Bridging The Gap From Dining Out To Eating In

by Julie Rains on 6 February 2008 14 comments
Photo: Gaetan Lee

Reading Anthony’s post about frugal roadblocks (Budget Busters) reminded me of my cooking/dining struggles when I was first starting out. Though I never had any problem skimping on housing and transportation, my line was drawn on nourishment. Reading his post made me realize that there is a huge leap from eating out many meals as a busy professional to cooking nearly every meal in an established household.
 
Here are my strategies for bridging that gap:

  • Eat lunch out with these caveats: get a vegetable plate or something reasonably healthful (entrée with 2 veggies); don’t get something that you can fix easily at home such as pizza or spaghetti.
  • Have a light dinner (salad, soup, and/or sandwich) on the days you eat your lunches out. Those are inexpensive to prepare at home and very easy to make. You’ll save on your energy bill by cooking and washing dishes less.
  • Eat at home even if you don’t cook at home. You’ll develop the habit of taking the time to sit down sometime before 8 p.m. (hopefully) to enjoy a meal. And it’s easier to split a large restaurant meal or Chinese take-out at home.
  • Snack before dinner – the snack won’t ruin your dinner and it will help you have the energy to cook.
  • Buy high quality prepared foods from retail caterers; you’ll get a home-cooked meal at less than restaurant prices and reinforce the fun of eating at home.
  • Take a cooking class. I took classes at my community college and learned how to wash spinach and cook a roast. My instructor was the expert who could diagnose reasons for cooking failures and offer reasonably priced substitutions for unusual, budget-busting ingredients.
  • Try new recipes on the weekends or days you get home early. If a recipe takes a while (the prep time in cookbooks underestimate active time by at least 50%), then you won’t be starved come dinnertime; start around 4 p.m. and you should be fine. At some point, you’ll learn that spaghetti with meat sauce and a roast (buy an eye-of-round roast, put it in the crock pot with cream of mushroom soup and/or dried onion soup mix, cook on low for 4-6 hours) takes far less than time than stuffed mushrooms.
  • Rename your creations: at my house, a burned entree might become blackened chicken.

It seems that Anthony has made major progress in his quest to reduce food costs but if you are looking for ideas to bridge the chasm from restaurant meals to daily home-cooking, I hope these tips help.

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Guest's picture
Amy

I have learned that even having convenience food on hand for those odd occasions where I am too tired to cook is actually really good for my dining out budget. Always feeling like I have to perform for the dinner hour can be difficult, but throwing a frozen pizza one night every few weeks or so gives me a night off to recuperate without spending a bunch of money on eating out.

Myscha Theriault's picture

Chuckle . . . snort . . . the blackened chicken comment cracked me up.

I think it's really great to have a strategy list to mix and match when combining your budget with your schedule. I used to feel like a failure if I didn't do something from scratch every night. An occasional frozen pizza is a huge help, as is giving yourself permission to do less elaborate meals as you mentioned. Even grilled cheese is better than a take out burger, I guess.

Cool post.

Guest's picture
Guest

God bless you Julie. You have no idea how applicable this is to my life. Will (too lazy to log in)

Guest's picture
Alyson

I've recently become a full-time student and we're living on one income - his, thanks dear.

Two years ago, when he was deep in credit card debt and eating out every night he wouldn't have thought this possible. In fact, many times he told me he couldn't live on anything less than his current salary (alone), just look at his debts and expeditures. Now, I'm cheap, but I was also finding it hard to live on my salary (we weren't together then, just roommates, long, sordid tale with a happy ending), which was 1/2 of his. And, granted, his expenditures included a flat-screen LCD, a lovely digital Pentax camera and an XBox. Mine included lots of clothes and trips.

Fast forward to me not working, a mortgage and school. I will admit we did get some help from a sad source, his mom passed away and we got the life insurance, not a ton, like $50k. Before that, though, he started running his purchases by me - you don't need a new fancy ipod, you have two; why do we need Showtime, we never watch it, it's $10/month, we can buy shows on iTunes - an entire season for two months of Showtime, etc. The life insurance allowed us to buy some sweet furniture for our new house (a leather couch, but it's a killer couch and won't EVER need replacing) and tuition for my first semester. But, otherwise, it sits in a savings account and gathers interest (I know we should probably invest it, but it's nice to have those liquid assets there and I don't trust the stock market, too much speculation) and we live off of his income. We paid off the cars and paid off his credit card debt.

