.

    The real trick though is trying to find ways to get him interested in/excited about cooking. The finances of eating out got me to cook at home, but it wasn’t anything particularly good until I started to get interested in cooking in general. At that point, I got into experimentation, discovered new goodies and techniques. It became a bit of a game for me, and that’s when it really started to take off.

  9. Michelle says:

    Yeah, try Allrecipes.com. Epicurious is way overwhelming for a beginner…

  10. Barb says:

    It’s worth mentioning that although in the long term cooking at home is much cheaper, if someone does not have the pantry and the basic cooking supplies already at hand, initial shopping will be more expensive. If one is to do this as an exercise, I would present it as assuming you had the pantry in effect and just figuring out the cost of….. I mean if this couple has to go buy five pounds of flour to make three popovers, the cost is going to be pretty high. After moving from a foreign country back to the us a couple years a go (food could not be shipped) I still have in fairly recent memory the sticker shock of buying vanilla and flour and sugar and cooking oil and five spices each week and soy sauce and vinegar and marinades and everything else on that long list.

  11. Sue F says:

    It’s much better to eat at home. Much more fun, and a big savings. Go to an interesting ethnic restaurant for a big splurge.

  12. Jules says:

    @ Barb (#7)

    Well-said. I’d suggest that they do the caculations based on how much of the ingredients they us.

    And let’s not forget the all-important question of where to put it all…that’s actually been a bigger drawback for me, in terms of stocking a kitchen.

  13. You can save tons by cooking at home, no question.

    Also, since we almost exclusivley cook at home, when you do decide to go out, it is for a reward for a job well done of some sort.

    All the ideas are great “basics” for getting started–hopefully, someone in the household has a passion for cooking. Otherwise, some of it may seem like a real chore.

  14. Tracy W says:

    Kat – how do you know what’s in your food when you prepare it at home? I typically don’t know what parasites my veges might have been fighting off before picked, resulting in raised levels of toxic chemicals in their tissues. Nor do I know much about the chemical make-up of the soil they were raised in. And also, what’s the point of knowing what’s in the food you’re eating if you don’t know how it interacts with the rest of your body? And how much do most people know about that sort of thing?

    It does save money to cook at home, but you need to know a lot of other things to know what you are putting into your body.

  15. deRuiter says:

    Cooking at home is cheaper, you don’t have to tip the staff, drive to the restaurant, pay to park, dress up. You have control of quality of ingredients, and there isn’t some tubercular illegal coughing on your food. On the other hand, there’s food buying, food prep and clean up. Start with simple basic recipes: roast chicken, salads, real macaroni and cheese, an omlet, scrambled eggs with additions, Trent’s recipes, broiled fish, throw some vegetable heavy kebobs on the outdoor grill. Think about it, illiterate, uneducated, primitive people have been cooking satisfying and healthy meals for their families for thousands of years, mostly without electric appliances. Anyone who can read can cook, and if you’re not good at reading watch the “America’s Test Kitchen” shows and make the meals they prepare. Simple cooking is easy! You can eat what you want, when you want, for pennies on the restaurant dollar. Don’t spend $200. stocking your pantry! Buy the ingredients you need for a few meals, including condiments for THOSE meals. Then buy as you go along, only whqat is missing for the next few recipes. That way you won’t end up with wasted food like the can of chick peas which we finally demoted to a door stop and eventually the contents went into the compost and the can into recycling.

  16. Kate says:

    I wish that I had the money that I spent eating out when my husband and I were first married. It seemed cheaper and easier at the time but I know now that it wasn’t. And we weren’t even eating at fancy restaurants.
    Just a point…I have found that the spices located in the section with Mexican food are much cheaper.

  17. KAD says:

    Neat suggestion, Trent. I bet TSD readers would be interested in a followup post, if Connie’s husband does accept the challenge.

    I wonder if the husband grew up in a household with a lousy cook? That might be part of the resistance. The other emotional roadblock to cooking at home, I find, is the “hassle” of remembering what to cook. I sometimes have forgotten by Wednesday what meals I was panning on Saturday when I went shopping, and I find myself thinking “There’s nothing to eat!”, so it’s important for me to write down a list of what meals I can make with this weeks groceries and post it on the fridge.

