3 Easy Ways to Get a Home Cooked Meal on the Table: Save Time and Money

Do you cook at home?  If so, how many times a week?

Chances are, your answer will vary depending on whether or not you work outside the home, your age, and your income.

Sure, cooking at home can save you plenty of money, but not a lot of us do it.  According to Harris Interactive, “Two in five (41%) say they prepare meals at home five or more times a week and three in ten (29%) do so three to four times a week.  One in five (19%) of U.S. adults prepare meals at home one to two times a week, and 11% say they rarely or never prepare meals at home.” There aren’t always easy ways to get a home cooked meal on the table.

In the last several years, my husband and I have made the switch to exclusively eating at home.  We go out to eat less than 10 times a year, usually only when we’re traveling.  What I’ve discovered is that cooking at home can actually be A LOT of work.  Making healthy, low-cost food requires time and energy, and then there is all of the clean up to do afterwards.  If I were still working full-time outside the home, I doubt that I would have time to cook as much as I do now.

Home Cooked Meal

Original IMG credit: DSC_0719 on Flickr

However, there are a number of strategies that can help make preparing foods at home easier.

Have a go to meal.  Everyone should have a few easy meals that they can make from staples in the pantry when they’re short on time.  Choices might include spaghetti, cheese quesadillas, grilled cheese sandwiches, etc.  These meals may not be ideal nutritionally, but they’re still better than grabbing fast food, and they’ll save your wallet.

Use your slow cooker.  Start the slow cooker in the morning, and when you come home, you’ll have a hot meal waiting for you.  To save even more time, prep all of the ingredients the night before so in the busy morning, you can just dump in the ingredients and go.

Utilize freezer cooking.  Take one day a month and cook up several meals for your family for the month.  This might take you three to four hours, but then you will eliminate much of the cooking you’ll need to do for the rest of the month.  Simply take a meal out of your freezer the night before you need it and then reheat it when you get home from work.

There are short cuts to freezer meals, too.  Search Pinterest, and you’ll find crockpot freezer meals.  Simply dump the ingredients in a freezer bag and freeze.  This type of freezer cooking doesn’t require any cooking before putting it in the slow cooker, so you can make a month’s worth of meals in about an hour.

Another idea is to double any recipe you are already cooking and put the second one in the freezer for a busy night.

Don’t be discouraged if you haven’t yet mastered how to eat at home without spending all of your time cooking.  As Marion Nestle, professor of food studies at New York University and author of What to Eat says, “Anything that you do that’s not fast food is terrific; cooking once a week is far better than not cooking at all.  It’s the same argument as exercise: more is better than less and some is better than none” (The New York Times).

What is your favorite strategy to get a healthy meal on the table quickly?


4 Ways to Spend Less on Groceries Each Month

Are you familiar with the USDA food plans?  These plans state how much food should cost a family each month based on four categories:  thrifty, low-cost, moderate and liberal.  The plans are updated each month to accommodate food price increases.  You determine how much your family should spend by choosing one of the four plans, and choosing the ages and members of your family.

For instance, according to the most recent USDA food plan, my family of five (2 adults and 3 kids ages 4 to 10), we should be spending approximately $176.60 a week on the thrifty plan up to $348.90 on the liberal plan.  (Am I the only one saying “WOW!” to the liberal plan?)

Recently, I voluntarily decided to cut back on my freelance workload so that I could spend more time homeschooling my kids.  We decided to tighten our belt and live off my husband’s income alone while banking the money I’m making.

We’ve been thrilled to spend under the USDA thrifty plan every week, usually by $40 or $50 a week, even though we cannot have gluten, dairy or corn.  Here’s how we’ve been doing it:

Spend Less on GroceriesStock up when things are on sale.  I now try to only buy fruits and veggies that are loss leaders in the weekly ads.  When I see things at rock bottom prices, I stock up.  Recently, oranges were on sale for 4 pounds for $1.  I bought a case, which was 40 pounds.  That case only cost me $10, and we’ve had fresh oranges for the last 5 weeks.  We have one more week left before we run out.  (Keep in mind that some stores will give you a discount when you buy a case, so you can save even more.)

I also found organic potatoes 5 pounds for $2, so I bought 40 pounds.  Same for cabbage at 33 cents a pound.  I bought 6 heads.

