How to Stop the Takeout Meal Cycle and Save

Whether you're trying to lean your budget or your waistline this year, eating too many meals out is a common offender. In fact, CNN recently reported that the average dinner at a non-chain restaurant comes in at a staggering 1,200 calories. While prices can range wildly depending on the eatery, the solution for better physical and financial health may be as simple as cooking more meals at home.

My family decided to embark on a challenge and stop dining out last month. We survived and have a stack of cash to show for it. Yes! We estimate we saved around $75 (conservatively) each week by skipping takeout and getting better with our meal planning. About $50 of this money, probably more, came from shunning restaurants and $25 is what we shaved off each week's grocery bill, all while making enough food for hearty breakfasts, lunches, and dinners — seven days each week.

Your results with this type of challenge will vary depending on how much you eat out, the cost of living in your area, and your creativity with using leftovers. Regardless, here are some tips that can help anyone to stop the takeout cycle today and save big. (See also: Try These 6 Money-Saving Challenges Now)

Examine Your Habits

Get honest with yourself about your eating and restaurant habits. When we wrote it out, we realized we were grabbing takeout pizza on Friday night, scouting out brunch or lunch on Saturday or Sunday, and sneaking in at least another meal out every week. I say we were spending $50, but I'm sure the amount was closer to $75 at the rate we were going.

Beyond that, we had a huge problem with food waste. I found myself tossing rotten fruits and veggies before our weekly grocery trip. We had expired cartons of yogurt nearly full and long-forgotten bags of whatever else going stale. The weirdest part? Our grocery bill was higher than ever. In better days, we tried to stick to around $80 to $100 for a family of three, but we were climbing at least $25 higher than that amount, all while feeling like we never had ideas for dinner. (See also: 10 Fruits and Veggies That Stay Fresh a Month or Longer)

After facing the hard truth, it became crystal clear that we needed to put more effort into planning and preparing our meals to save money and create less waste.

Embrace the Plan

Meal planning has been the key to our success, and it hasn't taken much effort. Every week before shopping, I take stock of what we have in the fridge, freezer, and pantry. It sounds like a big job, but it probably takes five or 10 minutes. I figure out what meals we can make with those items first. Some of the ideas come from memory. Other times, I use sites like Supercook to help with my creativity.

Feeling intimidated? It helps to stick to basic breakfasts (oatmeal, fruit, yogurt, cereal, etc.), easy lunches (sandwiches, salads, and other things that can be made in bulk), and use tools like a slow cooker to make simmering satisfying dinners a breeze. We even do some bulk cooking to help when we're in a pinch. Example: I made a huge batch of freezer veggie burgers that we can grab on busy nights.

Shop Smart

After I account for all the leftover foods, I look up recipes or write down old favorites for the other nights in the week. What results is an awesomely organized grocery list. At the store, we only buy what we need, nothing additional. That's how food waste is made! And I'll tell you what, there's nothing more satisfying than ending the week with a near-empty fridge.

We also found when we changed what day of the week we shop, we felt less compelled to grab takeout. For us, this meant heading to the store on Friday nights so our cabinets were packed with lots of exciting foods for the weekend. We had been shopping on Mondays, and with little in our reserves — that's when we'd venture out to takeout town. Now, making our meals and enjoying food together has even become one of our favorite sources of frugal entertainment.

Start Small

Does cooking absolutely everything at home sound too overwhelming? I admit, I have a high tolerance for being in the kitchen. If you don't — start small. You can get great results by replacing just one of your meals out each week. Maybe you can start by packing a lunch instead of buying out. Replacing your morning coffee and muffin habit with a homemade variety. Look for any and all opportunities and add on from there.

If I had to choose just one, I would have started with our pizza takeout night. Making pizza at home doesn't take much skill. A plain pie at the place down the street costs around $14. To make dough ($1 for flour, yeast, and water) and top with sauce ($0.99 a jar) and cheese ($2.99 for a two-cup bag)? Well, that's more like $5 if you stick to the basics. (See also: This Is How You Make Restaurant-Quality Pizza at Home)

Resist Temptation

There were some tricky moments we encountered along the way. For example, our friends came down to visit and asked us if we wanted to buzz out to get some dinner with them randomly one afternoon. I felt paralyzed and slightly embarrassed, but I told them the truth: We'd love to get together, I shared, but we have some big budget goals this year, and eating out doesn't fit into the puzzle right now. Plus, we had already started cooking dinner.

Guess what? It was no biggie. They came over to our place, we hung out for several hours, and they even told us our Crock-Pot dinner smelled amazing. For us, temptation usually comes when we're lazy about planning or when we get social pressure. We know this now. Your own triggers might be different. Be aware of them. Be honest about your goals. And get cooking.

Did you break your takeout cyclc? What worked for you?

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Latoya Scott

In the last few months one thing that has helped reduced the amount of takeout drastically for us is to have a separate account for dining expenses. I had an old Capital One 360 checking account attached to my online savings so we decided to put $50 a month in there and start from there. With this idea we were already cutting about $100 in dining out expenses. The past few weeks have been challenging, but we are spending a lot less on take-out and creating more meals at home using e-meals. I want to get it to where we only eat out on special occasions, but I'll take each win that I can get:)