It was no surprise when my husband and I recently reviewed our household budget and discovered that our grocery bill ate most of it. Now, I’ll admit that I am terrible at meal planning, and burn out from cooking dinner after a few days in a row. Pizza is its own food group in my household; frozen and delivered. My husband knows to check for coupons at our favorite take-out spots when I say, “I don’t know what to make for dinner.”
However, with the cost of food rising, it is no longer feasible to continue our slapdash approach to grocery shopping and meal planning. If you find that your grocery bill is rising as well, take a look at these five money-saving dinner hacks that keep me from overspending on groceries and takeout.
1. Dabble in Vegetarianism
In case you haven’t noticed, meat is expensive. I stretch our meat budget by including a few vegetarian dinners each week. Lentils, mushrooms, and beans are my inexpensive go-to substitutes for meat protein. Lentils are a great ground beef substitute in easy meals like spaghetti and chili.
Got a real meat lover in the house? Cut back on the amount of meat you cook, supplement with plant-based protein, and add more vegetables. I like to get a big bag of chicken breasts from places like Sam’s and Kroger and cut up one or two chicken breasts for fajitas, stir-fry, casseroles, and one-pot meals. Depending on the meal, I typically pair the chicken with black or red beans, mushrooms, or lentils to make it more filling with less meat.
2. Combine home-cooked food with takeout
Ordering takeout for my family of five usually hovers between $30-$60 for inexpensive restaurants. Unfortunately, that’s what we turn to when someone inevitably forgets to take out meat to thaw for dinner, or the day gets away from us, and the few hours between getting home and bedtime are zooming by. That’s when our budget starts to take a hit.
To ease the hurt and make up for lost time, we’ll order some takeout, but we will just get entrees or sides instead of whole meals. Then we combine them with something we have at home. Think drive-thru burgers with some baked beans from the pantry and fresh vegetable sticks from the fridge. Pizza is our go-to takeout, which we serve with steamed frozen vegetables and/or fresh fruit to make it a more balanced and filling meal.
3. Remix leftovers
While leftovers are normally part of our lunch menu, sometimes we make so much that we’ll have more food than the desire to want to eat again. This is where I like to get creative.
Too much ground beef leftover after taco night? Mix it with some lentils and a can of sloppy joe sauce, and serve with frozen french fries and green beans (or whatever vegetable you like). Accidentally made too much white rice? Top it with black beans, corn, bell peppers, onions, chopped chicken, and salsa to create a burrito bowl.
This is great for families with older kids who can fix food for themselves. My mom started it when I was in middle school. Just like me, meal planning wasn’t her forte. On top of that, she was teaching at an elementary school across town, and my dad was living with us part-time due to his job. On nights where she would come home late or be too tired to cook, we would have fend-for-yourself night.
Fend-for-yourself night evolved into different variations. Sometimes my younger sister and I had free range to make and eat want we wanted. Within reason, of course. So, no dessert or snacks for dinner. Sometimes it took the form of my mom throwing together some quick sides, and we decided what we wanted to make to go with it whether it be Tyson chicken tenders or a frozen burrito. Before my dad passed away, it had transformed into a means of clearing out the refrigerator by making meals out of a motley assortment of leftovers and foods that needed to be eaten before going bad.
For most of my childhood, my parents limited eating out to Friday nights. It was a fun way to unwind after a busy week, and spend some quality time together. Fend-for-yourself night made it easier to resist the temptation to step out of their food budget. And it kept our Friday night ritual special.
5. Track your recipes
Sometimes I whip up a fast, easy, home-cooked meal that even my picky eaters enjoy, only to forget the ingredients later. I’m then, again, faced with the dilemma of coming up with something for dinner. So, I started keeping notes in an app on my phone when I hit dinner gold. That’s where I keep the weird stuff, like my sausage and french fry casserole I came up with one night after binge-watching Best Leftovers Ever! on Netflix. For the regular recipes, I typically find and save them on my Pinterest for future use.
The benefits of keeping track of go-to recipes are two-fold. You’ll save on groceries because you have a regular list of items that you know you’ll use. You’ll also be less likely to order takeout because you have a tried and true recipe ready for nights when you don’t have time or don’t feel like cooking.
There are moms out there that love to cook and meal plan. It’s a great way to save money on food, especially at a time when the cost of food is rising. For the rest of us, however, eating out may happen more than we intend, or we end up with five frozen pizzas in the freezer because we know it’s going to take a week before we remember to defrost the chicken. I hope these money-saving dinner hacks will not only ease the stress on your wallet but inspire you to create a less stressful relationship with your stove and oven.