How to stop eating out so much when eating out is a habit, and going to the grocery store + meal planning seems like it would take so much longer to do?
I’ve talked to many people who tell me eating out has become the default in their household. I’ve had more than one person sheepishly confess to me that “I eat out every meal.”
It probably started innocently enough – one or two drive-thru trips after picking up the kids, or Friday night Poke bowls you pick up on the way home from work (at least, that’s one of our vices!).
But then, somewhere between Wednesday night trips to Chick-fil-A, Friday night GrubHub deliveries (not that I'm telling you to go eat out…but if you're looking for a GrubHub coupon, click here), and Sunday brunches, you realize you eat out almost every meal.
If home cooked meals (or, at least meals mostly home cooked) have gone the way of the show Lost in your household, then keep reading. I’ve got lots of great strategies, any one of which will get you eating out less.
But first…why should you stop eating out so much?
How Many Times a Week Should You Eat Out?
Eating out is a waste of money – have you heard people say this? I actually can’t get completely behind this statement, which probably sounds weird coming from a frugal blogger.
But hear me out on this one – there is a time and place for eating out. For example, when you eat out, everyone gets to concentrate on each other instead of one person concentrating on getting a meal on the table. Also, you can get great ideas from eating out. My husband and I both love to cook, and we have gotten some of our best homemade meal ideas from eating out and tasting something new. Finally, eating out can help in a time-crunch.
The good news? You can still get all of these benefits (and many more) by eating the majority of your meals at home.
Notice how I say “majority”? Because, unless you’re in gazelle debt-payoff mode, or you just can’t scrape the money together to pay for your gas, then I think eating out once or twice a week is perfectly normal.
When does eating out become too frequent?
When any of the following is true:
You Lose too Much Time: You feel like you’re spending more time figuring out where to eat and getting there, ordering, eating, etc. than you would just cooking something at home. Your Diet Needs are Getting Derailed: You are trying to lose weight, or you are secretly lactose intolerant/gluten-sensitive/etc., and your efforts are getting derailed from hitting up the fast food places (or eating very decadent items from the menu) too often. Your Kids Aren’t Learning to Cook: Do you eat out so often that you’re depriving your kids the vital life skill of learning how to cook beside you?
You may want to stop eating out to lose weight, or you may be wondering what’s the cost of eating out vs. cooking at home.
Is it bad to eat out all the time? Yes. But is it bad to eat out every so often? Not at all.
So, before you get going with the tips below, take a minute to figure out what your ideal eating in vs. eating out situation would look like. How many dinners would you like to cook at home? How many times would you like to brown-bag it vs. going out for lunch? How many times do you want to eat leftovers versus how many times do you want to actively cook for those homemade meals?
I'll go first! My ideal week has us:
Eating lunches from both leftovers and lunch-type foods we buy at the grocery store Eating out once a week at a restaurant Me cooking 3-4 times/week, and Paul cooking 2-3 times/week
In other words, what's your goal here?
Let’s move on now to how to stop eating out so much, whatever “so much” means for YOU.
Tip #1: Get Your “20-Minute Meal” Down
It’s 4:30, and you’ve no idea what you’re going to feed your gang tonight. Sound familiar?
This happened to me one too many times. I finally smartened up to this one simple trick: my 20-minute meal.
I can cook a mean Butternut Squash Macaroni ‘N’ Cheese that satisfies everyone in under 20 minutes. It’s my fallback meal – the thing I turn to in a pinch. The thing that saves us (and our wallets) from another round through the Fast Food line. We also always have spinach in our fridge, so I pair it with a spinach salad (literally spinach, olive oil, and a splash of balsamic vinaigrette).
I’ve polled my friends and family on Facebook, and here are THEIR 20-minute meals (feel free to snag one of these ideas to use in your own kitchen):
From Jim: “Macaroni and cheese with tuna and sweet green peas! Extraordinary comfort food as well!” From Shara: “Spaghetti!” From Jen: “Homemade hamburger helper! We always have all of the ingredients. We buy meat in bulk, so we always have ground meat in the freezer. Dry pasta in the pantry, milk and cheese. The mix is a combo of ingredients I always have on hand. Tip #1: flatten the ground meat before freezing, it will thaw in a shallow dish of water rather quickly. Tip #2: make a couple batches of the mix, while you have all of the ingredients and spices out. I always try to make 3-4 at a time, keep the extra in the pantry.” From Aurora: “Oatmeal banana blender pancakes – so easy!” From Jennifer: “Hot dogs and beans & mac and cheese. Made separately, then mix together on my plate.” From Cindy: “Chicken fajitas! Sauté chicken, onions, bell peppers. Wrap in a tortilla with avocado and salsa. Boom! All the delicious food groups.” From Jennifer: “Mexican soup – shredded chicken, cans of enchilada sauce, corn, black beans, and/or Rotel and chicken broth. Dump in the crock pot for a few hours and top with chips, cheese, jalapenos, sour cream…whatever you have!” From Tracey: Parmesan crusted pork chops (keto, low carbs). From Leah: Instapot chicken and dumplings “I added thyme and frozen carrots/peas to this recipe”.
