When Cathy Erway was in her mid-20s, she entered an exclusive relationship with home-cooked food. "I went AWOL from eating restaurant, takeout, or street stand food," says Erway, the author of two cookbooks including "The Art of Eating In: How I Learned to Stop Spending and Love The Stove."
Erway, who blogs at Not Eating Out in New York, was spending a total of $100 a week dining out in New York City at least four or five times. "I wasn't saving up anything, so I decided if I just cut out the restaurants ... I could save a lot of money," says Erway.
Erway says she saved about $75 a week on food, for an estimated $7,800 over two years, by exclusively dining in. Spending less on food meant she freed up that money to use on other priorities, and while that was a major incentive, Erway says changing her lifestyle made her "experiment" even more rewarding: "I would totally do it again. ... It was easy and actually a lot of fun!"
The food blogger shared with Grow her tips for resisting the temptation of ordering takeout, and how recreating a restaurant experience at home helped her avoid FOMO (fear of missing out). She also shares her recipe for a chicken eggplant stir fry that costs less than $2 a serving.
Cooking at home doesn't always guarantee that you'll save. It helps to go to the grocery store with a plan. "I get so excited at the supermarket, but then I buy more than I need, and wasting food is wasting money," Erway says.
Erway is resourceful when it comes to using the extra ingredients in her fridge: "It's fun to look at what [produce] you have left over and figure out new ways to use it."
There are a few items with a long-shelf life that she suggests stocking up on to create a base for your dishes. Dried beans, canned beans, canned tomatoes, and rice are all useful staples for when you don't have time to make an elaborate dish, she says.
Beans are protein-packed and can easily be added to a salad, or tossed with vegetables. Your bean salad can be stored in your fridge for three to five days so it makes for great leftovers. And with those canned tomatoes, "you can whip up a pasta sauce or a soup" Erway says.
There is one item she splurges on: "A really high-quality butter. ... You can really taste the difference." Fancy butter, like Double Devon Cream Butter, is around $9 for a half a pound, but a little goes a long way.
To avoid the temptation of ordering in because you're too tired to cook, Erway recommends preparing a big portion of rice in advance, which lasts up to six days in the fridge. "You'll have a great base for anything you want to cook on the fly," she says.
Not everyone loves to cook as much as Erway. The trick, she says, is to make meal prep easy and keep key ingredients accessible. "Sometimes cooking just means boiling some pasta and throwing whatever wonderful sauces you might have left over in the fridge with some fresh veggies," she says.
Once you stock up on versatile ingredients, it's easy to get creative with that leftover produce. "A stir fry takes all of five minutes," Erway says. If you have vegetable scraps and leftover store-bought sauces, just wing it: "Don't be afraid of making up something that doesn't exist. ... You never know what you'll create."
Cooking, she adds, is an art you can learn: "It gets easier to cook the more you do it, so it's sort of a habit that has compounding interest."
And if being a creative chef doesn't appeal to you as a goal, she suggests you make saving money your motivation.
Subbing out the restaurant experience for home cooking with friends can be just as pleasurable, says Erway: "You're replacing one type of experience, which is sitting in a restaurant and having a server tell you all about your wonderful meal, with another type of experience of shopping around and having fun learning about ingredients and learning how to cook them."
Many social gatherings revolve around dining out, but "you can have a lot of fun with trying to recreate a special occasion at home by getting really great ingredients."
When Erway was exclusively eating at home, she added variety in the form of potlucks, supper club dinners, and cook-offs. "It's a lot of fun. I mean, you can stay as long as you want, you don't get kicked out of your seat or table, you don't have to wait for a table, and it's also a lot cheaper."
If you're hosting a dinner party, Erway says to try family style dishes to save money: "Go with a large format, a whole roast, a leg of lamb ... some sort of lasagna or big bowl of pasta. It's communal and fun and you can really save a lot."
In addition, Erway says, there's no shame in asking your friends to bring their own booze to make the party cost-efficient. You can even ask them to chip in for food, as long as you give them a heads-up.
While Erway's home cooking challenge ended a few years back, it has definitely had an impact on how she orders at restaurants. "Now, whenever I eat out, I think of how I could have made this. ... Why did I just pay $15 for this?"
A sizzling steak is one example of a dish that's expensive and easy to make yourself. All you need is the right seasoning and a very hot pan, Erway says. "I think you'll be surprised at some of the things that you can make at home. ... They're some of the most luxurious and expensive things you can get in a restaurant."