But, I think the biggest thing is that we don't eat crap take out every night. We've become very good in the kitchen. We shop sales and at Market Basket (I love that store, cheap cheap cheap). I get America's Test Kitchen recipes in my e-mail. We have a slow cooker. And, I make huge amounts of the food we like a lot and we freeze it. Red beans and rice can be relatively expensive to make (Andouille is $7/lb up here in the north)but if a big batch is made and frozen we can get 5 meals out of it, making it like $2 or less per serving. Much cheaper than even $5 chicken fingers. I do the same with soups and some sauces. It's great too, because while a lot of what i cook is pretty labor intensive the first time, with the red beans taking like 1.5+ hours of prep and 1.5 hours of active cook time and another 4 or so of inactive cook time, I get back hours by defrosting and dumping in a pot on the stove. Market Basket also has roast (already cooked) chickens for $3.99, so, we have roast chicken one night and then quesadillas or burritoes the next night with leftovers for nibbling and, in the case of the burritoes, frozen burrito filling for a whole other meal and the cost of some black beans. It's 4 meals in one, easy. For $3.99 + rice and veggies and cheese.

Most months we end up with money in the checking account, that I then squirrel away in savings knowing that my husband has a tendency to view surpluses as free money but the savings account as off limits. And, he gets some money per check for a personal checking account that he can do what he wants with, although, sometimes it's good to question those purchases too. And, rock band for the Xbox is a good investment, which sounds stupid, but a great party game, something to do when you're bored, it's collaborative and additional songs are like $1.99 - although we do not need Oasis all the hits for $15! Much preferred to the $60+ he'd been spending on games he'd get tired of in a month or a week or a few days. And when the game actually makes us rock stars we'll be set!!!

Okay, that was a lot more than just what we eat, but all of it can be easy, fun and healthier than the way we were doing it before.

Guest's picture
Lucille

Having a few good ingredients on hand can make cooking at home a bit better. We keep good olive oil and balsamic vinegar on hand and shredded parm cheese in the freezer.We also buy big containers of baby mixed lettuce at Sams. That is a good start to a bunch of different meals.

If we are really lazy we do buffalo wings and pizza. We keep some decent frozen pizzas and chicken wings in the freezer. It ends up much cheaper than pizza delivery.

Another suggestion is to get a copy of one of the Top Secret Recipes books. Some get a bit involved and some are pretty easy but they can be a good stand in if your craving something. I also cruise Epicurious and some other newspaper websites for restaurant recipes to cook on weekends.

Even just something frozen from Sams or Costco can do in a pinch and costs less than restaurant food. Some of it is the same thing the restaurant is using.

Guest's picture
MJB

We buy some 'convenience foods' and some 'ingredients.' Start with all convenience foods if you have to, but otherwise focus them in problem areas.

For example, don't eat enough veggies? Try buying prepared baby carrots and pre-washed salads.

Hate certain kinds of prep--e.g. shredding cheese for pizza--but others not such a big deal (e.g. soaking beans overnight)? Buy shredded cheese (for pizza it works fine to throw it in the freezer!) and more dried beans. If you hate planning ahead but don't mind shredding cheese, do the reverse.

We buy a lot of canned soups and Ritz crackers since those are easy for my partner to snack on when he's feeling hypoglycemic. We also keep some frozen chicken fingers on hand for "lazy" dinner nights, although it turns out grilled cheese with a tomato soup is also pretty easy, as well as the occasional "snack tray" dinner (include three to five of the following: carrot sticks, celery sticks, cucumber sticks, pickles, olives, little sausages, hard boiled eggs, wheat crackers, buttered toast, microwave quesadillas).

Guest's picture
Debbie M

Those are some unusual and interesting ideas. I never thought of the snacking one before, but it's great for keeping you from getting ravenous while you're trying to cook.

And I have recently named a creation "ugly cake" after I had to scrape off the burned parts and it fell apart and half the frosting melted while the other half stayed in big blobs. Oops, oops, and triple oops!

Another tactic is to have a few things you like that are very easy to make (or that feel easy to make to you), also known as bachelor food. Things like macaroni and cheese, grilled cheese sandwiches, scrambled eggs, soup, or stir-fry for meals and toast, fruit, or popcorn for snacks. I knew someone who liked to mix tomato sauce with tuna. It doesn't matter if it sounds disgusting to other people, if everyone eating likes it okay and it's not too bad for you, it's good.

Julie Rains's picture

Frozen pizza, scrambled eggs, grilled cheese, mac and cheese -- those are some of my favorite quick meals. Thanks for the mentions. Having a perfect, well-balanced meal every night can be a lot of pressure so going for a well-balanced day or week is a good target.

This has reminded me of a tip from my cooking teacher (home ec teacher by trade with a bit of gourmet at the college class): she said most people cook the same 5-10 meals and just cycle them through every week or so; then they try a new recipe and if it's good, add it to the rotation and possibly replace one that they're tired of. I think that helped me to realize that I didn't have to constantly try new things.

