Balancing Inexpensive Cooking at Home and Family Time

Marilyn writes in:

If I go home after work and cook dinner, I have to spend half an hour in the kitchen by myself cooking and fifteen minutes after the meal cleaning up. If I pick up food after work, I can eat immediately with my family and there’s no cleanup and then I get 45 minutes more time with my family. That’s more than worth the few bucks I might save by cooking myself.

The gist of the rest of Marilyn’s email was that frugality tips centered around home food preparation weren’t very useful to her at all.

Let’s set the stage here. My wife and I are both employed full time. We have three children at home varying from elementary to middle school aged. Sarah and I both like being able to spend time with our children in the evening, just like Marilyn does. Yet, we prepare almost every meal we have as a family at home because the cost savings are huge for a family of five and because the meals at home are healthier and usually tastier. For us, the cost savings of home meal preparation is so large that we’d have to have some pretty major objections to it for other reasons to not prepare a meal at home.

At the same time, Marilyn does raise some good points about the time cost of home food preparation. It does mean that at least one family member is going to be spending some time in the kitchen, both during food preparation and during cleanup. That does take away time that one could be spending with the family on other activities.

However, the issue isn’t nearly as bleak as it seems in terms of family time. Let’s break down some of the less obvious factors in this picture and some of the things you can do to reduce the impact of food preparation on family time.

Ordering and Picking Up Food Has a Time Cost, Too

One thing that people often overlook when it comes to ordering food is that it has a time cost as well. Even if you’re looking at a highly efficient situation in which (a) you’re able to order while still at work for a pickup time, (b) you arrive at the restaurant close to that pickup time and can park close to the door, and (c) the food is actually ready when you arrive, you’re still losing a good five or ten minutes on your arrival time at home compared to just going straight home. You’re still driving over to the restaurant, getting the food, then driving away from the restaurant.

If anything in that scenario is less than optimal, the time goes up significantly. If you order from a restaurant that’s not right along your normal commute, you’re adding a lot of time. If you arrive too early, you’re adding time. If you arrive on time and they’re not ready for you, you’re adding time. Those aren’t rare situations.

You’re also still dealing with at least some cleanup when you get home. Most of the food packaging will go in the trash, filling up a trash bag much more quickly than it otherwise would and probably necessitating time to change garbage bags and take out the trash.

While those things might not take as much time all told as preparing a meal yourself, many people treat that time as not counting at all and think of picking up food as having zero time cost, which just isn’t true.

Cook in Pairs for One-on-One Family Time

If you’re finding that meal preparation is eating up a lot of family time, consider cooking in pairs.

Each night, simply designate one family member to help with the meal preparation. That person spends time with you in the kitchen and you work together preparing the meal, talking about life, and teaching and learning new kitchen skills.

This serves a number of benefits at once.

For starters, it gives you some one-on-one time with one of your children, which is great when you have multiple kids. I have three children and it’s sometimes very hard to find good one-on-one time with them. Cooking a meal together provides that one-on-one time. I get to ask that child about their day, find out how school is going, share some private jokes, maybe (if I’m lucky) be able to offer some decent advice – good parenting time, in other words.

Another good reason for this is that it provides a window for your children to pick up skills in the kitchen. You can teach your kids how to chop an onion, how to boil pasta, how to scramble eggs, and so on. This gives them a situation where they can practice those skills with guidance so that they’re undaunted by doing those tasks when they move away.

A third reason is that for many meals, cooking in pairs reduces prep time. Simply assign some of the straightforward tasks to your assistant chef and you can effectively multitask in the kitchen. For example, I might be pulling items out of the pantry while my daughter is filling up a pot with water so that it can boil. I might be cutting up a loaf of bread while my son is preparing a sauce from a recipe and occasionally asking questions. I might be straining the water off of some pasta while my son is setting the table. Of course, while this is all happening, we’re having a conversation about life, the universe, and everything.

