We all know that saving can be hard, but one of the best tricks I’ve learned over the years is to save on everyday expenses like eating.
This comes easily for me because I love to cook. I also love to go out to new restaurants. I’ve found that when I can stay on track with eating a well-balanced and healthful diet throughout the week, there’s plenty of wiggle room budgeted for enjoying myself on weekends. The $7 – $10 I save every day that I bring a lunch is money that’s added to my “weekend fund.” Read below to see my tips to stay healthy and on-budget with my meals.
Planning ahead is a glorious thing. It not only ensures that you’ll save money and reduce waste by buying only what you need and will eat, but it also serves to make sure that each of your meals is covered. There are few things worse than the after-work scramble to try and make a meal out of food you don’t have around. When you’re in a pinch, you’re more likely to order takeout, and with delivery fees and tips, this can easily set you back $25. Wouldn’t you rather have that $25 to spend on Friday or Saturday night?
Pick one day of the week that works for you (I suggest Saturday or Sunday) and put together a meal plan for the whole week (…ideally, you’d slot in the meals you know you’ll be dining out, but we don’t always know this ahead of time). If you’re feeding a family, you’ll likely need to think of meals for 6-7 nights. If you are the only person you need to worry about feeding (and you don’t hate leftovers) pick 3 or 4 meals and make enough so that it’ll carry you through the week for both lunch and dinner.
Oh, and don’t forget about breakfast! I like to keep breakfast simple and fast as I’m usually in a rush to get out the door. Even though waking up 15-20 minutes earlier than normal is not everyone’s idea of fun, making sure you have enough time to actually eat in the morning will help you start your day off on a positive note.
Pick Your Bases
When you’re putting together your meal plan and grocery list, think about how you can use the same ingredients in multiple meals — these are your bases; your loyal sidekicks. My bases are greens, quinoa or rice, chicken breast, tomatoes, and avocados.
If I make a big pot of quinoa on a Sunday, I can have it as a side with multiple lunches/dinners. If I buy a bunch (or two) of greens, I can clean and chop them, and keep them in the fridge so they’re waiting for me and ready to go. Even a soup or stew can be a “base.” During the colder months, I’ll make a big pot of lentil soup almost every week so that I can eat it as a meal, as part of a meal, or even as a snack instead of reaching for something less nourishing.
Picking your bases helps you think in the long term, and reduce waste. If you’re buying a giant clamshell container of baby spinach (which often run around $5) you want to make sure you don’t waste it. Think about how you can make multiple meals out of one ingredient — in this case, you can put it in salads, in pasta sauce, or have it as a side.
Buy What’s in Season
In the last few years, it seems like I hear complaints about the prices of fresh produce almost every day. Fresh foods can certainly run up your grocery bill, but that doesn’t have to be the case. One way to go about this is to buy only what’s in season — after all, that’s the way nature intended! Produce that’s in season is more easily and locally produced, meaning the cost should be lower as there’s less demand and more supply. Here’s an easy chart that explains which fruits and vegetables are in season when.
Remember to eat the rainbow. Pick vegetables and fruits from across the color spectrum as the colors of foods typically represent what kinds of vitamins and minerals are in each. Eating a diet rich in vitamins and minerals ensures that you’re body is getting what it needs and is optimized to work in tip-top shape.
Know Your Tools
Another reason I hear people say that they don’t make an effort to cook is that cooking is a hassle. My advice is to take stock of your kitchen. Do you have all the basics? Like a sharp set of knives? A few good cutting boards (I love the bamboo kind)? Pots and pans (that don’t suck)? A spatula for flipping? A spatula for scraping? A wooden spoon? A vegetable peeler? Wet and dry measuring cups?
It might sound like a lot to buy if you don’t already have those tools, but it will be so worth it in the end, when you’re breezing through the making of a meal. The good thing is that since all of these tools are so common, you can find high quality stuff at relatively inexpensive prices almost anywhere (even the grocery store), but don’t forget to shop online for deals on kitchen basics. You never know what treasures you might find online. But, trust me when I say it’s worth it to spend a little bit more on high quality kitchen tools, otherwise you’ll be buying new stuff in a year rather than 5 years. Make sure you choose the right cookware for you and don’t cost yourself money by trying to be cheap.
Reward Yourself on the Weekends
Knowing that I’ve stuck to my meal plan and budget all week makes me feel great. If I do a good job, I like to reward myself on the weekends. Whether that’s baking a treat, going out to brunch, or buying a special cheese or other nice-to-have at the store, rewarding yourself for a job well done is important. It reinforces the importance of the practices and routines you’ve put into place.
The key here is to be realistic. If you know that cooking (or eating at home) 7 nights a week is not going to happen, don’t budget and buy for that. You’ll end up (1) wasting food that you bought and (2) being mad at yourself for spending more than you had allotted. Pay attention to your patterns and habits, and plan for what makes sense for you and your lifestyle.
Overall, the trick to eating healthy and staying on-budget all week really boils down to being organized and studying your own habits and tendencies. Use what I’ve written above as guidelines, but like I said, figure out what works for you. Have another tip for eating healthy and staying on budget? Let me know in the comments!