If you live in a city and have a busy schedule, it is really easy to fall into a cycle of eating out almost every night.
This used to be me. I worked in a city, but I actually lived in a small town that was a good dozen miles away. In the evenings, many of my social events were in the city, so I would often find reasons to just stay in the city. That meant eating out for dinner between the end of work and the start of my social events. I’d get off work at four and intend to go to an event at six, so instead of driving almost half an hour to get home, making supper, eating it, spending maybe half an hour at home, and then driving back, I’d just go out to eat.
Unsurprisingly, it got expensive. I didn’t just want to eat fast food every night, so I’d dine at various restaurants and it was rare that dinner cost me less than $10. Most nights, I would eat with friends or coworkers and have a few drinks with them, so the bill would quickly rise to $20 or $30.
Every night, almost every day of the month.
Let’s say it averaged $25. Let’s also say that I did it 70% of the time – 21 out of 30 days of the month. That’s $525 for meals, just for me, and just covering the evening meals 70% of the time. No breakfasts. No lunches. None of the other suppers. None of the food for anyone else in my home, either.
Nowadays, I rarely eat out at all. I eat out perhaps once every two weeks, usually with my whole family. Our entire family’s monthly food budget now hovers around $525 per month.
How did I make that change? There were several elements involved, so let’s look at them.
Live Closer to Work
The closer you live to the place where you work, the easier it is to eat at home. Since I now work from home, it’s very easy to make meals and eat at home.
This used to be much more difficult. My daily commute was about half an hour long each way, so that ate into the time that I could use for meal preparation at home. I often wouldn’t get home until 5:30 or 6:00, meaning that if I launched into meal preparation, I could scarcely get even the fastest of meals on the table by 6:30 or 7:00.
This can be difficult for many people, particularly if they work in a very expensive area. Just keep your eyes open for opportunities, whether it’s moving closer to work, moving your work closer to you, or telecommunting some of the time.
In those days, most of my social events were at least half an hour away from home. This made driving home and then driving to those social events quite restrictive as I’d spend an hour just driving back and forth. That took time and fuel and vehicle wear-and-tear.
Over time, I’ve made an effort to find more social opportunities close to home. I made an effort to build friendships in my local community and in communities near my home. I tried out all kinds of social events in my local community as well.
These days, my social life is centered in an area near my home. This means that I don’t have to travel far from my home to social events. It is thus easier to eat at home between work and evening social activities than to eat out. (This would be true if I were working outside of the home as well.)
Use a Slow Cooker
One option to avoid a lengthy prep time after work yet still enjoy a home-cooked meal with fresh ingredients is to utilize a slow cooker. Choose a recipe, put the ingredients in the slow cooker in the morning, set the timer (I recommend using an outlet timer instead of a programmable slow cooker), and then come home to a hot meal that’s ready to eat. You can even set the table before you leave so that you’re eating within a minute or two of arriving home.
This requires some advance thinking and planning, of course. You have to have a good estimate of your time arriving home (within an hour or so) and have the ingredients on hand in the morning as well as several minutes to load and set the slow cooker.
Given that, there are a lot of recipes that work well in the slow cooker. You can find thousands of slow cooker recipes online and there are many slow cooker cookbooks. In fact, here’s a collection of eight of my family’s favorite slow cooker recipes from an earlier post here on The Simple Dollar.
Use Make-Ahead Meals
Make-ahead meals refer to fully-prepared meals that you freeze just before the final cooking (or after) and instead store in freezer-safe containers in your freezer. The night before you’re going to use them, you pull out the meals and put them in your refrigerator instead (or on your countertop, moving them to the fridge in the morning). When you arrive home, you pop the meal straight into the oven. This gives you another home-cooked meal option that’s a bit easier.
This requires prep time as well, but it’s very flexible prep time. You can make these kinds of meals on the weekends or whenever you have time. The only thing you actually have to do in advance is take them from the freezer and move them to the refrigerator the night before, then pop them in the oven when you get home.
This usually does require you to have an hour or so at home before the meal’s done, but that time is not spent on food preparation. It can be spent on whatever your life needs of you.
Again, there are a lot of recipes for make-ahead meals online and there are whole cookbooks devoted to the topic. You can find a make-ahead version of almost anything you want to eat.
Have a Well-Stocked Pantry
A well-stocked pantry means that you can throw together a meal at almost any time using non-perishable foods (or foods with a long shelf life) at any time.
For example, we keep several jars of tomato sauce, lots of herbs and spices, and several boxes of pasta in our pantry at all times. If we ever find ourselves needing a quick meal because of a change of events, I can get a spaghetti dinner on the table in about thirteen minutes. (Trust me, I’ve clocked it.) This only works if you always have those ingredients on hand, of course.
There are a lot of meals you can prepare in this way, but knowing them relies on yet another factor…
Have Some “Go-To” Recipes
You really need to have a big handful of recipes that you know like the back of your hand, that you could prepare nearly blindfolded. If you have several meals that you could practically make in your sleep, it’s easy to throw them together when needed.
I can make scrambled eggs and pancakes like a well-oiled machine while doing something else (like talking on the phone). I can prepare spaghetti and marinara sauce just how my family likes it in the same nearly-automatic way. There’s a basic stir fry recipe that I know how to assemble out of almost any vegetables we have on hand. I can make an excellent spiced red beans and rice very quickly, too, along with some corn bread.
All of these recipes are ones that I quite like and our family likes, too. All of us will happily eat any of those meals, so there’s no complaints.
The key to all of these things is just knowing the recipe and the techniques cold. Find some recipes that your family likes – trust me, this is an absolute key – and make them over and over again. They’ll become automatic faster than you think. Then, just make sure you have the items on hand for at least a couple of them all of the time.
You can even go farther and prepare “helpers” for these meals. For example, on the weekend, you could prep all of the vegetables for your stir fry and put them in a baggie, then pull out that baggie on Tuesday night and start the stir fry really quickly. Cook the beans in advance for your red beans and rice so that you can, again, just pull out the bean container from the fridge and start cooking.
The goal here is to make it as easy and flexible as possible to prepare meals for yourself and your family at home. The more obstacles you remove – things like a difficult social calendar or a lack of things to prepare or a lack of good ideas – the easier it is to just choose to go home and eat instead of eating out.
Eventually, eating out becomes a treat. It moves from being the ordinary into being something special. A meal cooked at home becomes the ordinary thing instead and at a much cheaper rate.
The end result? Meals eaten out become a treat and you end up with a lot of extra cash in your pocket.