Help us get this food budget under control.
December 27, 2012 1:34 AM   Subscribe

Our eating out spending is out of control. We obviously have a problem with planning and making meals at home. What have you done that's helped you?

We're a couple in our late 20s, both with great jobs that pay well but keep us very busy.

I just crunched some numbers to see where our money was going. We're doing well with savings and investments, but we're spending a ridiculous amount on eating out -- about $1100 a month. Husband and I are both shocked and ashamed at that number.

Obviously we need to get this under control, both for health and financial reasons. While we can, technically, afford it, we'd both much rather see that number go to savings or to a nice vacation.

We've done the weekly meal plan thing before, but each time, work gets busier and our plans fall to the wayside. The fact that we don't drive, but instead walk/cycle to the supermarket tends not to help matters (we can't buy more than we can carry home).

I'm looking for tips on how to make sure this doesn't happen again. How do you plan your meals? How do you keep them interesting, and motivate yourself to cook when it's so much easier to just go have brunch?

Please, no judgement. A few years ago, we were basically living on the amount we now spend on food, and I'm ashamed enough that I have to ask a question like this.
posted by third word on a random page to Food & Drink (64 answers total) 150 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know where you live, but can you have groceries delivered? Here in California, Safeway will deliver online grocery orders. There are also cooperatives you can belong to that will deliver organic, in season vegetables to your door. Maybe you can start with that and begin to cook at home on weekends with an eye towards having a day or two of leftovers during the week?
posted by The Light Fantastic at 1:52 AM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I used to spend a lot of money eating out when I lived in California, but I had to change my habits when I moved to the UK because eating out is so much more expensive... and I'm not a great cook. This is what I did:

I spent time with a healthy friend of mine (big sister type) and watched what she did and copied her.... she had about 5 go-to recipes that used similar ingredients... (chicken, salmon, mince, garlic, tomato puree, onion and all kinds of veggies, and rice)

She would make chicken, rice, and veggies,
Salmon rice and veggies
Spaghetti bolongase (and then freeze a portion)
chile con carne (and then freeze a portion)
green thai curry

The beauty in this is that it was healthy, and it was stuff I liked, and the salmon/chicken and veggies you just shoved in the oven and it was done in half an hour. The chile and spaghetti took a bit longer, but then you froze some so you could eat it the next week.

Then I investigated the grocery store for some take-away/restrauntish dishes that I could just pop in the microwave when lazy...

So in the end, I do a couple of lazy nights and then cook for myself about 3-4 nights a week.

Its so much healthier and cheaper than how I used to eat.

Good luck!
posted by misspony at 1:56 AM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

One thing that has really helped me has been to cook double portions and to freeze or refrigerate leftovers packed individually for meals later. When we have burrito night, I make a whole extra batch of them and freeze them. They reheat like a dream and are great in a pinch. Making meatloaf? Make two and freeze one!

This strategy works for me but not so much for my husband, who hates leftovers. He has more discipline about eating at home though so it works out.

Keeping a supply of granola, frozen bagels (cut before you freeze) and also frozen bacon helps for breakfasts. I also keep a supply of those raw tortillas. I always have something that tastes great that can be used for wraps, tacos, etc.

Also, I just make sure to keep a stock of staples like tofu, pasta, pasta sauce, rice, black beans and chicken stock around that you can build meals out of.

We have a whole drawer in our fridge that is dedicated to great sandwich making, that is also a great go-to.

If you have a smart phone, install an app like the How to Cook Everything App. This will help you find recipes/ingredients when you're wandering the aisles at the store.

I think building a repertoire of recipes you like to cook and getting to the point that throwing them together is easier for you will be a good thing to cultivate too.

When I don't feel like cooking, I'll do things like grabbing a rotisserie chicken and a bag of salad from the market if I'm trying to keep costs down instead of eating out. Then, I figure out at least one or two things to do with the leftover chicken. I'll pick the meat off and put it in a ziplock baggie. Usually, I make tacos with it for lunch the next day or have it with rice. Getting a bunch of those frozen packs of rice make quick lunches easy.

Learning to eat in is a habit just like any other. Set a goal, track your progress and reward yourself for meeting that goal!
posted by dottiechang at 1:57 AM on December 27, 2012 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Oh that's easy. Take two thirds of the amount you mention, break it down to a daily rate, and spend that, every time you go shopping, on real food, like meat, fish, fresh vegetables, and some wine or so. You will be shocked what luxuries you'll be able to haul home. That ought to cure you for good.
Buy what seems fresh. Use the internet, or Cook's Illustrated, or anything by Julia Child or Marcella Hazan or somebody to make straightforward and awesome meals.
posted by Namlit at 1:57 AM on December 27, 2012 [10 favorites]

Practically speaking, the freezer is your friend. Take time, when you have it, perhaps at the weekend, to cook and freeze stuff in advance. This can either be whole dishes or vital elements of them. Things like good homemade tomato sauce or premarinaded cuts of meat make cooking at home a lot easier. Or make lasagne, quiche, fish-cakes, stews, soups etcs. Don't be afraid of buying good shortcut items when you're in the shops either.

Being able to put supper on the table more quickly by preparing it than going out for it is probably the key thing here.
posted by howfar at 1:59 AM on December 27, 2012

Agreed with getting food delivered; if this isn't possible, can you get a ride to/from the supermarket, or even pay for a taxi to help you transport your food home?

For me, the biggest issue with proper eating is laziness. I enjoy cooking & eating healthily, but I can still be unbelievably lazy about it, & grab a candy bar or go out to eat just because I can't be bothered to cook. To mitigate this, I focus on quick & simple meals, like pasta or hard-boiled eggs or fish & vegetables. These aren't the most exciting foods in the world, but they're super quick & difficult to screw up.

Additionally, what kitchen equipment do you have? If you don't have things like a crockpot and a rice cooker, it's probably worth your while investing in them. With a good rice cooker, you can cook a full meal (rice, vegetables, meat/fish/tofu) in about half an hour with no real prep time. And if you have a crockpot, you can throw everything in there before going to work, then eat it when you get home. (Plus, as others mentioned, you can make enough for a few days at once!)
posted by littlegreen at 1:59 AM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

We joined a CSA, so veg and fruit get delivered, are fresh and in season, and usually come with recipes. I also like just eating what I'm given, and not having to decide what to cook from infinite have a starting point. Lots of farms have a social aspect too, which can help....meeting others who cook. We do a couple small grocery shops during the week. Cook on weekends. Cook extra for leftovers. Cook lots of basics... Dont make one cup of rice, make four etc. Honestly, just knowing the amount and having something else you'd rather spend it on might be pretty motivating!
posted by jrobin276 at 2:08 AM on December 27, 2012 [4 favorites]

You can also consider getting a personal chef. The type that comes to your house and cooks lots of meals at a time and freezes them for your enjoyment later.

It's an idea that's in between eating out and home cooked.
posted by p1nkdaisy at 2:28 AM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

I, too, don't have a car, but I find it much too bothersome to make shopping trips of any size more than every two weeks or so. So I walk to the grocery store and make my purchases, then take a cab back to my place with the spoils. I am not sure if that is a thing in every city, but it is in my city at least.

