Comparing Dining Options

One of the most frequent questions I’m asked revolves around comparing eating out to prepackaged meals and to making your own food. Quite often, people are looking for me to give a “thumbs up” to their decision to eat out because it saves time and effort, or they’re looking at prepackaged meals as an inexpensive way to save time. Here are my opinions on all of them in a nutshell.

Dining Out

In my eyes, eating out is a leisure activity that happens to include a meal. It’s almost always more expensive and it’s generally more time consuming than preparing your own meal at home (yes, even including the cleanup). While you can often get some incredibly tasty dishes eating out, the fact that you can prepare tasty things at home in less time indicates that you’re paying for the experience, not paying for the food itself.

In a nutshell, look at eating out as an experience above all, and save those opportunities for special occasions. I’d rather eat at the stellar Italian steakhouse near here twice a year than eat out at Applebee’s once a month, because I can prepare most of the Applebee’s food at home and save significant cash in the process.

Take Out / Delivery

Many people stop on their way home from work and pick up food, or else call upon arriving home and get the food delivered. This is usually good food that’s much more convenient than dining out – you just call or make a quick stop and it’s ready to go. For me, such options are the epitome of trading cash for a bit of time to unwind, but the question is how much time are you buying by doing this? Let’s say I call and get a pizza delivered – I spend two minutes on the phone and a minute accepting the delivery but it costs $18 (including the tip). Alternately, I could make my own pizza starting with scratch ingredients in a half an hour for about $3 worth of ingredients. Is that half an hour of unwinding worth $15?

Prepackaged Food

Here’s where many tight-budgeted people run into problems – prepackaged foods. Let’s say I can buy a frozen dinner that can be prepared in a few minutes for $8, or I could spend a half an hour at home preparing the same meal from scratch ingredients for $6. For many families, that half an hour is well worth the saved $2. But let’s say you do that every weekday for a month – suddenly, that’s $40. Also, many prepackaged foods are laden with preservatives and other ingredients of questionable repute.

Making Your Own Food

This is likely the cheapest and healthiest option, but also the most time-intensive. It gives you great control over what exactly your family is eating. The only drawback is the time – it eats up time in the evening that many families are hard-pressed to find.

My solution here is to find ways to prepare your own food quickly. For me, this means finding ways that home-prepared meals can replace prepackaged meals and take out in a personal or family food routine. The best methods I’ve found for this are:

Preparing triple or quadruple batches of some meals for storage

Generally, we make triple batches of pretty much any casserole we make and save the other two batches, after cooking, in a gallon size Ziploc freezer bag. Then, on a busy evening, we just yank out one of those bags from the freezer in the morning, let it thaw all day, then basically just heat it up in the evening (usually with some more spices). It’s as easy as any prepackaged meal.

Master very basic framework recipes

I touched on this in my review of The Complete Tightwad Gazette and I plan on touching on it in more detail later, but the general idea is to have two or three framework recipes that you know cold that can be heavily substituted with other ingredients. These should be simple – mix the stuff together and bake or cook in the skillet – so that you can whip them together any time. You can also triple batch these if you like. Here’s an example, from my review of The Complete Tightwad Gazette:

1 cup main ingredient
1 cup second ingredient
1-2 cups starchy ingredient
1 1/2 cups binder
1/4 cup “goodie”

Main ingredient: tuna, cubed chicken, turkey, ham, seafood, etc.
Second ingredient: thinly sliced celery, mushrooms, peas, chopped hard-boiled eggs, etc.
Starchy ingredient: thinly sliced potatoes, cooked noodles, cooked rice, etc.
Binder: cream sauce, sour cream, can of soup, etc.
“Goodie”: pimiento, olives, almonds, water chestnuts, etc.
Topping: cheese, bread crumbs, etc.

I have several of these frameworks that my wife and I both use quite regularly to make delicious meals out of whatever’s on hand. We also have a freezer that’s getting loaded down with Ziploc bagged meals for the first month or so after our daughter arrives.

In a nutshell, my perspective is:
dining out is an expensive experience and should generally be saved for special occasions
take out is an appropriate option on occasion, generally during evenings where other events cause you to not be home during a meal time
prepackaged meals should be saved in the freezer for emergencies (only if you don’t have any frozen homecooked meals in reserve)
home-prepared meals should be the baseline option, and with good planning can be used to replace take out and prepackaged meals in a food routine

For us, this generally balances the competition between the need for time and the need for spending less money while still eating quality food.

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