How do I eat out less frequently, when I'm already extremely pressed for time?
December 10, 2008 5:39 PM   Subscribe

How do I eat out less frequently, when I'm already extremely pressed for time?

After reviewing my budget and realizing that I spend absolutely obscene amounts of money eating away from home, I've come to realize that I need to rely on MetaFilter's help once again. I need to eat out much less frequently, which almost certainly means cooking meals at home more.

My eating out (usually buying, then eating at my desk, honestly) is largely driven by time (see this previous AskMe). I'm often away from home from about 0530-2130 or so, every day, and, honestly, the 10 minutes total that it takes for me to make sandwiches or a salad when I get home and then eat them sometimes feels burdensome.

I'd very much love any tips you're wiling to share.

If I can be just the slightest bit picky, I should note that my only two real dietary requirements are at least 200g of protein a day, and eating as little simple carbohydrate as is possible. Other than that, I'll eat almost anything.

Also, I'm a useless chef, probably largely due to the extreme lack of practice.
posted by oostevo to Food & Drink (23 answers total) 60 users marked this as a favorite
I've done it before, and it kind of sucks, but seriously taking a few hours on Sunday and just making the week's meals can be done. One buys in bulk, and one can cook in bulk. You can even pre-package meals and label them 'Mon-brek' through 'Fri-din' and just load up a bag with the appropriate ones in the morning.

In fact, even though I don't really like doing it, I'll likely do it again this weekend, and I sort-of did it tonight when the package of chicken begged not all to become curry. I had both meals done in the time it took to make one.
posted by Weighted Companion Cube at 5:45 PM on December 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Make stuff that keeps or freezes well and make large portions of it (soups, stews). Find foods that you like that don't require refrigeration or heating. Become a forager --eat many small things frequently. Bananas, apples, granola. I bet you live in NYC.
posted by ezekieldas at 5:47 PM on December 10, 2008


Some things are very easy and fast. Pasta keeps well in a plastic bag, a dish with a quality (Newmans) sauce and quality cheese takes about 2.3 minutes and is very good and filling.

French Cooking in Ten Minutes: Adapting to the Rhythm of Modern Life (1930) is really a marvelous book. Not a joke at all. The key is a gas stove and boiling water fast.
posted by sammyo at 5:52 PM on December 10, 2008 [3 favorites]

Buy lean cuisines from Costco or BJs, if available (they probably have them at Sam's too). You'll pay $10 or less for four of them, or $2.50 per meal, and they're quick to heat up and there's at least a bit of variety. NYC tip on this: The BJ's in Brooklyn has a lot of variety in what they carry, but I like the ones at Costco better - they're the blue ones with "twice the veggies" compared to other Leans and with flavors I like better. The BJs carries mostly green, red and yellow-packaged ones which tend more toward fake "comfort food".

You can definitely get tired of them after a while, especially if you don't break it up a bit. But they'll also get you through the "oh crap it's been five hours and I haven't eaten and I have shit to DO" moments. Also, for a meal you virtually have no prep time for and that is relatively healthy / high protein a lot of the time, they're cheap.
posted by lorrer at 5:58 PM on December 10, 2008

I buy tv dinners and keep them at the office.
posted by randomstriker at 5:59 PM on December 10, 2008

but seriously taking a few hours on Sunday and just making the week's meals can be done
I've never quite mastered the art of this (if there is an art to it). Further tips would definitely be appreciated.
I bet you live in NYC.
Nope, DC. Actually, a fair distance outside of it, which is how this whole problem started.
French Cooking in Ten Minutes: Adapting to the Rythm of Modern Life
That looks like a really interesting cookbook. They do seem like rather complex recipes (sauteeing frog legs, and then starting a sauce). Probably a lot of what I'm looking for is how to make chicken breast, cooked on Sunday afternoon, swallow-able on Friday at lunch. Definitely going to buy a copy when I get a chance, though.
posted by oostevo at 6:02 PM on December 10, 2008

A rotisserie chicken costs ~$8 and it's ready-made protein that can last you a couple of days.

Some protein-rich meals:
Buy baby spinach + bottle of dressing + chicken --> chicken salad in under 2 mins
canned beans (low sodium is best!) + can of tuna + mayo or honey mustard dressing --> tuna salad in under 5 mins

quick, healthy (and still cheaper than eating out) snacks:
baby carrots + hummus (under 1 min)
cottage cheese + salt and pepper, or canned peaches/frozen fruit (under 2 mins + lots of protein!)
oatmeal! (under 5 mins)

And yes, cooking for an hour or two on sunday and subdividing meals for the week definitely helps me when I'm busy.
posted by KateHasQuestions at 6:04 PM on December 10, 2008

Buy lean cuisines from Costco or BJs, if available (they probably have them at Sam's too). You'll pay $10 or less for four of them, or $2.50 per meal
That assumes that "one Lean Cuisine" equals "one meal". That's a very bad assumption.

Those things have like 200 to 300 calories apiece. Three such "meals" a day would therefore be 600 to 900 calories in a day.