I try to load up on the staples (frozen produce, canned stuff, shelf stable milk, dried stuff and so on), then it's manageable to pick up this or that every now and then if I need to on foot. Shelf stable and frozen staples are really the key for me, as nothing is more of a bummer than needing milk for a dish and not having it, or wanting to make cornbread but being out of eggs. I wouldn't use it on my cereal but it's fine for baking and cooking, at least for my purposes.

To keep thing interesting, I enjoy trying to really perfect dishes that I normally only eat out. I also try to have a few meals around that I can make really easily if I'm feeling lazy, so that if I just can't get up the gumption to put the pad thai together tonight, I can still do soba noodles. Also freezing the leftovers for days when I am too tired or life is being uncooperative. (A gift from my past self to my future self, how thoughtful!)
posted by ZeroDivides at 2:59 AM on December 27, 2012

Do you have a trailer for the bikes or a shopping trolley for your walks?

You'd be surprised how much you can carry in one of those. We also walk to the grocery store, and carry it all home in a few cotton bags and the trolley.

You can also walk to the store, and then get a taxi back. I used to do that before I had a shopping trolley, and it isn't too expensive. Plus, you can then stock up on cans and other heavy items with ease.

If it's an end-of-the-day exhaustion issue (like it often is with me), make really easy and fast meals - stir-fry vegetables are always great, because it's just slice-wok-eat.

Or make a big roast during the weekend, and use the leftovers for fast and easy meals during the week. I made a pot roast yesterday (being Boxing Day), and today we're having French Dip sandwiches with the leftovers.

So it's all doable.
posted by Katemonkey at 3:00 AM on December 27, 2012

For the shopping: invest in a luggage rack and a decent pair of rear panniers. Between those, a decent-size day-pack, and bags hanging off handlebars, you can haul a huge amount on a bike. Of course, for your current food budget, you could probably go even better than that -- front-and-rear panniers, trailer, and/or cargo bike. Or just walk to the supermarket and take a taxi back. Or walk and use a large (60 litre +) hiking pack.

As to the actual cooking, my solution is similar to many suggested by others here: freezer, microwave, tupperware (or freezer bags if you prefer). Stews, soups, curries, and quiches all work well.
posted by pont at 3:01 AM on December 27, 2012

Also, while this is not completely the healthiest, keep a few frozen meals around that you can prepare quickly when you just don't have it in you to cook. That's when I find we're nost prone to getting dinner at a restaurant We usually have an orange chicken meal handy in the freezer, and I can just throw on some rice and cook the chicken in the skillet and then ta-da, dinner. That type of thing saves us from going out to get dinner sometimes. Having frozen veggies handy can save you the trouble of cooking fresh veggies if you're not feeling like going to a lot of trouble. Bagged salad can also be your friend - quick, easy and healthy dinner.
posted by azpenguin at 3:28 AM on December 27, 2012

I managed to use a lot of the above tips to cook at home occasionally, but frankly a lot of the food went bad when I'd just give in to being overworked and/or lazy and order.

UNTIL the day I couldn't afford to do it anymore. I have some money but I'm saving it for school bills. So I suggest that you also make it so that you cannot afford it anymore.

Take half of what you're spending now- that's your new budget. Take the 550 you save and reallocate it to a new area in your budget and then convince yourself why you need that area. It could be a REALLY awesome vacation. It could be future wedding money (as a general example, not saying any of these examples apply or don't apply to you), future 'fuck this job, can't take it anymore' money, whatever. Make sure you convince yourself of the importance of saving for this goal in addition to your other savings.

Also, when you eat out you can eat at simpler places, saving nicer places for special occasions. Do either of you need to lose weight? Split the entree and drink lots of water and you'll lose weight and save money too. Plus eating out always seems like an event too me, even if I'm doing it too often, so I tend to eat that way and eat even just a bit too much. Eating less will save you a surprising amount of cash when eating out.
posted by saraindc at 3:46 AM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Buy a slow cooker, prep the food the night before, before you leave in the morning throw it in the slow cooker with some stock, and when you come home your dinner's ready - all you have to do is some rice/pasta and veggies or a salad.

As others have said, make extra and freeze it.
posted by essexjan at 3:50 AM on December 27, 2012

One thing is to take a cab home from the grocery store. Even if you do this twice a month you'd still be way ahead in terms of budget.

As for cooking for yourself, it's tough. I would find those 15 or 30 minute meals shows and pick out a few things you like from there. If you know the meal will be ready fast, it might be easier not to order. Also, do a lot of prep right after you grocery shop. Wash vegetables and even cut things up that can handle it. I hate leftovers, but I need to use the food, so if I want chicken on the weekend, I roast a whole chicken (I buy at least one every time it's on sale) and then have easy food with it during the week like a nice chicken salad or chicken wraps. Plus you make a stock with the carcass to have ready in the week.
posted by GilvearSt at 3:59 AM on December 27, 2012

Definitely get a rice cooker. If you can afford one with "fuzzy logic" you'll appreciate your decision many times and for years. Pickup a copy of The Ultimate Rice Cooker Cookbook and enjoy dishes ranging from timer oatmeal to seafood dumplings!
posted by R2WeTwo at 4:14 AM on December 27, 2012

Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good on this. Yeah, it's super economical and smart to cook big batches and freeze and eat leftovers and buy on sale and make slow cooker meals, but if you hate leftovers or eating the same thing over and over, it's easy to give up and go out. Like Namlit said, with the amount you're spending on food now, you can easily save a lot of money even while "wasting" money on small amounts of luxurious groceries.

Are there any markets that are on the way home from work for either of you? It doesn't have to be the supermarket -- if you pass a veg/fruit stand and your husband passes a butcher shop, you can each pop in and grab some ingredients and be ready to cook at home.

Also, identify things that keep a little longer that 'kick up' a meal for you that you can have on hand. For me that's stuff like capers, cornichons, good cheese, nuts, a special spice mix, fancy jams, cured meats, oils and vinegars. Coming home to a bagged salad with grilled chicken makes me want to give up and go out, but if I know I can dress it with a delicious vinaigrette, chunks of provolone, and sundried tomatoes... that sounds OK.
posted by telegraph at 4:19 AM on December 27, 2012 [16 favorites]

Wow I actually checked the author a few times to make sure I hadn't written this question myself. I keep meaning to. Which . . . suggests I should not be answering the question. We make lots and spend about that amount on restaurants. Oof. A further complication is that we in general try to stay paleo, so we don't ever buy bread or rice or tortillas. And I don't drive, but am the only one of the two of us who enjoys cooking. Hi, me!

