Last week I spent $200 on food. I was traveling in Washington D.C., and the money was spent on two meals, just for me. The meals were great, but shelling out that kind of money, when I am committed to reducing the amount I spend, was a little shocking. It gave me a real sense of gratitude for the $130 I spent the week before for a week’s worth of groceries for my family of four.
In these interesting economic times, everybody is looking at ways to save money, and with rising health care costs we are also looking at ways to stay healthy. The answer seems to be in forgoing restaurants—both the big ticket and the fast food kinds, to spend more time in the kitchen and in the garden.
Experts say that whenever things get tight, people tend cut back on eating out. When you think about the fact that the average family eats 40 percent of its meals away from home (taking lunches into account), it’s easy to see how we can make a significant impact on our bottom line by hitting the farmer’s markets, CSAs, and our grocery stores to make healthy, nutritious meals at home. With a little bit of effort, you can save thousands of dollars on your food and medical bills by spending more time in the kitchen preparing healthy food.
Ask any medical expert, and they will tell you that the majority of chronic and life-threatening illnesses can be prevented through lifestyle changes, such as eating a healthier diet. Studies show that people who eat most of their meals out not only spend more money on food, but they also tend to be more overweight and are at more risk for obesity, diabetes, cancer and other illnesses. Of course, this is not to say that as consumers, we can’t make healthy choices when we eat out. But it does show that we can have more control over what we eat, how much we eat and how much we spend.
By cooking at home we can control the amount of fat, sugar, and sodium that we expose ourselves and our families to on a daily basis.
Get A Plan
Trying to eat more meals at home without a plan is like trying to drive across country without a map. And hitting the grocery store without a list, or while hungry, are recipes for spending a lot more cash at the register. Figure out what you want to cook before you leave home. Look through your recipes and make sure you have all the ingredients on hand or on your list. Shop the sale papers to find out what’s on sale. Planning your healthy meals around what’s on sale, and what’s in season reduces the cost per meal, and your grocery bill.
Also map out your shopping trips. Some people will go to several places to buy their groceries in one week. Is it worth it to drive across town to save 50 cents on a gallon of milk, when you would spend more time and money buying it at the market where you buy the rest of your groceries?
And look at ways that you can get the freshest, local produce at a fair price. Planning your shopping around the days that the farmer’s market in your area is open, can make a big difference in reducing your food costs, and in the quality of the food on the table. While fresh fruits and vegetables seem to bump the cost of your groceries up, they are healthier and a better savings than the high calorie, high sugar processed food that promise “ a quick healthy meal.” Scratch sodas, potato chips and junk food off your grocery list, and you will have a lot more money in the food budget for well balanced meals.
Just think about the money you can save if you give up just a couple of days of fast food or restaurant lunch, to bring your own. It could be the leftovers from the meal that was cooked at home the night before, or a nice green salad and homemade soup. Taking lunch is one of the quickest ways to see big savings. And bringing lunch is a much healthier alternative to old, stale sandwiches and chips from the vending machine.
Grow Your Savings
This year, I am going to reduce the cost of the food I cook at home by taking part of our back yard to grow my own tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and lettuce. I’m already thinking about the meals I can put together with my own fresh herbs, green onions, zucchini and greens. Not only will I have a foundation for the healthiest, freshest meals, but I will be saving a ton of cash. And even though I am going to try my hand in the garden, I am also going to support the farmer’s markets and roadside market stands. They also offer a great value.
Tips for Saving at Home
You may already be cooking more meals at home because of a sluggish economy. Or you may stirring up creative meals because you just love to cook, like me. But you may just be getting started on your quest to reduce your restaurant bill and save on cooking at home. Here are some tips to help you grow more savings by cooking and eating at home:
- Cut back on the meat. Meat is a high ticket item. Reduce the portion of meat in a meal, or even try cutting back and having several meatless days during the week.
- Buy into a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) group or a food co-op grocery. If you are not a member yet. look for one in your community.
- Invest in a good health cookbook and use it. You don’t have to sacrifice great taste and flavor to save money and eat healthy. With a good recipe and a little patience, your home meals can match or even trump anything you can get out.
- Try a new healthy recipe each week. You may not like everything you cook, but over time you will have a repertoire of meals you can prepare and enjoy for a lot less money.
- Shop the sales. Each week grocery stores and markets have plenty of bargains on the basics. Plan your meals around the deals.
- Make leftovers a part of your plan. Cooking enough to have leftovers of your healthy meal stretches your food budget. Don’t be afraid to freeze portions for later.
- Grow and share. Grow your own fruits and vegetables and save money over going to the grocery store for them. And if you have a big bounty, share with your friends and neighbors.
- Buy what you will eat, even if it means having to make more frequent trips to the market. A bushel of apples may have looked like a deal at the time, but if you can’t eat or give them away fast enough, they will go bad. That includes bulk spices.
- Make the home cooked meal the rule, and eating out the exception.
Photo: theesit aua