    Good Luck, Connie!

  18. anne says:

    i’m wondering what connie’s fiance’s favorite kinds of foods are, and also if he might get into cooking on the grill. a lot of guys who hate to cook still LOVE to go outside and grill.

    if connie could make dinners similar to what he orders when they’re out, that might help. i remember having friends of my husband over and making a bag of already seasoned steak fries in a big cast iron skillet. they were raving about how they tasted just like their favorite restaurant’s. these fries usually cost more than the big bags of plain fries, but a lot less than a side at a restaurant.

    and if he likes a nice steak, grilling one at home might make him happy. it might cost a bit more than most people’s average at home meal, but it will be a fraction of what the restaurant will charge.

    and connie- if your husband likes pork chops and potatoes, please try paula deen’s recipe for farmers pork chops. it is my husband’s favorite. he literally picks up his plate and licks it when he’s done.

    i follow her recipe, but will use goya adobo if i don’t have lawry’s seasoned salt on hand. also, i make the white sauce first, and slice the potatoes right into it and stir it up- i don’t first slice them into water to keep them from browning.

    also, connie- if your husband will eat a salad, home made salad dressing is easy to make, and tastes a million times better than what most restaurants are serving. some olive oil, vinegar or lemon juice, a little mustard, salt and pepper, and maybe a little bit of chopped garlic or onions or shallots is all you need.

    and oh- does he like garlic bread?? super easy to do. i use 1/2 butter and 1/2 olive oil, a little fresh garlic, and that’s it. the easiest way is to just slice the loaf horisontally straight down the middle, spread the butter mixture on, and put it in the oven for a few miuntes while you’re plating the rest of the dinner. then after it’s a little toasted, slice it up.

    and i think KAD might be right- my mom was a bad cook who used cheap ingredients and skimped on everything except portion size. every meal was an unpleasant experience, in every aspect. i don’t even like thinking about it.

  19. Kathy says:

    Home Ec 101.com is also a good resource for the beginner home cook. There is an entire category on meal planning.

    I can vouch for KAD’s (#11) theory. I never used to like to cook because my mother is not a very good cook. Most of the food she made came from a jar or was very bland with no flavor because my father hates any and all kinds of flavor or spices. My husband wasn’t much of a cook because he grew up in a house where he ate nothing but processed food and take-out food. His mother did not cook and the processed food really has messed up his eating habits and taste buds.

    It’s amazing how food can be such a sensory experience and how being exposed to bad cooking can really mess with your perception of food. I learned to love to cook because I discovered that food doesn’t have to be bland. I discovered Food Network (when it was more about how to cook and less about reality competitions) and Taste of Home (when it felt more like you were getting recipes and advice from your grandma and less “foodie”), and that’s how I got more into it. Now, I’m more of an advanced cook and willing to experiment with things.

    Yes, if the pantry isn’t well stocked, then your initial investment will be a bit more. You do need to figure the cost per meal/serving when you cook at home rather than the entire grocery bill. You won’t use an entire bottle of spices on one meal.

    This thread is making me hungry now. :-)

  20. rosa rugosa says:

    Trent, you had mentioned a while ago that when people eat out to “save time,” they are often not considering the time spent traveling to/from the restaurant, ordering and waiting for the food, and then waiting for the check. I thought that was a good point worth reiterating in any eat out/eat in comparison.

  21. Fatcat says:

    What about nutrition though?

  22. Brittany says:

    If you plan carefully, there doesn’t need to be an expensive “sticker shock” to the first week of eating at home. I keep myself on a strict $25/week food budget, and I built up my pantry completely from scratch over a couple of weeks without going over the food budget. Stick to simple, stick to “first-order” foods (minimally processed when you buy them–do the processing yourself), stick to on-sale meat, and prioritize your staples so you’re only buying a few each week. Try to find a store with a bulk spice section in your town (probably not good for your everyday shopping)–it’s a good way to add flavor as needed, paying a couple cents for the amount of spice you need.