I chose my apartment location in large part because it is next door to a grocery store. This has done a TON of good. But still, the only time in bf and my professional lives that we have successfully reduced the eating-out to a manageable level is when (1) we were effing slammed at work or (2) I cooked insane portions and immediately tupperwared them. It is much, much easier to do a ton of cooking on a Sunday and then let your shiny, plastic containers shame you all week than to do it bit-by-bit. Stir fry is your friend. So are big hunks of meat and a jumble of veggies. Protein is good for you and cooking it is easy.
posted by anthropomorphic at 4:25 AM on December 27, 2012

If you currently do the grab-coffee-and-breakfast-on-the-way-to-work thing, that is also curable. I finally cured myself of a years-long Starbucks/Panera/Dunkin on the way to work habit a few months ago. The fact is, I will never cook and eat breakfast at home before work; I just don't. But if I have a container of granola and a bag of pecans on my countertop, and little snap-loc containers of the perfect size to put in a serving of granola and pecans, I will in fact pack the granola etc. and bring it to work with me to eat with a cup of tea made there. It's much faster than even stopping at Starbucks, no lines, no cooking, etc. You could fancy up or change the specific foods in a number of ways -- I find granola plus nuts works very well, though, no cooking and very shelf-stable, so I don't have to get to a store that often.

Also, is there any way to increase your bike's carrying capacity for grocery store runs? Add panniers if you don't have them already, or even get a bike trailer? I suspect it would pay for itself.

I also like the magazine Everyday Foods for their weekly shopping list and recipes; maybe something to try?
posted by pie ninja at 4:45 AM on December 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

There are two main things you need to build up:

1. Habits for grocery shopping, and having a sense of what the next week or so will hold in terms of meals. This involves getting to know how long things last, and a bit of planning. Onions will be good for a couple of weeks. Fresh mushrooms are pushing it at a week. Don't worry about it too much, just watch what you end up having to toss out and you'll learn. Without a car (same here) buy veggies and meats every few days, and make a big trip every couple of weeks for things like flour, rice, and so forth.

2. Build up a repertoire of super easy meals that you like. Things you can make on those nights when you just don't want to think about cooking. These are mine:

Pitas, hummus, and chicken - I make pita dough every week, roll it out, and freeze it. I also freeze chicken breasts individually. This meal involves taking out a frozen pita and a frozen chicken breast and a can of garbanzo beans. I put the frozen chicken directly into a hot cast iron skillet with a chopped onion (plus salt, pepper, and chipotle powder), and then it all goes into the oven. The beans are drained and go into the blender with olive oil, lemon juice, tahini, and garlic. After 20 minutes, the pita goes in the oven too. Five minutes later, it's all ready, for 5 minutes of work and 30 minutes total time. Buy pitas and hummus and it's even faster.

Lentil curry soup - chop an onion, carrot, and celery and toss in a pot with some chicken drumsticks, salt, pepper, and curry powder. Add water and lentils. For extra credit, put the chicken in first and let it brown, then the onions and let them soften, then the rest.

Quiche - take out a pie crust (I make them on the weekend and freeze them, but storebought is fine). Mix two eggs with some cream. Toss in whatever you like - leftover chicken, spinach, veggies. Pour the cream and egg over top. Add cheese. Bake for 30-40 minutes.

Anyway, that's just an example, but the point is, I can make any of those right now, and have them ready in under an hour, and you need your list like that too, because then you know what you need to keep in the house, and you have your fallbacks for those nights it would be so easy to just go out.
posted by Nothing at 4:48 AM on December 27, 2012 [7 favorites]

Divide and conquer: each of you cooks dinner two nights a week. Person who cooks decides on the meal and buys groceries (assuming you have basic staples like olive oil etc in your kitchen). Make enough to bring leftovers to lunch the next day- that's 4 nights of eating in plus 4 lunches right there. Taking turns gives you both more flexibility schedule-wise, and it's fun to cook for other people.

Personally, I don't do the "big shop" since I also have a busy lifestyle and when I buy a lot of groceries in advance, half of it ends up going bad. I don't have a car so I don't buy more than I can carry, which means I go to the grocery store 2 or 3 times a week, but it's a quick errand since I'm only grabbing a few things each trip and it's on my way home from work. I get tired of leftovers after a day so I prefer to do quick recipes that will last for 1 dinner and 1 lunch rather than spend all day cooking something and then have to eat the same thing all week- I have a few "go-to" favorites like homemade pizza (you can buy dough or a pre-cooked base to make it even faster) with salad, fajitas, curry with rice, etc. Tonight I stopped at the store on my way home and bought some shrimp (already cooked from the deli), baby spinach, tortillas, cheese, tomato, avocado, and a lime, and made shrimp and spinach quesadillas with diced tomato and avocado salad (using a little hot sauce I had in the fridge). The ingredients cost less than $15 and it took less than 15 minutes to make- tasty, too! Another thing I recommend is getting a gas grill- it's easy to throw on a piece of chicken or steak or veggie skewers and serve it up with a salad and some garlic bread. Everyone loves an impromptu bbq. And as mentioned above, you can buy some really nice ingredients and still be saving yourself money. Hopefully, once you get into the habit a bit, you'll find that you really enjoy cooking. Good luck!
posted by emd3737 at 4:48 AM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Just to add on taking a few hours on the weekend and making your staples for the week. Rice, bread, curry, chili, even cooked meat dishes. Make a shitload of the stuff you like on Sunday afternoon and then freeze everything. Those Ziplock things have replaced Tupperware, and they're dirt cheap.
posted by zardoz at 4:49 AM on December 27, 2012

And cooking for two, I easily manage the bulk items (flour, beans, etc) once a week on my bike with a backpack.
posted by Nothing at 4:49 AM on December 27, 2012

Meet for cocktails! In your kitchen! We do this several nights a week: hang out chatting and drinking wine for 45 minutes or an hour after work... but in our own kitchen, while we fix up a delicious, but non-demanding dinner. Make your kitchen an inviting spot with plants, good lighting (we have two extra lamps in ours to keep it from having depressing "kitchen-lighting" syndrome), comfy seating, even music, and it will seem more like a date than a chore.

And start keeping a written/digital/net notebook of wonderful, low-effort meals.

Some of ours, of the top of my head:

Salmon steaks with coucous or brown rice and salad or stir-fried broccoli or broiled asparagus is my top ridiculously super fast and easy but fabulously delicious meal.

Can you grow a pot of basil or get fresh easily? Pasta with fresh basil pesto and a salad is luxurious and dead simple. Risotto is likewise easy and so crazy tasty for the effort (boil a whole chicken breast any time to use for sandwiches or burritos, save and freeze the broth; then cook the rice in the chicken broth plus white wine whenever). We usually make ours with parmesan, zucchini and chopped cooked bacon or ham because both are easy to get, and zucchini stores well in the fridge for a few days).

Omelet or frittata? This can be as fancy as you'd like. We make a simple green pepper and feta frittata that takes about ten minutes and tastes like heaven, especially with a nice salad and good bread.

One of our "fast and dirty" comfort meals is to saute some chopped onions and green bell pepper, chopped garlic and ground beef with a wee bit of tomato paste while boiling some small elbow macaroni. Toss in the cooked macaroni, and some shredded cheese (we get "four cheeses" shredded cheese from the grocery) and gobble down with salad.

Lentils are the fastest cooking bean dish, btw, and there are a million recipes for lentil soups to meet just about every taste. I'll never be able to make all the lentil recipes I've bookmarked.