Guest's picture
Sean

I really enjoyed this article. For December, we hit 23% of our income going to dining out. TWENTY-THREE PERCENT!! Needless to say, that was a New Years goal. So far, we have not ate out at all in Feb., and only spent $47 in January. Our secret has been to eat a lot of veggies, and we have had some (and some not so much) success with bulk cooking and freezing meal size packages. Thanks again for a great article.

Guest's picture
Guest

"Ugly Cake". Hilarious!! I've made some of them in my time.

Great article and very timely for me since all these increasing grocery/gas/restaurant prices are clobbering my budget and my job will not exist after March. I am envious of people who can even afford frozen pizza!!

Guest's picture
JohannaB

My first step to curbing the eating out demon was to brown-bag my lunches. I work in a hospital which has a cafeteria that isn't bad but it really adds up over a week. So I scoped out a shelf in the break room and keep lunch items there. It's working really well so far. Thanks for the post I'm always open to new ideas.

Guest's picture
BigRed

If I can expand on the healthy snacks tip, it is critical to remember that "quick snacks on the road" add up in calories and costs as well. We were heading out to the in-laws, 90 minutes away, and the call went out for "can we stop for a snack"? 5 minutes at the 7-11, and we'd spent about $12--two Vitamin Waters, a coffee, a diet Coke (about $1.50 for each of these), a bag of chips, a package of poptarts (my choice--I know, I know...), a couple of candy bars. Absolutely empty calories, a lot of packaging and waste, and no reason to have stopped.

We're going for a long drive this weekend, and I am going to be prepared: for Christmas, we each got a Sigg 1-liter aluminum drink bottle, which I will fill with water (kids like to put a to-go Crystal Light packet in there, green tea with honey and lemon) so we have drinks. I am also packing a small cooler with baby carrots, sliced peppers and celery, hummus, oranges, homemade chocolate chip cookies, sliced cheese, and whole grain crackers. And, most importantly, gassing up the car the night before so there is no reason to stop.

I have found that you can constrain your dining out to really special nights by only eating things that you couldn't reasonably reproduce at home: pasta is one of the big markups, steak is another (both are easy to make at home, and much less expensive at home than in a restaurant), salad (please!), soup, seafood, etc. YOu can really do these yourself, for much cheaper. I learned to make limited sushi choices too (crab, avocado, cucumber, egg, shrimp) because our family loves to eat it. An order of California roll (6 pieces) is $4 at our local sushi place--I can make 10 rolls (60 pieces) for about $7, because I have already made the investment in wasabi, gari, rice vinegar, and soy sauce. That feeds 4 of us for dinner, and there is enough leftover to make Bento boxes for the kids for school lunch.

Another tip is to either split an entree with someone when you go out, or to ask for a take-home container to be delivered with your meal (If I'm eating out for business, I usually do this, and take half of the entree home for the hubby or for my lunch the next day). Restaurant portions are huge, expensive and generally not altogether healthy (lots of butter and exotic oils), so splitting it between 2 meals is a great way to minimize the damage.

Julie Rains's picture

Bringing lunch in is what I do nearly every day now, which is nice for my pocketbook but has become dull after 10+ years. I used to make sandwiches and still do but have started with leftovers from home-cooked dinners or created chef's salads.

My generally ravenous kids (at home and on the road) are my budget busters now. When they were younger, they loved ricecakes -- inexpensive and relatively healthy (even those with the sugar added, compared with most other kid alternatives). My snacks are apples, grapes, dried cranberries, pecans, maybe a cereal bar; at home, I may have to grab some chips with salsa before dinner.

It does help to develop your own game plan based on what's available shopping wise and restaurant wise but it can take some experimenting to get there! 

Guest's picture
Lill

Our paycheck comes every two weeks, so when I shop twice monthly, I stash some granola bars, small bags of popcorn or chips, cracker packs or whatever else I can get on sale that's not terribly unhealthy in my car in a canvas bag. That way, if I forget to pack snacks or lunch, we're not forced to stop or have low blood sugar meltdowns.

For drinks, I try to keep a few cans of flavored seltzer water in the back of the car, in case we don't have our SS water bottles with us, but I know where every water fountain in town is also.

For over a month now, I've been improving my diet by having at least two pieces of fruit a day, starting with breakfast. I've noticed that since I've been doing that, I'm not snacking so much on unhealthy food. I save money too, because I buy whatever fruit is in season. Right now, that's bananas and tangerines. Well, they're in season in the market.

About all that's growing outside in Maine right now are snowpiles and pine trees. Maybe I should brew up some spruce tea? It's supposed to be very nutritious and it's wicked frugal.

Shine On,
Lill