After a long day, swinging by your favorite takeout spot or restaurant can seem way more appealing than cooking at home. According to a new study, the average millennial eats out as much as five times a week. But that can add up.
While strategically ordering meals you can stretch over a few days won’t wreck your budget, more often than not, this convenience will cost you: A PlateIQ analysis found restaurants mark up food by an average of 300 percent.
On the other hand, cooking at home has countless benefits, not just for your money, but for your health and happiness, too. So we came up with a game plan to make the process easier, cheaper and even more enjoyable—no matter what your situation.
The Goal: Successfully cook for one, without getting buried in leftovers you’ll never finish.
Hit the freezer aisle. With frozen fruits and veggies, you can use just enough, and stash the rest. “You’ll save up to 50 percent compared to fresh produce,” says Marie Molde, a registered dietician for Datassential. “Plus, it’s often more nutritious, since it’s picked at its peak and frozen right away.”
Frozen seafood is another cheaper, healthier option. “Seafood is often frozen on the ship right after it’s caught, so the nutrients are captured,” Molde says. “Besides, a lot of seafood you buy at the counter has been previously frozen.”
Fight leftover fatigue. “Have a list of ways to repurpose foods like smoothies, frittatas, stews, chili and casseroles,” suggests Becky Kerkenbush, RD, clinical dietitian for the Wisconsin Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. For example, try grilled chicken for dinner, then shred the surplus for chicken salad or tacos the next day.
Using different seasonings is another way to customize basic dishes so you won’t get bored. Molde suggests drizzling balsamic vinegar one night, sprinkling fresh herbs the next, then using a seasoning blend.
Read blogs for kitchen newbies, like Budget Bytes, Food Wishes and SkinnyTaste. “Learn some simple dishes that freeze well,” Molde says. Think: soup, pot roast, baked pasta or meatloaf. After cooking, pack up individual portions and pop them in your freezer for later.
The Goal: Create adventurous, affordable meals for two without sacrificing taste or quality.
Try a delivery box. They’re not exactly cheap, but they’re a bargain compared to date night at a restaurant. “They can also be a cool entry point into new ingredients,” Molde says. She likes Sunbasket, which sources seasonal produce and humanely treated proteins.
Mind the waste. Avoid wasting food—and money—by checking expiration dates before you buy. The freshest items are generally toward the back of the shelf.
When you put away your groceries, place new purchases in the back, so that older food gets used first, suggests Kerkenbush, and put leftovers “front and center” so you don’t forget about them. Consider packing each of you a lunch with leftovers when you clean up after dinner.
Explore ethnic markets together. A lot of the items are cheaper, Molde says. “And you’ll find interesting goods like kimchi or gochujang sauce that might inspire a recipe.”
Goal: Prepare quick and healthy meals for less—and still get the kids in bed by 8.
Meal plan. A few hours’ work on a Sunday, for example, can set you up for the whole week. “Check grocery store ads for sales, then determine what meals you can make using those deals,” says Kerkenbush. A meal-planning app—like MealTime, MealBoard or Paprika—make staying on track a cinch.
Try a one-plan meal. Throw a bunch of ingredients (like veggies, potatoes and a protein) in one skillet, pan, pot or muffin tin, and make a delicious meal that requires minimal cleanup. Get inspired with these recipe roundups from Kitchn, Country Living and Budget Bytes.
Shop smarter. Don’t go to the store if you’re hungry (when people spend an average of 64 percent more), buy store brands (you’ll save an average of 25 percent) and take inventory of what you already have to avoid double purchases and finish shopping faster. “Think about what meals you could make with your current food that would require you to purchase only two or three more items,” Kerkenbush says.
The Goal: Throw a budget-friendly dinner party—with money leftover for Two-Buck Chuck.
Shop at the farmer’s market. “Not only is in-season produce up to 50 percent less expensive than out-of-season fruits and veggies, but you can often save an extra 25 percent compared to the grocery store,” Molde says. If you’re purchasing large quantities, try bartering for an even better deal.
Be strategic with the menu. “Save meat for the appetizer,” Kerkenbush says. “It’s typically the most expensive item in a meal, so delegating it to a smaller role will cut costs.” Serve an affordable vegetarian dish, like pasta or tacos, for the main course.
Consider brunch. “Eggs are inexpensive, high-protein and versatile,” Kerkenbush says. You can make casseroles, muffins or quiche. Or think of a theme, like a dessert or fondue party. “Not only is fondue fun and interactive, but food is cut into small pieces, so you can make a little go a long way,” Kerkenbush says.