We also stir-fry frequently. The only time-consuming part is the cutting up of everything into similar sized bits, which is not so bad if you are hanging out doing it together with your after-work cocktail in your very pleasant kitchen.

And we do slow cooker stuff, which I won't get into (but woo, it cooks while you're at work!), and as others have said, a rice cooker can ease the pain.

Couscous is magical, btw: perhaps the least effort ever for something totally nice on its own, but also infinitely adaptable to be as fancy as you'd like, as a side dish or the main attraction.

"Cook's helper" stuff we usually have on hand: good olive oil (always!!), soy sauce, teriyaki sauce, balsamic vinegar, wine/brandy/port, hot sauce, nuts, black olives, sun dried tomato, tomato paste, parmesan. Cans of stuff: tuna, chopped tomato, coconut milk, beans. Frozen: vegetables, chicken, fish, broth. Mainstay vegetables for cooking: onion, peppers, celery, garlic. Must always always have.

We also don't have a car (or even a bike), plus the handicap of a somewhat too-small fridge anyway, so we've scouted out every vendor anywhere near us and know what we can get from where. Pasta dishes, bean dishes, rice dishes, and egg dishes can mostly be made without any special trip because you can have most ingredients on hand.

On Sunday, you can make something that takes longer to cook, but freezes well. Chili, or gumbo, a great bean dish, a soup. Even though my freezer is pretty teensy, I usually have at least one thing in there that's ready to eat after heating. At the moment it's a really nice white bean soup.

And of course, you can break this up by ordering in sometimes, and occasionally still eating out.

You could also get a dog, which helps because a) you have to come home to take the dog out, anyway, and b) since you have to take the dog out, you can just amble by the store for ingredients while you're at it. ;) So, yeah! Our tricks for cooking in = cozy kitchen, cocktails, easy meals, dog.
posted by taz at 4:52 AM on December 27, 2012 [27 favorites]

Please, no judgement. A few years ago, we were basically living on the amount we now spend on food, and I'm ashamed enough that I have to ask a question like this.

You'll get no judgement from me, I've had times when I've spent about as much as you do on eating out and that's for one person!

What helped me was to think of the cost of the food in terms of other things I might like to do. It was much easier to resist the temptation when I realised that if I just cut down by 2/3 on my restaurant expenses for one quarter, I could save up enough to rent a cheap flat in Thailand and spend a month diving

Now when I'm tempted by the the great deceiver (Marco Pierre White) I just think "would I rather have an outstanding meal this Friday? Or three more days in Budapest / another day of sailing / a weekend of hunting in Poland". Putting in terms of whatever of those other things I feel like doing the most usually persuades me immediately to cook at home. Don't make it abstract though, thinking "I could do something else with this money" is not a very effective tool for persuasion, you need to think of something as concrete and as appealing as possible. When it's summer, and dreadfully hot in London I can persuade myself to do almost anything by thinking of the feel of snow beneath skis on a clear, crisp day in Austria.

What also helped me was making it easy to succeed. Like you I have a busy schedule and it can be impossible to really meal plan effectively, so I have a very flexible planning approach. I always have on hand the ingredients for a nice salad, everything needed to make most simple French sauces, frozen stock cubes, things like that. I get my meat either frozen or in small amounts on the way home from work a few times a week. I have a rough idea of what kinds of meals I might eat in a given week but I don't have them planned out day by day.

I make a big pot of soup once a week or so, usually while I do other chores around my flat, two or three portions go in the fridge for that week, another four or so go in the freezer. At the moment I have five different types of soup that I could have for dinner.

Most importantly for someone who like food as much as I do, I actually eat better now than I did before. I totally agree with Namlit, take like 75% of what you spend now and spend the pro-rated amount per day for a month. My prediction is that you'll actually find excellent ingredients piling up faster than you can eat them. You can work from there to further reduce the amount you spend until you reach an equilibrium that you're comfortable with.
posted by atrazine at 5:03 AM on December 27, 2012 [7 favorites]

If you have sufficient freezer space, you can bulk cook once a month. Then you just take tomorrow night's dinner out of the freezer each morning. If you don't (and we don't!) we freeze portions of dinners so we have 3 - 4 in our regular sized fridge all the time: chilli, meat sauce, chicken soup and beef stew are our standards.

You might also consider getting a slow cooker if your schedule allows it. Turn it on before you go to work, come home and dinner is cooked. Yay!
posted by DarlingBri at 5:10 AM on December 27, 2012

I remain bad at the execution step of many of the suggestions here, but you might find some inspiration from Budget Bytes as she mentions how she freezes things or otherwise deals with the leftovers.
posted by hoyland at 5:21 AM on December 27, 2012

I've noticed when I get to eating out a lot that a lot of the meals just aren't all that great. The food is so-so, the service is so-so, or both, and then I'm stuck paying a big bill for two overdone eggs and a weak mimosa. I could do that at home! It helped me to focus my eating out times on things I knew would be really great, whether that's a nice sit-down meal or takeout from a place I know won't let me down.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 5:45 AM on December 27, 2012 [9 favorites]

To plan meals, I have a recurring appointment in my calendar on Wednesdays. I take 10 minutes to write out the dinners for the following week. Sunday is always Pizza night, Wednesday is always Pasta Night, but I vary the meals for the other nights. I look over the past 3 weeks of meals to see what we haven't had recently.

For breakfast, I keep a mix of breakfast sandwich fixings on hand. For lunches, I'll serve leftovers or forage for soup cans in the pantry or make a sushi bowl (thanks to Budget Bytes, yay!).

Also, I keep a dry erase board with the dinner menu plan for the week. This prevents people from free ranging on their way home from work. You could set up dinner plan reminders on GCal or your phone's calendar.
posted by dragonplayer at 5:48 AM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

One other thing I thought of was to hide your money. Figure out how much of what you're currently spending is reasonable and put the rest in a separate bank account as soon as it comes in. Call that account your vacation account or new furniture account or whatever and you'll be less tempted to consider it a part of your variable spending. Tackle the problem from this side too.
posted by GilvearSt at 5:49 AM on December 27, 2012

Along the lines of what Namlit said, I splurge on luxurious foods and think of how much more that meal would cost at a restaurant. Duck and wild meat, veggies from the farmers' market, fancy condiments and rubs, quinoa, etc... the rubs and sauces and condiments are what make it real easy to make an awesome dinner with simple ingredients.

I consult for recipes and cooking tips, they cover just about everything :)

If I'm starving I have a glass of wine while I cook, it tides me over until the food's ready.
posted by ergo at 5:53 AM on December 27, 2012

Husbunny LOVES to eat out, I like to cook. We split the difference, but I too am kind of appalled at how much we spend dining out.

I agree, a rice cooker and a crock pot will be a boon to your cooking at home.

Make a list of about 10 meals that you enjoy and those are in your heavy rotation. For example, marinara sauce is really easy to make and it freezes really well. Or, it keeps in glass jars for about 2-3 weeks. So you don't even need to freeze.

