One of the main strategies I identify as a key to living well on less is eliminating eating out for convenience and limiting our food spending to groceries and restaurant spending for dates and group social events (and the occasional reward). Kyle and I both used to occasionally buy fast food at work, while driving from work to an evening activity, or when we were too hungry to take the time to cook. We also would end up letting some groceries go bad because we weren’t on top of the stock we had in our fridge. I consider this money to be a waste because we were spending a comparative lot of money on food for those meals but didn’t even want or really enjoy them because they were bought and consumed on the go.
We still eat a lot of meals at work for lunches, when we stay at work through the evening, and when we go straight from work to a church activity, but now they are always home-cooked. In fact, I haven’t bought a lunch at work because I failed to brown-bag my lunch since before we got married! The food we are eating is much healthier for having eliminated these meals and we’ve reduced our eating out/grocery budgets, enabling us to devote that money to savings.
When I mentioned not eating out for convenience on my recent guest post at GRS, a commenter asked “How do you cook well after work? I am assuming both of you work until 5ish, and then have some sort of commute.”
The quick answer is that I seldom cook after work and Kyle only does a couple times per week. As I stated earlier, several days out of the week I pack both my lunch and dinner to bring with me to work, and on most of the remaining days we get home late enough that I don’t have the patience to cook before eating dinner. What I do is batch cook virtually all of my lunch and dinner food on the weekends and after dinner in our free evenings. That way all we have to do is reheat when we are ready to eat! I find I’m much more likely to cook in the evenings when I’m not rushing due to hunger (Kyle doesn’t get so hungry, so he can cook before eating). In the last few weeks I’ve even started batch cooking my breakfasts to save time in the mornings. I’m also really into easily assembled meals (can’t really be considered cooking) and very quick recipes when I am cooking freshly.
The real advantage of batch cooking from a monetary perspective is just that it will make eating homemade food so much more likely, thus eliminating the premium we pay for food prepared by others. Of course, normal single-serve cooking does the same thing, but it is time intensive. Batch cooking is an amazing time saver because it really doesn’t take much longer to prepare and cook than a single serving would, plus you don’t have to spend time deciding what to eat for every meal (you just grab whatever’s in the fridge). Some people pair batch cooking with meal planning and grocery lists to take advantage of the grocery sales cycles to buy their groceries at discounts. My experiment with meal planning last winter met with failure (increased grocery spending) so now I just prefer to let my batch-cooking dictate what I eat. Oh, that is one downside to batch cooking if it’s just you eating it – you will eat the same things over and over so if you crave variety it probably won’t work out without freezing the food.
Another commenter on my GRS post stated “I want an example of some of the recipes you are batch cooking for breakfast,” so I’m going to share here links to my most frequently used recipes.
[A note about my food choices: I’m constantly making small shifts in my way of eating, but the general themes are low-carb (particularly low-sugar), a high emphasis on vegetables and meat, and almost no grains. I realize not many people eat this way so you may not want to use the recipes below (unless you are Paleo/Primal), but I think if you do eat the Standard American Diet it is even easier to cook ahead of time. Also regarding these recipes, I almost always tweak them to be more in line with my way of eating and for practicality (substituting out ingredients we don’t keep on hand, for instance), so if you want my exact recipes you can request them in the comments.]
Slow Cooker Dishes
split pea and ham soup (~10 servings) – I love this dish because it is so high in fiber. I aim to eat at least 25 grams of fiber per day.
sausage chili (~10 servings) – This tastes amazing, especially since we use hot ground pork sausage from our CSA as the meat.
yellow curry (~5 servings) – I’ve gone through several yellow curry recipes and this is the first one that gets close to the taste of restaurant Thai yellow curry, though it still needs more tweaking.
hamburgers (8 servings) – Every time I cook burgers now I use 2 lbs of meat and make 8 4 oz patties. When I reheat one I add a slice of cheddar cheese and eat it with half an avocado.
salmon burgers (4 servings) – We buy frozen wild caught salmon patties from Costco and I just grill or bake four at a time.
paprika chicken (4 servings) – I am not a big fan of chicken but this recipe adds a lot of flavor.
Brussels sprouts and bacon (3 servings): This is my current favorite recipe. I make it about once per week. I can’t even tell you how delicious this is. It’s not just me, either – it’s a big hit at potlucks (probably because of the bacon).
broccoli (2 servings) – Kind of a no-brainer – just steam a large pot of broccoli and divvy it up. Sometimes I melt cheddar cheese on top. For us this makes 2-3 servings.
garlic mashed cauliflower (2 servings): It doesn’t have the same consistency as mashed potatoes, but it’s still extremely delicious.
Egg and vegetable casserole (4 servings): This is what I’ve been eating for breakfast lately, though I’ve heavily modified it so that each serving contains 3 eggs, 3 oz of mushrooms, and 1.25 cups of spinach. I also substitute feta cheese for the salsa sometimes.
flaxseed meal pizza (4-8 servings) – Another high-fiber dish with the added benefit of being high in omega-3 fats. I like this low-carb/gluten-free version of pizza more than the cauliflower version – it holds together better.
eggplant, zucchini, and sausage – A nice mix of meat and vegetables (and of course) cheese in a casserole – again we use the delicious hot ground pork sausage from our CSA.
My favorite quick single-serve recipes
sauteed vegetables: I’m currently making this dish with spinach but over the summer I do with squash. Just sautee the vegetables in olive oil (add garlic for the spinach) and add Parmesan cheese right at the end.
breakfast quesadilla: This is my own invention. I cook 4 strips of bacon and add them inside a low-carb tortilla folded in half with ¼ cup of shredded cheddar cheese. Microwave for 1 minute to melt the cheese.
A typical day for me last week was:
breakfast – egg and vegetable casserole
lunch – paprika chicken, Brussels sprouts with bacon
dinner 1 – hamburger with cheese and avocado
dinner 2 – split pea and ham soup
Just so you don’t get the wrong idea, I do cook freshly during the week as I have time and also eat some raw foods, so this isn’t the only food I eat. We also incorporate the seasonal produce we get from our CSA into our eating during the spring and summer, so our diet looks a little different at those times than the fall/winter recipes above.
Do you batch cook often and if so what are you favorite recipes? What are the barriers preventing you from batch cooking? How would your budget be impacted if you stopped eating out for convenience?