If your family is just starting out like mine is, you may find yourself in a similar boat to where Luke and I were at Fort Benning, GA. Many times, it’s just easier to eat out. More cost effective? Not necessarily, but easier, most definitely.
In GA, Luke and I were both adjusting to “adult jobs” and in addition, I was completing my master’s degree. Excuses are a dime a dozen and for whatever reason, we ate out far more than I cooked about 80% of the time. We spent hundreds upon hundreds of dollars on food; we are amateur “foodies” so we do have expensive tastes, but even those “cheaper” meals, including fast food, took a toll on our wallets as well as our bodies.
I would make a massive Publix trip every week or two and spend a couple hundred dollars in addition to all of the eating out. We never consumed as many groceries as we thought we would, so we ended up throwing a lot out. I am embarrassed to admit how much we wasted–everything from spoiled produce to leftovers neither of us ate to half-used condiments. When we moved to Fort Sill we had a just-opened jelly jar (literally only one spoonful had been taken out) that was thrown into the trash!
As we moved to Fort Sill and adopted a new family budget with a higher focus on some longer term savings goals, our food money was reduced dramatically. At first, I was really worried and just didn’t see how it could be possible to live so “cheaply” and still eat “well.” And, yet it is!
I’ll share a few of my secrets (which aren’t really secrets at all), as our dinner tonight– salmon with asparagus and new potatoes– simmers in the oven. This is my brother Ethan’s recipe, and it is by far my very favorite way to make salmon! I will have to share sometime.
Secret No. 1- Work at Chick-fil-A and eat free food. (Just kidding, everyone!) Although that is one perk of the job that is one of my very favorites…But really…here goes.
Secret No. 2- There are no excuses–you buy the food and cook it, regardless of how the day has gone. I am working just as many hours here in Oklahoma if not more. I am not completing my master’s degree, but I am working more hours in my job as well as working towards a couple of other goals and running my social media marketing business on the side. It would be so easy (and it is tempting!) to say forget it–let’s grab a burger. However, since we have lived here and I’ve been working almost three months now, I am very proud to say we have only had an unplanned fast food type meal twice! That is a far cry from the once per week (at least) it usually happened in GA.
Secret No. 3-Plan ahead. Many of my friends shared meal planning tips with me in the past, but I can’t tell you how much of an impact it has had to come up with my own system that works for our family and stick to the plan. I typically like to do this on Sunday’s when I come up with five meals we might like to eat during the week. We mix up the cuisine–usually a Mexican or Asian night, home-cooked Southern night, pasta or Italian dish, maybe some seafood or another lighter option (chicken is more of a rarity these days for obvious reasons!) and one easy night such as Hamburger Helper, steaks on the grill or tomato soup and grilled cheese. I have found that planning my five nights works well. I have a white board where I list “Our Weekly Menu” in the kitchen. We then mix up the meals during the week and pick and choose based on the day; if it is going to be a late night at work I’ll do a crockpot meal that day and maybe a longer, more intensive meal on a day when I’ll be off much earlier. I am very blessed that Luke is not as much of a picky eater anymore, and he is usually up to try whatever I make. (We have expanded his horizons tremendously over the past 6 years of our relationship!)
Secret No. 4- Grocery Shop Strategically. I of course, first and foremost, never go when I am hungry. That always, always, always gets me into trouble. After church works well for my schedule, and I’ll come home and build my list based on what we already have in the cabinets. This alone has been a huge money saver! No duplicate canned goods, condiments or unnecessary spices that I used to buy when I got to the store because I couldn’t remember if I had it at home.
As a military spouse, the commissary is a literal gold mine in terms of savings. I wish I would have utilized it more at Benning, but we lived 30 minutes away and I never felt it was worth the time and gas. Here, we are just down the street, and groceries are much cheaper! I have learned to avoid the pitfalls (aka holiday weekends and pay days) that make the whole experience miserable. I love Monday morning grocery shopping–it is always dead! If/when I have a morning off, I always maximize my time by doing my shopping then. Sunday’s aren’t too bad either.
The other thing is buying ingredients you can use in multiple dishes; this week I bought new potatoes to go with tonight’s salmon and tomorrow’s beef stew. It minimizes the number of ingredients to purchase and saves money because you don’t have so many excess.
Secret No. 5- Freeze extra meat to use later (same for leftovers). There are only 2 of us, and most meats (especially at the Commissary) come in pretty large packs. In older days, I would have maybe tried to make a couple meals out of it in the same week and one set would go bad. Now, I know that we like a little more variety in our dinners, so I will freeze the excess meat immediately, before I even cook the stuff I am making. This way, it safely goes into a dated Zip Lock bag and I can use it for the future. If I am wanting to make a more expensive recipe one week or buy more fresh herbs and produce, I might supplement with meat from the freezer to stick to our pre-determined weekly grocery budget.
Secret No. 6-Have a budget and know what you are spending! At Benning, we had general guidelines for expenditures, but we “just winged it” a lot too. We had two separate bank accounts and it could be hard to track what the other was buying. Plus, we typically gave in to “wants” a lot more than we do now; a “need” vs a “want” is very different. Tonight, I wanted to make my poppyseed ham rolls because I have been craving them. But, instead, I am making the salmon because it will go bad if I wait until tomorrow. Cooking foods in order of expiration date (even if you prefer a different meal) is key.
Secret No. 7- Look for deals and stock up then, which can help supplement a more expensive week. Today Manwich was on sale, and even though we aren’t having Sloppy Joe’s this week, I went ahead and bought two cans. I knew I would still come in under budget, and another week, I can just buy buns and use the sauce and meat from the freezer.
Secret No. 8- Ask your spouse to pitch in. I do this more now than I did at Benning. In GA, I never wanted to “bother” Luke, even if I was exhausted so I would suggest we grab something on the way home. However, he honestly doesn’t mind cooking one of the easier meals (think paninis, tacos, anything on the grill, breakfast for dinner.) It helps a lot because it relieves all of the pressure from one person, and I get a night “off” too. Between the two of us, we have the art of making dinner down to a science.
By following these few easy tips, we have formed a habit of eating at home during week nights 5-6 days per week. We always have one weekend “cheat night” where we get to eat out nicer; now this isn’t necessarily the $100+ meal we enjoyed too frequently at Benning. But, it is a good date night that we look forward to. On Sunday afternoons we also enjoy going out to eat somewhere less expensive–we have a nice rotation between BBQ, Mexican and Chinese each week. But, other than those two meals, we typically eat all the rest at home. I eat Chick-fil-A for lunch of course, and Luke comes home for lunch and eats leftovers and sandwiches (yay for living on post and close to his work).
It isn’t a perfect system, but it works for us. We also realized how much we enjoy the quiet time of dinner just us, in the comfort of our home, in our PJ’s if we prefer. We don’t have to get dressed up and go out. We sometimes watch TV with dinner and just laugh together over a show and enjoy our meal at a leisurely pace which is hard to do when you’re out to eat on a week night. We find that we are eating healthier, spending less and enjoying the food more. Last week, we even got to cook together; Luke helped me flip the quesadillas and it was like a mini “date night” in; a fun experience we would not have had at a restaurant.
Let’s Chat! What are some other tips you have found for saving money on food for your family?