Inevitably, there are weeks where there are no good sales, so we eat from the pantry.  This week is one of those weeks, so we will be eating a lot of meals with cabbage and potatoes.

Make your menu plan based on the items that are on sale.  I’ve always made a menu plan.  (If you don’t, start now!  It’s such a money saver.)  However, I made my menu plan first and then went shopping.  Now, I do the opposite.  I find out what is on sale, and I make my menu plan based on those items.

Make freezer meals based on low cost items.  When I have extra time or extra groceries, I make freezer meals.  Then, if there’s a week where we’ve run out of grocery money or there’s nothing good on sale, I have at least a week’s worth of meals in the freezer.

Be disciplined when going to big box stores.  I love shopping at Costco, but I’m very careful to only buy what is on my list.  I can get organic carrots 10 pounds for $6.99.  I can buy a 2 pound bag of organic greens for less than $5.  These prices can’t be beat!  However, if I stray from my list and spend on impulse buys, I’m not saving any money.

What USDA plan is your weekly grocery spending closest to?  What other tips do you have to save money on groceries?

Achieving True Diversification in Your Portfolio

“Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket.” I’m sure you’ve heard that expression before. Most people at least understand the idea of diversification. The idea is to prevent you from losing all of your investments if something bad were to happen.

The idea is simple, but many investors fail to achieve true diversification in their portfolio. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard someone talk about their diversified portfolio that consists of 10 stocks. Ten stocks isn’t anywhere close to diversified. This false sense of diversification is a very popular financial weakness that many adhere to. To have a truly diverse portfolio that mitigates risk, you need dozens or even hundreds of investments across different industries, currencies, geographic regions and asset classes.

The Value of Mutual Funds

The same group that calls their 10-stock portfolio diversified is the same group that scoffs at mutual funds. They say something like, “why would I pay a fund manager to pick my investments when I can do it myself just fine?” Even giving them the benefit of the doubt that they have the same expertise as a fund manager who’s full time job is to evaluate investments, how can one individual keep up with dozens or hundreds of investments necessary to be truly diversified? What kind of capital does it take to hold that many positions?

Natalie Cooper of BankingSense.com says, “Put simply, a mutual fund gives investors the ability to invest in cash, bonds, stocks and other securities while never requiring investors to make separate trades or purchases. To build a portfolio that has a similar level of diversification, an investor would need $100,000 or more. A mutual fund provides the same level of diversification for far less money. An individual investor can obtain great diversification with about $1,000.”

It’s true that there is a cost to investing in mutual funds. Depending on the fund type, there may be an up-front fee with smaller annual management fees or the fund may be no-load, but carry a higher annual fee. Regardless, the fees on most funds are nominal and the benefits easily outweigh the costs.

Avoiding False Diversification

Even if your portfolio consists entirely of mutual funds, you need to take care to avoid overlap. Kent Thune of About.com says, “This [investing strategy] has great potential for overlap, which occurs when an investor owns two or more mutual funds that hold similar securities.” He goes on to provide an example of two funds, the Vanguard S&P 500 Index (VFINX) and Vanguard Growth Equity (VGEQX), who’s portfolios consist of 97% of the same investments.

Buying a number of highly rated mutual funds isn’t enough to make sure you are truly diversified. You need to review the portfolios of each to make sure there isn’t any overlap. Your investments should also cover multiple asset classes. Laura Dogu of Forbes.com recommends a simple strategy to achieve this, “The three funds you should own now are the Vanguard Total Stock Market Index fund, Vanguard Total International Stock Market Index fund, and the Vanguard Total Bond Market fund…With only these three funds, investors can create a low cost, broadly diversified portfolio that is very easy to manage and rebalance.”

Achieving Balance

A good portfolio provides opportunity for growth while mitigating risk. Your level of risk aversion combined with the amount of time that you have to invest will dictate your proper portfolio mix. You can even include single stocks in your portfolio, but they should be a small part of your overall investments.

It’s easy to get blinded by the potential for high returns. A bond with a 5% coupon doesn’t look very enticing when compared with an emerging market that’s seeing 20% or 30% growth; however, high return investments cannot be separated from their risk. You need a balanced portfolio that’s truly diversified. You need to provide opportunity for your money to grow, but you need to make sure that it will still be there when you need it most.