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?

Living on What You Earn Can Make You Feel Broke, and That’s a Good Thing!

Living on what you earn can be a difficult thing.  For many, it seems like a little like a foreign language; difficult to learn to do, and backwards.  But, if you can learn it, and transform your life into one where you’re living on what you earn, it can make a whole lot of difference.  You’ve got to start somewhere, though.  I, like you, haven’t always lived on what I earned.

Almost all of my life, I’ve owed someone something.  When I was 19, I needed a car.  My parents, tired of having me call them late at night after my old, beater car had broken down—AGAIN!—, decided I should buy a new car.

I didn’t qualify for a loan yet, so my grandpa lent me the money, and I paid him back with a small amount of interest, which was less than I’d pay borrowing from the bank and more than he’d make in a safe investment.

Soon after, I went away to college and took out student loans and started running a balance on my credit cards.

By the time I finally paid off my student loans a few years ago, my husband had his own loans that we had to pay.

Can you see me, just like the proverbial hamster running on the hamster wheel?

Living on What you EarnI owe, I owe, it’s off to work I go.

Until one day, I said, “Enough!”

No more.

Time to live on what we make.

Time to stop borrowing.

Time to start saving.

And that’s when the real challenge began.

Our society is built on borrowing.  Borrow for school, borrow for a car, borrow for a house, rent to own, pay in 10 easy installment plans.

I’m done living that lifestyle, but in turn, I’ve picked a much more challenging lifestyle—living on what we earn.

Cutting Until There’s No Room Left to Cut

The first thing I did was develop a frugal, written budget.  That meant taming our grocery budget from $700 to $1,000 a month to $500 a month to feed our family of 5 with gluten, dairy and corn intolerances.  It isn’t easy, but we’re doing it.

The next step was to keep a record of everything we spend.  Honestly, I hate keeping this record, so that alone is incentive to spend less.

I spend an hour or so every week, reconciling the budget and making sure we’re on track.

I also started regularly saving for irregular expenses.  Every other week, I put $120 in an account earmarked for utilities.  In the winter, our utilities fall far below that, but I still keep saving the money for the expensive summer months.  This way our utility costs are the same all year long.

Handling Unexpected Expenses

While the new budget can feel somewhat restrictive, what I find most difficult are the unexpected expenses.  Just recently, I found that two of my kids have cavities (quite a few!), and the price for fixing them is around $400.  I have money set aside in a medical fund, but filling the cavities will just about wipe that money out.

The problem is that we have many other medical expenses–$188 for my son to get new glasses and an eye exam and a pending $3,300 expense for him to get braces.  I could put his braces on an interest free payment plan, but we don’t do payment plans anymore, interest free or not.

Instead, we had to make hard decisions like canceling our trip to see family this summer.

Living on cash is definitely not easy, but I know once we get through the next couple of years, as our income increases, it will get easier.

We are, as Dave Ramsey says, “Living like no one else so later we can LIVE like no one else.”

Do you eschew debts and payment plans, or do you use them in moderation to meet your goals?