2 Jars Organic Strained or Pureed Italian Tomatos (these are fancy in the supermarket, but I get them cheap at Your Dekalb Farmers Market).
1 small can tomato paste
1/2 large vidalia onion diced, or a handfull of frozen diced onions (yay! Convenient!)
Crushed garlic (I get mine at the Korean market near my house)
Red Wine
Olive oil
Fresh basil chopped (I buy a huge amount, chop it up and freeze it in a zip bag)
Salt and pepper

Sautee the onion in the olive oil until translucent, then add garlic. (Low heat! Don't burn the garlic, yuk!) When that's done, put in the tomato paste, and splash wine in there until smooth. Then add the two jars of tomatoes. Salt, pepper and basil. And that's it. In about 5 minutes, your sauce is done. You don't have to cook it for hours and hours. This should be enough for the meal you're cooking, plus fill the empty jars and store for a few more meals:

French bread pizzas and Salad
Sausage and Pepper sandwiches
Something parmesian

You get the idea.

Here are some simple ideas for yummy dinners that are quick and easy:

Bratwurst/Knockwurst and Sweet Potato Fries

Tuna Salad with noodles (or bagels) and a green salad

Grilled meat/Rotisserie Chicken and pasta with butter and parmesian cheese/Salad/Veg

Ground meat, marinara sauce, pasta, salad

Steak, Baked Potato, Salad, Veg (I do the potatoes in the microwave and then put them in a super hot oven to give them a crunchy skin).

Baked chicken, roasted potatoes, roasted veg (all can be done in the oven)

Fresh salad greens, fresh spinach, rotisserie chicken, sun-dried tomatoes and pasta with pesto tossed together in warm salad

Taco/Burrito night


Tomato Soup and Grilled Cheese

Submarine sandwiches

The idea that dinner has to be some wild production is a myth. Most of these things can be thrown together and cooked within 30 minutes of arriving home, right after you give the cats their Fancy Feast.

There are so many things in the grocery store that make it convenient and easy to cook at home:

Frozen mirpoix, diced onions, onions and peppers, soup veggies
Ready to eat salads
Shredded cheese
Jarred sauces and marinades
Frozen brown rice (I KNOW!)
Cut and diced potatoes for mashing or roasting

So much of what puts people off about cooking is the mess and the prep. Buy good ingredients that are already prepped and then it's about throwing it in a pot and cooking it.

Have fun, save money!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:08 AM on December 27, 2012 [7 favorites]

Some foods decompose faster than others. You may want to stock up on foods that take a long time to decompose so you don't have to take as many trips to the store to restock.

If you don't like keeping canned or frozen foods around, here is a list of fresh alternatives that won't spoil immediately.

Foods that will last 2 months or longer, if stored properly:
- Limes, lemons and oranges with thick rinds. Ones with thin rinds, like key limes, won't last longer than a month.
- Winter squash, pumpkins, gourds
- Salted butter (unsalted butter spoils much faster)
- Hard cheese
- Potatoes and sweet potatoes
- Onions
- Garlic
- Turnips
- Beets
- Ginger root
- Horseradish
- Carrots
- Turnips
- Dried fruits, such as raisins and prunes

Foods that will last up to 1 month, if store properly
- Apples
- Asian pears
- Cabbage

Storage is also an important factor. You can increase the shelf-life of some foods by up to one month by storing them properly (eg, in a dark cool place or in the refrigerator). See fruit and vegetable storage.
posted by nikkorizz at 6:17 AM on December 27, 2012 [5 favorites]

Mrs. Zombie and I use the stick approach (in reference to carrot and stick).

When ever we realize we're spending a little too much on take-out or whatever we just say "ok, no more". We WILL eat at home, and if we were both too lazy to get stuff to make food then I guess it sucks to be us and we don't eat. It'll teach us to be a bit better about planning things. You do that once or twice in a week or two and you'll learn real quick that you need to make a run once or twice a month and stock up on canned goods and produce to make food at home.

simple, easy and it doesn't require running stats on spreadsheets, etc... Now you just need to learn what you like eating at home and you're golden.
posted by zombieApoc at 6:42 AM on December 27, 2012

Do you have a Trader Joe's near you? I have a very busy, high stress job, and I swear by their frozen pre-made meals. They tend to be quite healthy and they are very good. Also, you don't have to prepare anything. For me this was just a more realistic option than cooking every night and a less expensive option than eating out every night.

Also seconding the slow cooker suggestion.
posted by mermily at 6:53 AM on December 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

Take half of what you're spending now- that's your new budget.

This. I have never been able to cut down in any area by trying to tinker with my habits. The money always just seems to reallocate somewhere else.

That said, it's a little hard to make concrete suggestions, not knowing what your tastes are. Do you like meat, vegetables, wine? Do you enjoy a selection of small dishes? I somehow feel that having small dishes, an appetizer tray or a sushi meal is easier and replicates the fun of eating in a restaurant. That means an awful lot of what I eat is purchased in a Middle eastern or Japanese market. It's in small packages and often keeps well.
posted by BibiRose at 6:59 AM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Even 20-minute meals involve significant planning and shopping time. I read about this e-mail subscription meal planning service that lists 20 ingredients for a week's worth of fresh, delicious meals that generate little waste. Haven't used it, but it sounds like a great idea. Nthing using a taxi as well.
posted by Elsie at 7:08 AM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Misspony suggestions implies simplifying your diet quite a bit, and that really works for me. I used to think that meals needed to be quite varied but they really don't. It's stressful to me, although I didn't realize it at the time, to menu plan and come up with varied meals, grocery shop, etc. Eat out once or twice a week but the rest of the week just eat as plainly but healthfully as you can. Stop thinking about food and meals so much. You might be surprised at how much time you spend thinking about your next meal, and having a set menu that requires almost no thought will be a free-ing experience. I heard Woody Allen eats the same meal every day: fish and vegetables. Keep preparation down to a minimum: poaching is great, and then add some butter or olive oil and simple spices. Keep things simple.
posted by waving at 7:11 AM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

I agree with either delivery or cabbing it to the grocery store. I think if you can have the basics around your kitchen you'll probably cook more. I am not a gourmet and I like better then other recipe websites. Most of recipes are pretty basic I think and have shortcuts. I do think you have to learn how to cook though. When Mr. lasamana and I were without kids our eating habits mirrored yours and eventually budget constraints taught me (mostly) to cook. Look for easy recipes to start with without a lot of weird ingredients. Try doing stuff on the weekends when you have more time to futz around with the recipe and see if that helps.
posted by lasamana at 7:22 AM on December 27, 2012

Cooking while chatting about your day can be quite relaxing, as taz suggests.

Even if you can't buy a week's worth of groceries in one go, try planning a week at a time, with 2 or 3 shopping lists. That way you don't need to think about what to eat every day. When I lived in a big city, my wife and I would do that: we'd do one big shopping trip each week, getting what would fit in our collapsible shopping cart, and then pick up the remaining ingredients later in the week as needed.

If you bike to the store, you might take a look at Burley's Travoy trailer. You can use it as a cart in the store, then hook it to your bike for the trip home. That way you never have to worry that you've bought more than you can carry.

