It’s Tuesday night, and you’ve had a rough day at work. The last thing you want to do is cook, so you order Chinese food or mosey over to the nearest Chipotle for an easy dinner. By the end of the evening, your belly may be full, but your wallet’s feeling empty.
Food is the third biggest expense for most consumers, right after housing and transportation. And at $2,505 per year, the average American household spends almost as much money eating out as they do on groceries!
Cooking roasted chicken and vegetables can cost half as much as a McDonald’s dinner for a family of four, suggests the New York Times. Eliminating restaurant meals could save your family a thousand dollars or more each year.
You know this, but sometimes, you’re too busy, too tired, or just can’t be bothered with all the hassle. Your intentions to cook at home are sincere, but life always seems to get in the way. What’s a busy person to do?
Make cooking, rather than eating out, the path of least resistance. Here’s how to start breaking your takeout habit by taking a few simple steps.
Identify Your Failure Modes
Think carefully and answer the following question: Why do you usually eat out, even when you’ve been meaning to make a home-cooked meal? I do it because:
- I’m too lazy to think about what to cook.
- I don’t have enough groceries.
- I’m hungry now and cannot wait to eat.
- I’m just too tired to consider cooking or, even worse, cleaning.
By identifying the reasons I don’t cook, my failure modes, I’ve been able to develop strategies to knock them out one by one.
1. Can’t Decide What To Make Each Night? Plan Meals In Advance
Instead of diving into recipe books every night like I used to, I plan my meals in advance at the beginning of the week. I start by taking inventory of leftover ingredients from the week before. Then, I identify recipes with overlapping spices and ingredients to help minimize food waste.
A well-thought-out meal plan is key to avoiding the take-out treadmill. I don’t plan to make a three-course meal every night knowing I only have an hour to cook and eat. And I don’t add creme brulee to the plan because, as much as I do I love it, I know I don’t have the blow torch necessary to make it at home.
Every meal I plan has to fit three requirements:
- It has to be a recipe I enjoy eating.
- It has to be easy to make, with no more than 30 minutes of prep time.
- I should already have all the tools I need to prepare the dish on hand.
Bonus points if I find meals with cheaper cuts of meat or that I can cook in large batches.
2. Don’t Have Anything To Cook? Shop Weekly or Use a Delivery Service
Similar to meal planning, I only ever go to the grocery store once per week. This saves me a lot of time and headache.
Now there are plenty of tips out there to save money on groceries, but I like to use online delivery services like Instacart to comparison shop for groceries from the comfort of my own home. When I first signed up, I saved $10 on shrimp that was on sale at a supermarket just outside of my neighborhood. That savings, plus the $10-off promo for my first delivery, went a long way in making a dent in my grocery bill that week.
3. Can’t Wait Until Dinner is Ready? Always Have Food on Hand
Every time I go to the grocery store, I always pick up a snack. That way, if I get hungry before or while I’m cooking, I’ll at least have something to nibble on until dinner is served.
While chips or an apple may do the trick, I try to incorporate protein and fat into my snacks to avoid that groggy, sugar-crash feeling. My top choices include nuts, avocado slices and cheeses, pre-cut into snack-sized portions so I don’t end up ruining my meal by overeating.
4. Feeling Lazy? Minimize Cooking and Cleaning
There’s no way around it, cooking takes effort. But you can make it easier.
Try to prioritize one-pot recipes to minimize mess and cleanup time. Cook in batches and make leftovers for at the next day’s lunch and dinner. And if you have roommates or significant other, consider setting up a dinner rotation where you take turns cooking every other night. Or cook together as a group to make the evening a little more fun!
Cooking at home doesn’t have to be an ordeal. And by putting in a little thought and structure, you can turn it into your default choice in no time at all.
Your Turn: How do you avoid ordering takeout or going out to eat? Share your strategies for making cooking less of a challenge!
Taylor Lee is a millennial, a techie, and a personal finance blogger. Follow her as she works to reach financial independence before the age of thirty-five and check out her blog at EngineerCents.com.