Which is a good way to starve yourself to death. Literally.
posted by Flunkie at 6:10 PM on December 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Sardines, olives, smoked salmon, bagged salad, cheese, yogurt, baby carrots, nuts, sunflower seeds, fruit, celery with peanut butter, the occasional clifbar, jerky, dry salami, hard boiled eggs, artichoke hearts, reject the tyranny of the meal.
posted by I Foody at 6:19 PM on December 10, 2008 [5 favorites]

My aunt is the master of the Sunday Cookfest! I lived with her over the summer, and this is what I learned:

-The key is actually doing it. She makes it seem easy, but the hardest part for me is really just setting aside the time and making it a habit. I suggest finding a podcast you really enjoy (This American Life and Radio Lab are both awesome). That way you always have something really entertaining to listen to while you cook.

-Get a lot of tupperware containers that you really like, and that stack well in your freezer. Nice, easy-to-use-and-clean containers make the whole process a little more satisfying.

-Put the meals you cook in the freezer. They will keep for a very long time, so as you go you will end up with a much greater variety of things to choose from rather than eating the same thing for a week.

-She has a binder with all her favorite recipes. To eat like a healthy queen the way she manages to, it helps to be willing to follow recipes; I try to cook the things I made from her book while I was there, but they just aren't the same when I muck up the proportions and forget things. Just add recipes to your binder of favs, and before you know it you won't have the problem of flipping through book after book trying to find something that you feel like cooking.

Damn, I need to follow my own advice. I have totally slipped into eating out all the time this term. Thanks for the reminder, and good luck!
posted by nnevvinn at 6:20 PM on December 10, 2008 [2 favorites]

Shop on Sunday morning.
On Sunday afternoon, make three medium packages of chicken breasts, grilled or pan-seared, for a total of six breast cutlets.
On Sunday evening, make six good-size turkey burgers from two medium packages of ground turkey.
When you get time during the week, use 3 cans of tuna, a few tablespoons of mayo, several chopped celery stalks, and some lemon juice and spices to make tuna salad which is delicious on whole wheat bread with aged cheddar melted over it. Prep time for each sandwich is five minutes or less. All of the above meat dishes will keep 4-5 days in the fridge.

Supplement this stuff with whatever raw produce, bread, and other quick carbs appeal to you and whatever salsas, dressings, and spices complement that. Carrots, hummus, blue corn chips (unsalted), tzatziki, unsalted rice cakes, unsalted popcorn (with shredded cheddar and black pepper FTW), gelato, fruit, yogurt, grilled cheese, and peanut butter sandwiches are my quick snack staples. Buy a good loaf of bread mid-week for sandwiches.

That's eighteen meals out of at least twenty-one down for the week, and you haven't even gotten to breakfast - the easiest metal. Start a pan over medium heat while you make coffee or shave, crack in two eggs and season to taste, and you're set. Make toast if you have time, otherwise get instant oatmeal or grits. Grab a banana and yogurt on your way out.

I try to stick to this (substituting beef/buffalo burgers for turkey, various types of produce for others, chicken salad for tuna, etc.) and when I do I come out under budget, full, and pretty damn pleased with my diet (I probably eat ~3000 calories a day this way). Oh, and the best part - you can take that leftover cash and put some of it toward eating a ridiculous million-calorie meal Saturday night and not have to cook a damn thing.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 6:28 PM on December 10, 2008 [14 favorites]

Oh dude and 200G a day of protein is easy with this. Just double the meat portions.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 6:29 PM on December 10, 2008

One way to save money on eating out is to make the meal last for two servings rather than one. You can do this by having soup first as an appetizer (from the grocery store, just bring it to work and heat) or frozen veg as a side-dish, or fruit and nuts as dessert, etc. Your grocery costs will go up a little but your take-out costs will be cut in half.
posted by xo at 6:33 PM on December 10, 2008

I used to spend $25/night on average eating out until I hit a massive financial crisis and had no choice but to change.

Here's my standard quickie dinner these days:

1/4 to 1/2 cup dry lentils (protein!)
1/4 - 1/2 cup dry barley (or brown rice.)
chicken breast or whatever meat/meat substitute floats your boat. (I usually use 4oz, but if I'm really hungry, 8oz) Some nights, I go meat free and double up the lentils.

I much prefer fresh, but I've been going the frozen/canned route to save money.
frozen corn, frozen peppers, frozen onions and frozen cauliflower (as much as you think will be filling)

Beef and/or chicken broth (I buy no sodium powder)

Maybe 1-2 tbs of tomato paste

Season to your taste. One of my faves is garlic powder, black pepper and cumin.

Toss all of this into a rice cooker (I've got a $25 rice cooker that I picked up a year and a half ago. I use it almost every single night) along with 3-5 cups of water (depending on whether you're in the mood for a mash, a stew or a soup).

This whole process can be done in 5-10 minutes.

Press start on the rice cooker and come back in about 40 minutes to tastiness!