Finally, as my former colleague Steve Nissenbaum used to say, in cooking there's an inverse relationship between effort and cost. If you can spend money on good ingredients, you can make delicious meals at home without much effort.
posted by brianogilvie at 7:23 AM on December 27, 2012

Lots of good advice in here. I'll add that cooking can be more enjoyable if you have the right tools for the job. You could easily take some of that money you are currently spending on food to purchase some cooking tools, if you don't already have them. It all depends on what you like to cook and what you have the space to reasonably store in your kitchen, of course. I don't mean go out and buy every single-use kitchen gadget, but if you're lacking things like a good knife, a mixing bowl, or a decently-sized non-stick pan, it might be a good investment.

Also, try to keep in mind that by the time you decide where to go out to eat and get ready to go, you could have already cooked yourself an omelet.
posted by inertia at 7:29 AM on December 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

One of the things that can be really difficult when you transition to the kitchen from a restaurant diet is that you have a pretty elaborate concept of what a "meal" is, and it may take a few weeks or months of plates that look sad to you before they normalize a little. Not every meal needs a sauce, for example, and not every side has more than one ingredient. (Not every dinner needs more than one side, for that matter.)

I cook every other night, more or less. I either make enough for leftovers, or cook extra components one night for assembly the next. So, for example, I'll poach 4 chicken breasts and we'll have two of them with green beans and cauliflower Night 1. On Night 2, I might butterfly the 2 remaining breasts, put a little cheese and ham on them, and call it cordon bleu with spinach and a salad on the side. Or I might cut them up and chuck them in a pan with a jar of grocery store curry "simmer sauce", rummaged leftover vegetables from the fridge, served over fresh rice from the cooker. That's about 20 minutes to the table, and doesn't need to be stood over so you can do something else in the meantime.

Every other weekend or so, I cook up a bunch of protein - family pack of chicken thighs, London broil, a package of ground beef - and cut/freeze them in two-person portions. That way I have the option of a big salad, or curry/spaghetti night, with very minimal effort. I also use those items for packing my lunch.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:44 AM on December 27, 2012

Hah, I ought to have posted this question. I used to be great at cooking for myself but lately I've been ordering out almost every meal. My schedule is chaotic and even when it isn't I forget to thaw meat, or I am too tired to cook a real meal when I get home. My challenge is stocking my kitchen so that I can eat well with minimal planning and remembering that I stocked the kitchen.

I haven't implemented a new plan yet, that will probably be a NY resolution. Here are some of the newly researched concepts that I think will help me (or have helped me in the past):

-I always walk to the grocery store. I take a backpack and carry most of the groceries in that - and then maybe carry one or two bags. I can get a LOT of stuff in there and it's way easier than actually carrying bags in my hands.

-Thin cuts of meat can be thawed in warm water in about 10 minutes. I read this on the internet and got pretty excited. So you could technically come home and if you had a relatively thin steak or chicken breast in the freezer you could stick it in a bowl of warm water, chop up some veggies (or unclump some frozen) and then slice up the meat and put a stir fry together. Or just cook the meat, slice it and put it on top of a salad.

-Some of the newer healthy versions of cole slaw are nice and keep well in the fridge. Quick and easy side dish.

- Eggs. Fried eggs go nicely over lots of leftover veggies dishes.

- grazing - instead of cooking a real meal see what you have that doesn't need cooking - bits of cheese, fruit, nuts, crackers. If you aren't terribly hungry this works just fine. Maybe add a glass of wine.

- It seems like a can of tuna with canned beans and a sliced fresh tomato and a squeeze of lemon could come together in a decent dinner.

- canned sardines could be a starting point for a quick and simple meal. I am still thinking about this.

- Lentil soup, minestrone and chili freeze beautifully.

Can't wait to finish reading all the other ideas in this thread!
posted by bunderful at 8:19 AM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

You have lots of great suggestions here: cooking double batches and freezing, using the slow cooker, signing up for a CSA, having a repertoire of regular simple dishes in frequent rotation.

The other thing I do when I'm on top of the food organization (not constantly) is to spend time on the weekend thinking about the week ahead. First go through the fridge and freezer and ID anything you have available or want to use up. Plan to build the next week's menu around some of this stuff. Then, figure out what you can augment it with, and sketch out a rough menu of four or five main meals you can make for the week - our go-tos are tacos (chicken, beef, pork, often made from leftovers), pasta (red sauce, sausage, meatballs, kale, white beans...infinitely variable), meat'n' veg (roast chicken/pork/meat w/brussels sprouts, kale, sweet potatoes, whatever), beans'n' rice (with salsa, veggies, etc), salad (full of mixed greens, cranberries, fruit, cheese crumbles, seeds, etc).
posted by Miko at 8:25 AM on December 27, 2012

Many good ideas above. Most important: Make sure your pantry basics are stocked as recommended. I always try to have boxes of broth, tortillas or flatbreads and various noodles around. Most of the basics as described above are already in the fridge - condiments, spices, long-lasting veg like celery, onions and peppers. I have a full spice cupboard. I also roast a whole pie dish full of garlic cloves in olive oil every month or so, and keep them in a jar ready to warm and spread on good bread, rub on meats or add depth to vegetable soups. By having the basics handy, that way any scraps of meat of veg can just find their way into something that makes it a meal. Once your cupboards are stocked with essentials, then you can carry three meals home in one shopping bag.

I'm the cook in our family, so what works for us is "Cook once, eat three times."

For example, I'll roast two chickens one day, and serve one with a salad and a vegetable. Easy. The next day, some remains become soup (adding a box of broth, noodles maybe and other veg.) And I freeze some for lunches. On the third day, the same chicken, plus some vegetables and cheese goes on flatbread and becomes pizza. I can also assemble and freeze one for the future.

Another example would be that on one day I'll roast or grill three pork loins (so nice with a brown sugar and cumin crust) and one will be dinner with salad and veg; one will become tacos the next night; one will go on noodles or in soup with veg.

Sausages are another item I find handy - One night, sausages, salad and veg. Next night, sliced and browned in garlic oil and then in a soup with white beans, kale and tomatoes. Third night, diced and in sauce on top of spaghetti.

In between vegetable soups or even pot pies keep us from eating too much meat. Either I'll roast squashes and sweet potatoes and roast red peppers and puree that with vegetable stock, or I'll use up all the slightly wilty veg in the fridge to make a good soup or pot pie filling. Once everything's been roasted or sweated, it's easy to assemble whatever looks good. I try to remember that baking is a science, but cooking is an art.

I have a brochure from the mid-century of what herbs and spices go well together. Of course there are modern thoughts on this, but mine is aesthetically pleasing and handy. Pinning a chart or notes to the inside of a cupboard to refer to really helps - just knowing which craving you want to satisfy for dinner will keep you away from restaurants. So learning spice combinations and keeping some blends handy is one way to whip up a dish in a short time.

