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.

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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