Figure out your own 20-minute meal and make sure you always keep ingredients on hand so that you have something to fall back on in a pinch.
Tip #2: Get Your Partner Excited About Cooking
I was actually going to write an entire article about how to get your husband (or wife, or partner) excited about cooking – because not only is this a huge problem I hear from couples all the time (“my husband doesn’t cook, so I have to do all the cooking and I don’t want to cook every night” – heck, there's even a National Men Make Dinner Day), but it’s also a way to stop eating out so much.
Think about it – if you can tag-team the cooking, then each partner gets a bit of a break during the week or weekend, and it’s much more likely you’ll eat at home.
I’m blessed with a husband that loves to cook (from scratch) as much as I do, so in our house I cook all week and he cooks all weekend. We both get that much-needed break to keep things fresh in the kitchen.
But you know what? When we first were dating and then married, he didn’t cook as much. There were things he did and that I did to encourage cooking more, and I’d like to share them with you (plus a few other ideas sprinkled in) to get your husband more interested in cooking.
Get a New Kitchen Gadget: At risk of sounding silly…I think many guys actually love new gadgets and tools. Whether that’s for their garage, their car, their grill, or even the kitchen. My husband’s eyes light up when he picks a kitchen gadget out for himself. His brain starts firing, and he comes up with all kinds of recipes he’s dying to try – and then he actually goes to the store, buys ingredients, and I get a yummy, home cooked meal (from a very willing chef). It doesn’t have to be anything expensive, either. Notable guy-kitchen-gadgets that have inspired him include a meat thermometer, a stuffed burger press, or a set of meat claws. Send Some Manly Cooking Heroes Their Way: Did you know that Gordon Ramsey has an online Masterclass? My husband would kill to do that (note to self, for his next birthday). There’s also manly cooking websites like FitMenCook, Sam the Cooking Guy, and Jamie Oliver. There's also the A Man, A Can, A Plan series of cookbooks. We’ve taken 2 cooking classes together as well, and the chefs have been men. Focus on the Grill: I don’t about your husband, but mine loves grilling or cooking anything over open fire. Encourage that. Even if your husband cooks burgers every Saturday night on the grill, that’s one less meal you’re cooking each week. Get them Involved in Competitions: Do you have a chili cooking competition near you? Paul can spend hours with his brothers talking about and coming up with chili recipe strategies. What other food competitions can you introduce that might make things more fun?
Pro Tip: If you absolutely can't get your partner interested in cooking, then give them the task of prepping. They can chop things up that you'll need to use for the rest of the meals in the coming week. Give them some plastic containers and as they chop up onions, tomatoes, avocados, etc., they can individually package them and stick them in the fridge. That'll make your week in the kitchen a bit smoother!
Tip #3: Use a Meal Service
Again – this is not a tip you’ll see on most frugal blogs. But hear me out.
If you add up the cost of you eating out many meals a week, versus getting a meal service (of some sort – not all meal services are full-service or super expensive), then you’ll likely find the meal service will still save you money.
And we’re all about incremental changes to behavior, right?
Two meal services that we’ve *actually* subscribed to within the last three years:
#1: MyFreezEasy Freezer Cooking
Can I just tell you how much I love the idea of not only batch cooking, but batch FREEZER cooking where all the planning, ingredient lists, and steps have been done FOR me? I had my sister try out a few of the recipes from a MyFreezEasy subscription as well, and she’s completely hooked.
She came to me asking if I knew of any freezer cooking recipes that weren’t based all around pasta, or just chicken, or the same thing she’s seeing over and over again on Pinterest.
That’s where Erin’s monthly freezer batch meal planning service is different (at least, one of the ways!) – these recipes are OFF the HOOK, yo’!
Some of our treasured family recipes have come from her, including her BBQ Chicken Sweet Potatoes (and, we’re not even big sweet potato fans!), her Slow Cooker Crack Chicken, chicken verde taquitos, and meatball & tater tot foil packs.
Get your free downloadable freezer batch cooking plan, here>>.
And as soon as you join, you get a new batch of freezer meals every month, BUT you also get access to all of her 800+ other recipes she’s created over the years, so you can mix and match to create the perfect ingredients list for your next shopping trip.