Cooking in pairs almost always reduces prep time, gives you a chance to connect with your partner in cooking, and gives a great opportunity to teach life skills.

Clean Up as a Group for a Family Activity/Chore

Just as cooking can be a good multi-person activity, the cleanup can be, too. Plus, it’s something that several people can tackle at once.

At our house, if cleanup from a meal would take fifteen minutes, we just engage everyone and it takes perhaps five minutes. One person wipes down the table. Another person rinses dishes while a third person loads the dishwasher. A fourth person might be putting things away from the cooking that didn’t get put away before the meal was served. A fifth person is taking out the trash. We’re done in five minutes.

Not only that, those five minutes are often good moments for family bonding. We’ll have a couple of ongoing conversations or, as often happens around the holidays, we’ll sing some songs together while doing it. If it’s snowing, it’s virtually a guarantee that my daughter will start singing “Let It Snow” and then Sarah and I will start singing it somewhat to each other as we’re finishing up cleanup after the meal.

Yes, it’s cleanup time, but it’s quality family time, too. It doesn’t have to be a drudgery task for just one person, nor should it be.

Having everyone involved in cleanup after the meal gets it done way faster and gives a great opportunity for some family bonding.

Use a Slow Cooker

Another completely different angle on all of this is to simply use a slow cooker so that the meal is basically done when you arrive home. You simply fill up the slow cooker with ingredients and turn it on before you leave for the day and when you arrive home a home-cooked meal is either completely done or close to it.

We use it frequently to make soups, stews, and casseroles, and it can be used to cook wonderful roasts and chicken, too.

This effectively moves the meal prep time to the morning or, in part, to the night before, a tactic we’ll touch on again in a bit.

A meal in a slow cooker is even more efficient in the evening than stopping for takeout because the food is already done and waiting for you at home. All you have to do is drive straight home and eat, which means that you save the time you would have used stopping and picking up food.

I’ve written about slow cooker use many times in the past, but this article is my best compilation of tips for people in busy situations.

Use Meal Prep Days

Another really useful strategy for making meals work at home and balancing family time is to have “meal prep days,” perhaps on days when the family isn’t around or on a day when you have a family member or two willing to help.

Meal prepping simply means that you’re making a bunch of meals in advance and preparing them to the point that they can be packaged up and stored in the freezer for future use. Then, when you decide you want to use them, you pull them out of the freezer and let them thaw for a day or two, then finish cooking them.

A great example of this is lasagna. We often make four pans of homemade lasagna at once, using one of them for that night’s dinner and freezing the other three. We basically prepare the pans up to the point of putting them in the oven, then one goes in the oven and the other three are covered and put in the freezer.

At some point in the future, we’ll pull out one of those pans of lasagna, allow it to thaw for a couple of days in the fridge, and then on some particular busy night, Sarah or I will pop it in the oven and let it bake at 350 for an hour. There’s zero effort in the evening, in other words – you just flip on the oven and then an hour later the meal is done.

This strategy works incredibly well for soups and stews, too. Just make a giant cauldron of soup or stew, then separate it into freezer containers. All you have to do is reheat the leftover soup or stew for an evening meal at a later time, and many soups and stews are even better the second time around. (I actually prefer “second time” chili.)

What this strategy does is that it moves most of the meal prep time for a home cooked meal to another day entirely. It also leverages the benefits of simultaneous meal preparation to save overall time. For example, if I’m making four pans of lasagna at once, I only have to boil water once instead of four times (meaning only one pan and one strainer to clean), I only have to make the cheese layer mix once instead of four times (meaning only one bowl and one spoon to clean), and I only have to chop vegetables once instead of four times (meaning only one cutting board and one knife to clean).

The tasks are often faster, too, because you can combine tasks. For example, once you’ve set up a cutting station, you can use it to chop up all of the vegetables for four or five meals instead of one. You only have one setup and one cleanup, but it covers several meals at once.