    And don’t hate on leftovers! Twice the meals with half the work! I’m a fan.

  23. Joe G. says:

    On the Nutrition thing…
    Cooking at home, you will invariably eat healthier. Even if you make no conscious choice to eat healthy, you will make the foods with less fat, grease, etc. simply because it will “look ridiculous to have all that fat in the pan with the ground beef.” Being in control of the cooking process, will lead you to making smarter decisions about WHAT you put in your body, not just how much, and how much it costs.
    Trying to balance protein, starches, and vegetables will make you healthier, wealthier, and wiser than most. Good luck to all who make the attempt. I did it, and it has been great!

  24. Claudia says:

    I had to laugh at the suggestions of growing up with a bad cook. My mother was terrible, I think she thought most spices were sinful or risque-she had some peculiar ideas. We used to put ketchup on her spaghetti to give it flavor!

  25. Lynn says:

    I have to agree with #14 – it takes two hours to go out to eat sometimes. It takes me 20 minutes to make dinner and then another 30 to eat it (I’m a slow eater). Then about 10 minutes to clean up.

    Some dinners are even easier! 5 minute prep time, then it cooks all day in a crockpot with no extra effort from me.

    The initial sticker shock is definitely huge though. I spent $140 last night on groceries and I still have to spend another $60, but my pantry was very bare (we’ve been eating pancakes for dinner because I couldn’t do groceries with the weather – I’m in Houston). That included $20 for a HUGE bag of rice, brown rice, beans, spices, veggies, fruits, canned stuff…lots and lots. Next time I shop, I’ll spend that $60 and be set for two weeks.

  26. Lynn says:

    Excuse me, set for two MORE weeks*.

  27. Cheap Texan says:

    I plan meals for 28 days (one meal for each day for 4 weeks). I don’t cook every day, but planning for every day gets me through a month and a half. I make a grocery list for every week and it’s divided into fresh/pantry items. I usually do a big shop and get all the items that won’t expire and then do a weekly shop for all the fresh ingredients. It takes some work up front, but the time saved for the next month and a half is amazing! Plus, you save money because you can watch for items to go on sale or substitute for items that are on sale (if you were going to cook green beans as a side, but broccoli is cheaper, then get broccoli instead). The other benefit is that if you have ingredients for 7 meals, you can make those meals in any order. So, if you have a busy day, then you can choose something that’s fast and simple.

  28. KC says:

    The biggest challenge for me when we married 10 years ago is the quantity of food men eat! I grew up in an all female household except for my poor dad. Dad is about 6-4, 180 so he didn’t eat much – LOL! But men expect to eat dinner…every night. They expect meat … with every meal (except b’fast, in my husband’s case). This floored me. I’d often go meatless for days – not on purpose, just cause I didn’t have any to eat. I could easily make a meal out of a few vegetables, soup, and some fruit for dessert. I had to start going to the grocery store twice a week to buy enough food, instead of the usual once every two weeks I was used to as a bachelorette.

  29. Michelle says:

    Here’s a question, what do you recommend for someone who HATES cooking. I mean, would rather get a root canal than stand in front of the stove. That’s me. I’m not bad at it, I just hate it. I do it, because I want to save money, but I still end up ordering pizza every now and again because I hate cooking so much. Any advice?

  30. Lisa says:

    Perhaps your hubby-to-be is rationalizing a fear of cooking. Ask him what he really hates about cooking (the time involved, coordinating dishes so they turn out done at the same time, cleaning up, etc.). If he had a former significant other or family who denigrated his few early attempts at cooking, he will do anything to avoid criticism in the future. Our first attempts at cooking are emotional experiences, like love and money and a lot of basic human experiences. Whenever my husband and I find we come up against an ‘emotional wall’ or get angry about something, we take out our shovels and start digging for the root cause, you’d be surprised at what you’ll find.

    Cooking together, budgeting, eliminating debt, creating an emergency fund, showering together ;-) and other fun stuff are serious bonding excercises you will find pay off bigtime for the rest of your married life.