#2: Blue Apron Meal Prep Service
I’ve written an entire Blue Apron review article, because it’s my favorite of the several meal prep services we’ve tried out (we’ve tried both HelloFresh and a local meal service delivery in Houston).
Honestly, it feels like Christmas morning when our box of meals and pretty recipe card printouts come in the mail. I’ve learned so many cooking techniques and tips just from following the recipes.
To keep a scrap bowl right where you’re cooking so you don’t go back and forth to the trash can 27 times. How to let a sauce “bloom” for at least 10 minutes before adding in further ingredients. To keep the meat bits in the pan to use when cooking other ingredients, which heightens the flavors. To build layers of flavor by adding in a bit more salt along the way.
We have at least 5 family-favorite recipes that we’ve kept and made over, and over again from just having subscribed to this service for about three months a few years ago.
Tip #4: Cook Once, Eat Twice (or Three Times…or Four)
Look – if you’re not into freezer batch cooking, don’t fret. You can still maximize your time, energy, and money, by simply cooking one time that lasts for two separate meals.
While we do batch freezer cooking, my husband also is really, really good about making a big meal on Sundays that last 2-3 more meals. And me? I’m good at providing variety with the “meat” of the meal he’s already created.
For example, he might make pork carnitas in the crock pot. It’s something he puts in before we go to church on Sundays, and it’s ready to eat by Sunday evening. From that meat, on Monday I might make pork carnitas nachos for some variety. Then, I might make pork carnitas, but with a side salad. Then, we might use that meat for pork carnitas sandwiches with homemade pickled red onions.
Finally – since you can only eat so much of one thing before getting tired of it – I freeze the last bit of it, label a freezer bag with “cooked pork carnitas”, and use that for a one-night convenience meal a month or so later.
We could also use that meat as filling for chili rellenos, and maybe even some sort of tamale pie.
I’ll give you several other examples:
Lasagna: Not only do we eat the lasagna for 3-4 nights, but then my husband makes a second pan of it and we freeze that entire pan to use a month or so later. Chili: Paul loves cooking a big pot of chili when he’s home on a weekend. There’s lots of meat, and from it we eat about 4 meals (then freeze the rest). First, we have chili bowls with cheese, sour cream, onions, and avocado. Then, we make Frito chili pies (haha – I had never heard of these until I moved to Texas!). Next up, we might make chili dogs and a salad. Then, more chili bowls.
Other batch cooking ideas I'm crushin' over:
Rotisserie Chicken Batch Cooking: Here's the good ‘ol 24 ways to use a rotisserie chicken. Batch Salads in Mason Jars: I'm pretty much obsessed (but haven't tried yet) pre-making a batch of mason salad jars for lunches and/or dinner side dishes. Check this mason jar salad meal plan out.
Pro Tip: Over the course of a month, cook one large meal each week, so 4 big ones altogether (then supplement the other nights with new dishes you cook from that original big meal). Also, freeze 2-4 dinner portions of each of those original batch meals. You'll stock up your freezer with an entire week's worth of frozen meals (at least), and can take off every five weeks or so by eating frozen, homemade leftovers!
Tip #5: Include Semi-Made Meals in Your Grocery Shopping Trips
Again, this might sound like a weird thing for a “frugal” person to write, but I’m all about supporting behavioral changes so that they’ll actually stick.
And when you’re first trying to break a habit, you’ve got to cut yourself some slack.
Otherwise, you’ll throw in the towel and head to the drive thru when conditions aren’t perfect for you to whip up a 20-minute meal.
One of the ways to set yourself up for success is to go to the pre-made meal freezer section of your grocery store and actually purchase one or two meals. These are still less expensive than eating out, but they give you almost the same benefit of convenience because you only have to pop them into the oven or freezer and dinner is made.
Bonus Tip: Create a Recipe Binder and Recipe List
To be honest — most of the recipes I cook each week we've already tried, tested, and loved. That's because every two weeks, when we do our big grocery shopping trip, I pick out one new recipe I want to try (sometimes, two).
This way, I'm excited because I'm actually working on all those Pinterest recipes on my boards that I used to say I wanted to try but never did (until I started routinely trying one new recipe a week!). But I still know mostly the ingredients that I need to put on the grocery list for the other dishes.
By making a recipe binder (mine is both a binder of recipes from magazines and print outs that I want to try + a recipe box, where the tried-and-true family favorites get organized so that I can keep coming back to them again and again), I've cut the meal prep and grocery store planning down by half.
Think of this as your bridge plan to get you to where you want to go – from eating out all the time, to eating out just once or twice per week (or whatever makes the most sense for you and your family).
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