My rice cooker has a 12 hour timer, so on weekends, I would prepare a few night's worth of food, freeze it, pop it into the rice cooker in the morning, and come home to a nice tasty meal.

This comes out to $2-$5/meal (yes, I eat the whole thing because I have a doomungus appetite!)
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 6:53 PM on December 10, 2008 [2 favorites]

Get some aluminum foil and whatever fish they have at the grocery store. Put in whatever spices seem like a good idea (experiment!) Wrap the fish and the spices in the foil and stick it in the oven under the broiler until the fish will fall apart when you poke it with a fork. Serve with a hunk of bread or something.

I also highly recommend fruit and cheese-- go to the grocery store and get some good cheeses and some fruit and have those with some bread for a light, healthy lunch that requires no prep.

If you have a Trader Joe's where you are, they have a lot of fairly inexpensive premade meals. Get a few of them to try out-- I've found there are quite a few that I really dislike and quite a few I'm a big fan of. I recommend the frozen Mediterranean pizzas.
posted by NoraReed at 7:18 PM on December 10, 2008

I've never quite mastered the art of this (if there is an art to it). Further tips would definitely be appreciated.

Cooking in bulk ahead of time is something I've just recently started to play around with. The key is to invest in some good, serving-size Tupperware, and to choose dishes that freeze well. Soup, stew, and chili have already been mentioned; burritos work well also (I got the idea from a fellow MeFite). All of these have the added advantage of being fairly idiot-proof to prepare—and they can be quite healthy, and there is a whole world of high-protein, bean-based soups and chilis (watch out for the sodium, though).

Aside from that, buy single-serving perishables once a week: plain yogurt (sugar-free, good source of protein), a variety of fresh fruit (keep it in the fridge; it'll last longer), granola or protein bars (Clif bars are the healthiest and tastiest ones on the market), whole wheat breads (bagels for breakfast, dinner rolls to go with your frozen soup), and so forth. Then you can grab a few of these, as appropriate, to round out.

Try to get some fresh veggies in there too—maybe you can hit the grocery store salad bar during your weekend shopping, and get enough to make two or three salads over the next few days (it won't last much longer than that).

Some of the frozen Amy's stuff is actually pretty good and pretty healthy; try their Enchilada Meal or whatever it is.

I'm certainly not going to tell you how to live your life (and I don't know your situation anyway), but when I found myself too busy to eat properly, I made changes in my life to make myself less busy. Between the stress and the poor diet, I realized that I wasn't doing myself any favors.
posted by greenie2600 at 7:24 PM on December 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

I've been making this goulash recipe on Sundays lately. It scales well and it can be frozen. For added fun, throw in rice or noodles, or a dollop of sour cream right before you eat it. Use the tupperware containers with lock-down fasteners.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 8:04 PM on December 10, 2008

Bear in mind that re-heating and eating something you've brought from home can potentially take much less time than picking out a restaurant, driving there, waiting to be seated, ordering, waiting for your order, eating, waiting for the check, paying the check, waiting for the credit card slip, signing the credit card slip, and driving back to work.

Yes, you'll have dishes to do at home, and of course prep time and shopping time, but these can be streamlined. You could, on the whole, save time.
posted by amtho at 8:44 PM on December 10, 2008

Hard boiled eggs. Cheap, easy portable protein. You know how your resent that 10 minutes of sandwich assembly time? That's because you're hungry. Eat an egg before you head home from the office and you won't be starved when you walk in the door.
posted by 26.2 at 9:13 PM on December 10, 2008

Slow-cooker/Crock-pot. Get a timer. Let it cook all day.

However, there are those who feel that a crock-pot wasn't meant to sit all day cooking while you are gone, so if you are one of those people, you may not feel comfortable doing this.
posted by johnstein at 11:05 PM on December 10, 2008

I live on PowerBars and Diet Coke... :( But it keeps me away from fast food.
posted by Jacqueline at 2:49 AM on December 11, 2008

I love Oscar Meyer "Deli Creation" sandwiches. See here.

They contain a sizable portion of meat, come in a variety of flavors, and take just a minute in the microwave to make. I eat one every day for lunch. They're quite tasty and only $2.50 - $3.50 depending on the grocery store.
posted by Magister at 11:03 AM on December 11, 2008

Onigiri can be pretty useful. Basically, just make a ton of rice, put vinegar in it, break it into groups and freeze. Defrost in a microwave or just let thaw and they're pretty good. I wrap them in saran wrap, put them in ziploc bags, and pull them apart as necessary.

There's a few ways to handle making onigiri interesting. There's the basic vinegar rice with salted insides. There's also asian stores have little packets you can put on rice with hot water, 'Seasoning for rice soup.' You put one on, then put on some hot water and done. You can also put things in the onigiri, such as pickles, tuna, barbecue beef, whatever takes your fancy. If you can put it on rice, you can try eating it with onigiri, and there are also recipes online as well. Next time I'm going to try a soft white cheese, see how that tastes.
posted by stoneegg21 at 4:09 PM on December 11, 2008

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