  31. LG says:

    Michelle – try a crockpot. On those days that I cannot stand the idea of standing over the stove due to the heat, or when I do not have the time to stay in the kitchen – I use my crockpot. A whole chicken thrown in the crock with a 1/2 a bottle of BBQ sauce on it creates a good BBQ chicken four hours later. A salad and a loaf of French bread from the store=dinner that I did not have to “cook”, but cost less than if I had bought the chicken already cooked. I started with this and now have meals that I make once a month and freeze, specifically for throwing into the crockpot when I do not want to cook. Even lasagne – just layer raw lasagne noodles with veggies like zucchini or spinach, and cottage cheese, top with a jar of spaghetti sauce and a handful of grated cheese on top, four hours later = lasagne. Again serve with a salad and bread. There, two meals for this week with very little “cooking”. Ask friends if you can borrow a crockpot before you buy one, to see if you like using it. You can also find them at resale/thrift shops often. My freezer and crockpot have broken me of the “must go out because there is nothing to eat” habit.

  32. Gretchen says:

    “making food at home isn’t the hard chore that many people make it out to be.”

    Easy or hard has nothing to do with how much money you save.

  33. Julie says:

    I think you are too down on leftovers, Trent. I know not everyone likes them. In my family, we eat leftovers a lot. The reason we eat leftovers is because it saves cooking time. Why should I slave (er, cook) seven nights a week, when I can cook three or four nights a week and we literally have no waste? We don’t have the money to cook double; nor do we have enough freezer space to freeze the extra. If you don’t want leftovers, plan it so you don’t cook so much the first time. Or reduce your portion sizes. It works for us.

  34. Barb says:

    I do however have dto disagree with the “just buy em as you need em” advixe for pantry supplies. The only way to shop sensibly is to buy staples at loss leader prices. Therefore, one needs to make a list of the basics (of which there are many online) and start stocking up. Eventually, everyone will use vinegar, oil, basic seasonings, broth, and so on and so forth. Don’t wait until you need it to buy it, that entails another trip to the store.

  35. anne says:

    hey michelle (#20)

    a few months back i was injured, and had to spend a few weeks really taking it easy. on the way back from the dr’s office, i stopped at trader joe’s and bought as much prepared meals as i thought my freezer would hold. not for me and the kids so much- i can feed us quick and easy meals. i did it for my husband.

    i was shocked at how easy it was to clean up from dinner each night w/out all the pots and pans from cooking.

    even though it costs more for prepared meals this way, it is still way less expensive than eating out. i can feed all of us on less than what i usually leave for a tip.

    maybe don’t do this for every single meal, but for a few it could help your budget.

  36. anne says:

    hey #23 julie- i’m w/ you on leftovers

    and some things even taste better the next day, or after they’ve been set aside in the freezer- i’m thinking of pasta and cheese dishes especially. lasagna is ALWAYS better the next time around.

  37. Mark Gavagan says:

    “Great groceries are much cheaper than restaurants”

    We spend a considerable amount of money on healthy and high-quality groceries so we have food in the house in order to make food that tastes great and we really look forward to eating.

    I’m not talking about $30 per pound cheeses and $200 wine, but fresh local food that’s filled with flavor and nutrition.

    We also switched from a large to medium-sized pizza, which saves a only a few dollars, but also saves on calories. We also use grilled peppers from home as a topping, which tastes great (IMHO) and adds a few vitamins.

    Thanks for reading.

  38. almost there says:

    Michelle, the only way out of cooking is to live with some who likes to cook. I do most of the cooking as my spouse thinks it is a chore to be accomplished along same level as cleaning the bathroom.

  39. Single guy says:

    As a single person, I disagree. I cook some breakfasts at home, but cooking for myself can get tedious and there are too many leftovers. I am devoted to my fitness routine and I usually buy dinner from the hot food bar at Whole Foods. I also buy lunch there for the next day and buy what items I need for breakfast. I lost weight over the last year and a half of doing this. I don’t have the time after my workout for fixing dinner. I vary it by some Thai takeout or Pollo Loco. Sometimes I buy the family packs at Whole Foods to reheat.