If I make up the grocery list by looking at our calendar, I can budget time better. I can see, for example, that today will be a good crockpot meal day (Chili!) because mrgood has band practice and we'll eat at different times and he can offer some to the guys. We have a sitter on Friday, so pizza will be a good idea that day, as he can have some with the kiddo during a movie and mrgood and I can eat cold pizza as a 2 am snack. Understanding what your week ahead looks like is part of planning meals so you don't find yourself with a fridge full of stuff you meant to cook but got too busy for.
posted by peagood at 8:29 AM on December 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

The two things that made a huge difference for me in this regard were

1. Getting on a health kick and needing to be a bit more controlling/knowledgeable about what I was putting in to my body. Having to count calories meant that eating out was both more complicated [trying to stay on top of what i was eating and doing a lot of guesswork to approximate what the calories were in what I was eating was a huge pain] and I was noticing was just more calorie-laden. Not a big deal as a special or planned occasion. Not a good idea, for me, for mindless eating. Even eating prepared foods at home (I am a sucker for frozen eggrolls) allows me to accurately look at calories/protein/fats which is a plus for me. So now I eat out fewer time and make it count more, try to take my friends out for a social meal, for example, or go out to a place I rally like but is more money than I might normally spend, or get a meal that is less cost-effective (i.e. small portions at higher costs) but smarter for my other goals.

2. Deciding that meal preparation was now a hobby not an eat-to-live situation. I freed up some time in my work/travel schedule and decided to spend that time eating better and learning to enjoy cooking more. This means that I've outfitted my kitchen with things I like to eat as well as things I like to use to make meals. This includes things that other people have mentioned like good olive oil and cheese and whatnot, but also ancillary things like a bluetooth speaker for my dining area so I can listen to music/podcasts while I cook or do dishes, or really good storage containers so my leftovers are easy to deal with and easy to move from freezer to table.

Additionally I am a serious creature of habit/routine, so the idea that I could cook one big meal and then eat the same amazingly delicious thing for a few days in a row [it's winter here and soups are a big deal for me] was a dream come true once I sort of reworked my thinking so that it didn't feel like time out of my day when I could have been doing something else. So those are the main two points for me: healthiness and re-envisioning my time. You'll have to figure out what things make cooking at home more of a genuine option for you but I'm sure there's something.
posted by jessamyn at 8:37 AM on December 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

Have a look at An Everlasting Meal - it's a fantastic narrative-style cookbook which sounds like it might help - it's approach is like, if you have food in your fridge and pantry, it doesn't much matter precisely what you have, you'll be able to pull something together.

(I can't meal plan, either (: But it's *so* much easier to pull something together when I do manage to make the time to put semi-prepared vegetables in my fridge.)
posted by ambilevous at 8:38 AM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Biking & walking are my primary means of transportation, too; so I often grab groceries dinner at the grocery store near my office at lunch and bike home with them because then I don't have to stop on the way home. It's sort of a two-step process. Any night that you cook--make extra of components the meal. Then you don't have to cook as much later in the week, but you don't have to eat the same thing all week. Then--if you do have to shop more often--you need grab only a few things. Save the bigger trips for pantry items (rice, canned beans, frozen ground meat, stock) for times when you can carry more, or take a cab.

I'm lucky to have a fridge at the office--but honestly, I almost never use it for dinner groceries. Say we eat something served over rice on Monday--whoever cooks on Monday makes at least twice as much rice as we need for dinner. Then on Tuesday, I can grab some veggies to stir fry with the leftover rice (no fridge needed!). Or we eat baked potatoes with chili on Monday--we bake 6 potatoes, instead of just two. Then I can grab some greens and a can of coconut milk (no fridge needed!), and make this chickpea dish when I get home to serve with the left-over potatoes.

Also, always keep supplies for your most simple we-need-to-eat-but-don't-want-to-cook meal on hand. Campbell's tomato soup for grilled cheese & soup. Canned beans and tortillas for bean and cheese burritos. Or some Trader Joe's entrees.

Primarily, however, you absolutely have to share the dinner responsibilities if you both work because cooking, every single night after working all day and commuting, is a serious drain. If it always falls to only one of you, you'll eat out more often.
posted by crush-onastick at 8:57 AM on December 27, 2012

I use one of the email meal planning services Elsie mentioned and LOVE it. I tell it what store is near me and it spits out a meal plan each week based on what's on sale. It even includes recipes. It's a total no-brainer for me and well worth the (minimal) cost.

I agree that a crock pot will really help you get a grip on this. If you get dinner going before leaving for work, you aren't going to want to dump it in the trash when you get home just so you can go out to eat.
posted by _Mona_ at 9:06 AM on December 27, 2012

We also spend a shocking amount of money on eating out, and have been working on getting this under control, so I share your pain.

I don't enjoy nightly cooking or meal planning, so what I've done recently that has worked pretty well is that I stock up on chicken parts, pork tenderloin, a couple varieties of sausage, frozen fish (tilapia/salmon) and frozen veggies so I always have the makings of a simple meal (this also goes a long way towards solving my problem of fresh food going bad before we get around to eating it.) I'll also get a bag of nice baking potatoes and a bag of sweet potatoes.

Then I can just throw some meat in the oven to roast, steam a vegetable and stick a couple of potatoes in the microwave, and ta-da dinner! Even if I forgot to thaw something, chicken leg quarters take about an hour to cook from frozen if you just stick them on a baking sheet and pop them in the oven at about 400. (I use seasoned salt on the skin and they are delicious.) Fish or sausage cooks up really fast also in oven or microwave.

Once or twice a week I might cook something more elaborate for variety's sake.

For a super-quick dinner I often rely on eggs. Chorizo and eggs; or egg sandwiches; or eggs, bacon & toast (I buy the pre-cooked bacon which takes about 1 minute in the microwave to crisp it up. Slice for slice it is about as cheap as buying uncooked bacon and is a fraction of the time and mess to prepare.)
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 9:27 AM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

From a practical standpoint, you need to be able to shop for larger amounts of groceries at one time. Invest in some type of market basket to help with your logistical issue. Then, I would try some of those once-a-week cooking marathon plans so you always have good food available. Also, buy a crockpot if you don't already have one, they're pretty handy.
posted by raisingsand at 10:24 AM on December 27, 2012

Just wanted to pop in to say that The Best 30-Minute Recipe by the Cook's Illustrated folks is the best weeknight cookbook. My husband and I joke that this has saved our marriage, and we are only partially kidding. The meals are delicious, and really are close to 30 minutes. Bon apetit!
posted by teragram at 10:44 AM on December 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

I also am limited to walking, I do a big grocery shop and get a taxi to take it all home. This might be seen as a little expensive, but depending on where you live, it will likely cost much less than what you're spending on eating out. Alternately, do you have a friend who could give you a lift every couple of weeks?
posted by HypotheticalWoman at 11:06 AM on December 27, 2012

Meat and vegetables are your friends for fast meals. Baked chicken (bone in is so much better) or pork, seared beef and sauteed fish are fast, easy and don't make a big mess. You can dress them up with quick sauces like BBQ sauce or wine on chicken, citrus (lemon, lime, etc.) on fish or pork. Add fresh herbs (cilantro, chives, mint, etc.) to the above both before and after the cooking process.

Steam or saute fresh vegetables to go with this, which again, takes little time and creates little mess. If that's not enough food (or bulk) slap some rice in the rice cooker or potatoes in the oven (potatoes, garlic, salt, pepper).