Even if my kids have something else they need to be doing, like homework, I’ll have them do it at the kitchen table during dinner prep so we can be near each other and I can answer questions if they have them.

Here’s a nice guide to twelve great strategies for a successful meal prep day that I wrote last year if you’re interested in this tactic.

Move Some Meal Prep Tasks to the Morning or the Night Before (or Even Earlier)

Yet another strategy I like to employ to give us more family time in the evenings is to handle some of the meal prep tasks the morning before the meal or the evening before or sometimes even a day or two beforehand.

You can do things like chopping vegetables a day or two in advance by putting chopped vegetables in a container in the fridge. You can cook your beans and your rice in advance and keep them in a container in the fridge. You can make sauces and mixes in advance and keep them around for when you need to use them.

You can even synergize these steps. Let’s say you have two meals you’ve planned this week that use beans. Simply cook a double batch of beans all at once on Sunday afternoon, put them in the fridge after they’ve cooled off, and then use half of them for Monday’s meal and the other half for Thursday’s meal. That way, you only have to deal with cooking beans once but you get the benefit of that effort with two different meals.

The Secret To Making Many of These Strategies Work Is Meal Planning

The secret sauce with all of these strategies is meal planning. If you come home with the intent of “throwing something together out of whatever’s in the fridge,” it’s probably not going to work out well. You’ll spend a ton of time looking through things and deciding what to make and that will just add to the meal prep time. Even worse, many of the above strategies, like making meals in a slow cooker, making them in advance, and handling meal prep elements at other times in the week are cut off to you.

Our family’s meal planning structure is described in this earlier article, but here’s a summary. It follows six basic steps:

Step 1: Get a Flyer
Step 2: Find Sales on Fresh Ingredients
Step 3: Do Some Recipe Research
Step 4: Create a Week-Long Meal Plan
Step 5: Make a Shopping List from the Meal Plan
Step 6: Go Grocery Shopping – And Stick to Your List

At the end of this, we have a list of meals for the week and all of the ingredients on hand to prepare them. When it’s time to think about supper, we just look at the plan and get to work.

Our meal plan (done in step 4, above) usually includes a meal or two that was prepped in advance and one or two slow cooker meals. Those are slotted in when evenings look like they’re going to be busy (Thursdays… *shudder*). I know that in a given week, I’m usually going to be making three or four (or so) evening meals, one or two of which will be slow cooker meals, one to three dinners will be meals that were previously prepped and frozen, and there’ll be a meal prep day most Saturdays when I’m at home where three meals get added to the freezer.

The meals that I do make – both the regular ones and the batch of meals made in advance – usually rest on ingredients that are on sale this week, which I find in the grocery store flyer. When I go to the store, I have a list in hand and thus I blitz through that shopping trip in record time – and, magically, my list has a bunch of items on it that just happen to be the on-sale items in the store, so I end up not spending as much as you think at the checkout. I’ve had cashiers be surprised at how much food I bought compared to the total, and that’s without using coupons and just buying store brands and hitting stuff that’s on sale.

Here’s the thing: I often take at least one kid to the store with me these days and they actively help with the grocery buying. Again, it gives me a chance to teach my child a life skill and because I’m sending them off to find some of the items on my list while I’m shopping for other items, it’s saving time, too. We get to have conversations in the car and in the checkout line.

Final Thoughts

In the end, a desire for more family time shouldn’t dissuade you from cooking at home because it can become family time (at least in part) and it can actually free up family time during the busiest evenings of the week. However, to do that, it requires a bit of advance planning and organization, but you’re enormously financially rewarded for these efforts. Doing your meal planning with grocery flyers and grocery shopping with a shopping list makes your trips to the store surprisingly cheap and the cost of an average meal at home becomes even that much less than the cost of a restaurant meal.

The truth is that having an inexpensive home-cooked meal with your family on a weeknight evening and still having family time before or after the meal usually comes down to advance planning and getting your family engaged in the process.

Good luck!

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.