  40. tom says:

    if your going to share your life with another then there is going to be sacrifice. besides, eating is an adventure. cook for yourself. it’s fun, or can be.

  41. Maria S says:

    Cooking from scratch is WAY cheaper – BUT it does take skill and a certain amount of “liking to cook” or at least tolerating it. It also gives you control over your health – less salt, sugar, chemical additives, therefor, lower medical bills in the long run if you’re lucky! I love to cook but even my brain runs out of ideas and hubby “cooks” for a couple days – usually take out.
    Everyone is different but hey – you’re in it together right? You should both be open to trying it both ways!

  42. Maria S says:

    Oh- we did the math when our kitchen was torn up for two weeks. Pizza and takeout every night doesn’t work and $30 a night for a restaurant PLUS two hours of our time – you have GOT to be kidding…

  43. Maria S says:

    and if you really want to kick it… How’s $35 for dinners for the whole week? Not excactly gourmet fare but hey –
    http://www.5dollardinners.com/

  44. 8sml says:

    @Michelle: Potential solutions depend on what you hate about cooking. If it’s time in front of the stove you don’t like, you can reduce that by being selective about what you cook (for example, rice noodles cook up far more quickly than pasta), making meals that don’t use the stove (salads, sandwiches with purchased bread/pitas), using technology (rice cooker vs rice on the stove) or arranging with another person to make larger-quantity meals and share them with each other. But my favourite technique is to cook more than you can eat at a single sitting, then live off the leftovers. I used to cook three or four big meals on the weekend and mostly live off that during the week. Essentially, if you cook two meals’ worth of food when you cook, you can cook half as often. Get that up to four meals’ worth and…you get the picture. If you get sick of eating the same thing over and over, make a few different meals that week so you can alternate leftovers.

  45. prufock says:

    I second a follow-up post, or even a series of them, documenting the challenge! Sounds like it would be an interesting read.

  46. Kathy says:

    @Michelle…There is no law that says that when you cook, you have to make everything from scratch. If all you can handle is opening a jar of spaghetti sauce, buying and baking prepared garlic bread, and boiling the spaghetti, then so be it. Take baby steps and start with dishes that involve little prep or having to stand and watch over something. Or try cooking something in a crock pot. There are lots of recipes out there that involve just dumping things into the crock pot, turning it on, and walking away.

    There’s nothing that says that you have to cook every night. Start with one night cooking at home and then work your way up.

    About a month ago, I was laid up for a week with a back injury and couldn’t stand up to cook. Hubby was in charge and we had take out. It does add up, even if it’s only hitting the drive through.

  47. Cindy says:

    When trying a new recipe, i buy just the amount of spice i need , i.e. a tablespoon or two, from a the bulk food section of the grocery store. It usually costs just a few cents for a spice that I don’t normally keep in my pantry.

  48. Laura says:

    for those who hate to cook, I’m going to suggest stepwise meals – meals that build on the leftovers from earlier in the week. For example, the first day you roast a chicken. That night, toss the carcass in a crock pot to make stock. Next day, make some easy chicken noodle soup. Next day, chicken quesadillas. Next day, big salad w/ chicken (Caesar, Asian chicken salad, whatever you like). You can also freeze the stock &/or meat to make these “leftover meals” later if you don’t want to eat chicken all week – but the principle is the same, one night of “real cooking” and several nights of 5 or 10 minute prep. You can also buy a ton of prepared ingredients (see Real Simple’s Fake it, Don’t Make It) that make it really easy, and are still cheaper than eating out, if not as cheap as cooking from scratch or as healthy.

  49. Rich says:

    Great post. I absolutely LOVE food. I can’t get enough. We’d go out to eat all the time – the newest restaurant in our rapidly gentrifying urban neighborhood. It seems like there’s a new one opening every week. Then we’d hit our old favorites. Between two of us, we were spending $1,200 a month on food. It’s really easy to do between two people: That’s $20 a day per person ($10 for lunch, $10 for dinner).