Adding - if you both cook and clean, things go much faster and it's way less of a pain.

This isn't the absolute best thing you can cook, but it's fast and easy, has innumerable combinations and is relatively healthy if you keep your meat portions small.

If you live somewhere where you don't have a car, do you have a car-sharing service? It isn't terribly expensive for short trips and you'd certainly spend less on a grocery trip plus 90 minute car rental than on a cab.
posted by cnc at 1:36 PM on December 27, 2012

I consult this list all the time when I am stuck for food ideas.

Building up a staple of quick easy meals has been the best way I have found to cut down on restaurant meals. If it's actually more of a hassle to go out than it is to whip up something quick, I'm more likely to eat at home. I also have several recipes from Donna Hay's New Food Fast committed to memory. We eat a lot of the same meals a couple times a month, but probably you do this if you eat out, too, right?

I also don't drive and so I get my groceries delivered. I also have a Rolser for smaller, summer shops.

Maybe you should set a goal for what you're going to do with the thousands you'll save from eating in? If I knew there was a fabulous trip in it, I'd happily eat at home 6 nights a week.
posted by looli at 2:26 PM on December 27, 2012

Dream Dinners.

I'll be honest. It's not as good as when I cook from scratch, but its acceptable and we eat at home.
posted by 26.2 at 4:47 PM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you, everyone. These answers are amazing, and we both have newfound inspiration to make better meals at home. First step: buy a crock pot!
posted by third word on a random page at 6:50 PM on December 27, 2012

When I get into a take-out habit, I often notice I'm ordering the same thing over and over again. Either one specific dish, or at least a certain style of food that I seem to be craving. Whenever I notice that happening, I try to figure out how to replicate that particular addictive meal at home. I use recipes I find online as a jumping-off point and use trial and error to tweak my recipe to perfection. Then, once I've learned how to make it, and see how cheap it was, I almost never feel compelled to order it from a restaurant again. Well, maybe just one more time to make sure I wasn't missing anything in the knockoff recipe I developed! And then your version becomes better than the restaurant version because you can keep tweaking it to your tastes.

Also, dinner parties with your friends where everyone cooks together, as opposed to having made something beforehand. (This works better if your friends are actually good at cooking.) Not only will you feel pressure to come up with something impressive yourself, but you'll also get some great ideas and tricks from seeing what your friends come up with. You end up incorporating new ingredients and flavors into cooking that you might have never thought of or known about on your own. Half the stuff I ate today was based off the amazing food one of my friends made at a party recently. I think the real trick to cooking at home is avoiding boredom, at least for me, so hopefully my suggestions will help with that.
posted by GastrocNemesis at 6:11 PM on December 29, 2012

Lots of good suggestions here that can help you. But what I wanted to say is don't feel ashamed at all. What you have been doing is actually very, and increasingly, common. If you think you are alone in what you have done, it's far from the truth.
posted by Dansaman at 11:09 PM on December 30, 2012

I meant to add this link to a comment I made a long time ago that has proved useful often: it's a list of things to keep stocked in your pantry. As someone pointed out above, if your pantry is well-stocked you don't really need a big meal plan done in advance, though you might need to pick up a few fresh items such as produce. between a good pantry and meats/proteins in the freezer, you can make a million things. A good cookbook on the topic is Arthur Schwartz' What to Cook When You Think There's Nothing in the House To Eat.
posted by Miko at 10:59 AM on December 31, 2012 [2 favorites]

One more thing to keep in mind that I find the plan for a whole week of meals thing and I've had a lot more success when I only plan for 3 days at a time. That means grocery store 2 times a week and one day a week we'd eat leftovers or go out.
posted by raccoon409 at 2:03 AM on January 2, 2013

To pile onto this:

These are all great suggestions, but how the hell do we do it when we have two kids as well as ourselves?

We have a 3-year-old and a 7-year-old. Both are ecumenical eaters. But the simple logistics are daunting; we're all out the door by 7:30 most days, and the kids come home with Mom around 5:30 every day.

Just the pure coming-home mayhem usually takes up the time between 5:30 and 6:30, which is when I get home. And the kids go into the bath at 7:30, and into bed around 8:00. Every day, there's at least a full load of laundry to be done, folded and put away, and there's homework, and prep for the next day.

By the time the kids are down, around 8:30, we are frankly exhausted, and there's nothing left in the tank; besides which, we've both been going pretty much non-stop since 5:30 AM (first with the family, then work, then the family again), and the idea of cooking ahead of time after 8:00 every night is pretty much a non-starter.

We are spending ourselves stupid eating crap food, and even the Trader Joe's meals are starting to get a bit repetitive. We want to cook and eat healthy, but it just seems impossible to make the time to do it. So how the hell do we do it and get everything else done as well?

Maybe it's not possible. If so, we wish someone would tell us, because we feel like complete failures as parents for getting into this state. We're just so goddamned busy with everything else that it feels like cooking comes into things fifty items down the list, and everything above it is essential to surviving the week.
posted by scrump at 3:14 PM on January 2, 2013

I don't want to sound flip, but it's like anything else, such as not having time to exercise - if it's important to you, it has to become a higher priority and might require more focused planning and habit building. Now, it might not actually be that important to you right now which is fine. IT's perfectly acceptable to say "you know what - right now I'm going to value convenience and speed most, we can afford it, and this isn't where my energy goes right now." I'm sorta doing that in graduate school, even though I'm a big foodie - I've eaten more frozen pizza in the last year than I care to admit.

But if you decide you really do want to change your habits, I'd give the usual recommendations: start small (1 or 2 homemade meals a week is better than none, and they don't have to be fancy); use the slow cooker (it's perfect for this situation), spend a couple hours on the weekend cooking a couple dishes to freeze or dole out from the fridge, etc.

Maybe also examine the daily routine and look for timesavers. Do you really need to do laundry every day, or could you get more done by focusing it all on one or two nights a week? (Every day seems great but is less time-efficient; we do all ours on Sunday and Monday; we do go out and go to work but kind of do load after load whenever we have a minute around the other stuff. Our solution isn't for everyone but we aren't dealing with laundry every day which is the goal). If coming home is "mayhem" is there something you can do to streamline that routine? Can everyone pile into the kitchen for homework and cooking prep time together at 5:30 instead? You'll all be together and those activities don't have to be separate. Do both parents have to be there for bath and bedtime, or can that become the province of one person while the other preps the next day's food, etc?

I know it's easy to throw out pat-sounding solutions when it's someone else's life, and I can't know what your solutions will be, but I bet if you wrote down your intention (eat 2 homecooked, healthy meals per week) and figured out what changes you'd need to make to be able to do that, you could find some ways to make that work.
posted by Miko at 3:21 PM on January 2, 2013

Go shopping, buy half a fridge full of random fresh ingredients.

Sometime before you are going to cook, like in the morning before you go to work, pick one of those ingredients and do a google search for "ingredient name and". Pick something that looks interesting and inside your skillset.

Buy any missing ingredients on your way home.
posted by aychedee at 8:46 AM on January 9, 2013

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