    Once I tallied that info up, I got scared. Then I started cooking. We eat like kings, and spend $400 a month on groceries. Grass-fed beef, organic veggies, free-range eggs, wine and cream and whole milk. Luckily we just found a store nearby that sells grass-fed beef and organic veggies for less than what a normal supermarket charges for grain-fed/non-organic. We literally have not a want in the world when it comes to food.

    Now when we go out to eat, we’re usually disappointed about how bland things taste, how much salt is used, the low-grade ingredients and the expense. I can now cook food that’s better for us and MUCH tastier.

  50. Steffie says:

    I second the poster who mentioned grilling to get the man involved in cooking. We no longer use the kitchen stove in the summer, the propane grill took it’s place. And my man now plans the meals, shops and cooks. It goes along with his need to provide and satisfys his caveman instincts ! It helps if you have a grill with a burner on the side for cooking the pasta etc.

  51. matt says:

    Check ‘The best simple recipes’ from ATK out of your local library, I have been cooking 2-3 nights a week out of this book, all the recipes are delicious, and all of them are 30 mins or less including all prep. Its a great way to start cooking at home, I’m always amazed how quickly they go, and has improved my disposition towards cooking on weeknights, I used to dread it, but then again I was doing 3 hour roasts, or lasagna from scratch etc. The shortcuts really make it more enjoyable.

  52. Catty says:

    I agree with #15 FatCat — healthy nutrition is of primary importance. Saving $$ by cooking at home is very smart IF you use wholesome, preferably organic, natural foods and avoid artificially or chemically or genetically derived faux food-ingredients.

  53. Becky says:

    Other great sources for cooking help are video blogs. I’m sure that whatever you like to eat, someone has been making how-to videos about it.

    Watching someone show how to cook something has so much more information than a description in a cookbook or online recipe. You don’t need to know specialized cooking terms, for example, and where a cookbook says “high heat,” on a video you can see the amount of sizzle (or lack thereof) the cook is adjusting the heat to get. So an inexperienced cook has a better idea of what they’re going for.

    The video bloggers I like cook food in ordinary apartment kitchens using everyday equipment, which I appreciate too. Blogs are almost like learning to cook from an actual grammie. (Though my actual grammies did not cook much – it’s the feeling that counts!)

  54. Abnermil says:

    My husband and I used savingdinner.com with great success. We try things we never would have otherwise, the recipes are simple and good, the pantry is stocked because we bought according to the provided shopping list… We needed help planning and savingdinner.com was/is a great tool.

  55. Melissa says:

    I recommend E-mealz.com. It is a wonderful and delicious tool to help you cook more at home. For $5 a month you get weekly recipes and shopping lists based on the size of your family and where you shop. Most of the recipes are awesome, the shopping list is already made and you can still go out once or twice a week.
    It also has a menu for people on weight watchers (like myself) that plans wonderful, healthy meals and gives you the point values. It is a no-brainer for me and I waste SO much less food and enjoy cooking.

  56. JB says:

    RE: leftovers. Two things: first–while there are things I love left over, like stew or a casserole; there are others I don’t like at all, like steak. So I’m careful to plan quantities where there are not leftovers of things I don’t like to eat left over. Second, I stagger the leftovers so I don’t usually eat them two meals or days in a row. So if I make stew on Sunday, I’ll eat it for dinner on Sunday and then lunch or dinner on Tuesday. Monday I might make something that will leave leftovers for Wednesday, or just a single serving meal like an omelet.

    RE: Planning in advance. I plan to cook three meals a week. By the time I eat out once, am tired from work and just eat cereal once, and then eat leftovers, I’ve usually got the week covered. I also try to plan meals that use the same fresh ingredients so I don’t have a lot of waste. I have a reasonably well stocked pantry and freezer and then I just buy the fresh ingredients I need for the week. The only fresh stuff I always have is milk, eggs, butter, onions, garlic, and pico de gallo. I make one quick weekly trip for fresh stuff and once per month on one of those trips I do the “heavy” shopping to restock the pantry, freezer, and buy household items.

    RE: ATK. I can’t agree more about America’s Test Kitchen as a resource. Of course I’m a little obsessed with Cooks Illustrated in general. I happened upon the charter issue as a teenager and have been hooked ever since. For those that don’t know, they have two magazines, two websites, MANY books, and a television show on PBS. The focus is on simple food, well prepared, and as from-scratch as possible.

    RE: Making cooking easier. In basketball and in cooking, it’s all about the fundamentals. I couldn’t figure out for the longest time why all those 30 minute recipes took me 90 minutes. After a cooking class where the instructor went over basic chopping, I finally figured out where I was running up the clock. It no longer takes me 30 minutes to mince an onion or a carrot. Now that I know how to do that, I sold the mini chopper a garage sale. Why dirty an appliance when I can do it now in 2 minutes with a knife and cutting board. Also, be sure to read a recipe all the way through to make sure you understand and then assemble the ingredients before hand. Equipment matters. I’m not saying you need a kitchen full of copper pots and every appliance known to man, but you are going to get better results with decent cookware than the flimsy, paper thin one from the dollar store.

    Finally, keep it simple. I love to cook and when I have weekend guests or a party, I can put on a show. However, I’m single and have a demanding job so during the week, it’s all about ease and quantity control–since I don’t want to waste time or food—omelets, pasta, a steak, or soup. Most people don’t think about it but I think soup is actually easy to make for one person. I’m not saying you can make clam chowder for one but a can of black beans and some pico de gallo makes two servings of black bean soup. A can of chicken stock, a handful of frozen tortellini, some frozen vegetables, and some vegetable juice can make a quick minestrone soup. Both of those take about 15 minutes.

  57. Emma says:

    I’m surprised that after 50-odd comments, I didn’t see anyone mention freezer cooking yet! I generally love cooking, but of course there’s days that I just feel lazy – so I prepare for these in advance by having a “freezer-filling day” once every couple months. I take a day to shop for and cook up a bunch of things that freeze well – casseroles, sauces, cooked meats and veggies, etc, until the freezer is almost full. Then later when I’m having a lazy day, I can just pop something in the microwave.

  58. Suzanne says:

    Ooh, this sounds like a great challenge!
    I like to do once weekly shopping (based on the grocery fliers and coupons) to get the best deals. My husband on the other hand would prefer to decide what he wants to eat around dinnertime then go to the supermarket, pick up those items, and go from there. I think that is just as inefficient in terms of time and money.
    So, I handle all the cooking and shopping and he eats everything I make happily. If he is craving something specific, he will get the ingredients on his own and make it himself.
    Unfortunately he does not contribute to my grocery money, but as a trade-off he will almost always pay when we go out to eat after softball or on the weekends. We just got married, so maybe someday we will combine and my money will be his and vice versa…mwahaha! :)

  59. Marcia says:

    It’s definitely cheaper to cook at home. I’ve gotten into that argument with more than one person who says it’s cheaper to eat out.

    But as Single Guy says, cheaper isn’t the only reason. I know when I was single, I ate out a LOT (and got fat too). If I cooked once a week, that was a lot. My boyfriend (now husband) cooked most of the time. When he moved away for school, it was back to eating out. My fridge had beer, bagels, cream cheese, and diet coke.

    Even now, when my spouse travels, I often go back to basics on dinner (grilled cheese, bagels, quesadillas) with just enough raw fruits and veggies to give my child a balanced meal. (Heck do that when hub is in town even.)

    If you are single though, even just cooking a big pot of something 2x a week would be useful. Enough for 6 meals. Eat half, save half. After the first week, you’ll have 3 servings each of four different items that you can eat for that week. That’s 12 servings, or lunch and dinner every day for 6 days. Friday lunch out at work and Sat night out with the boys (or girls).

  60. Glad to see you are a fan of the grocery list! For shopping lists, I use ZipList. It’s free and there’s a free iPhone app too. I like it because it automatically categorizes and I can share lists with my husband. I did a review post of this app fairly recently as part of a series on money-saving iPhone apps series on my blog: http://couponcravings.com/2010/06/money-saving-iphone-app-14-ziplist.html.

    Erin
    CouponCravings.com

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