The average American household spends about 37% of its food dollars on eating out as opposed to groceries, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That works out to more than $3,000 a year.
This is based on data for 2021, the most recent calendar year for which data is available, but there’s little reason to believe that the amount has gone down. Given the ways that inflation is eroding your paycheck, are restaurant meals and takeout the best use of your funds?
We get it. Often you’re too tired to even think about cooking. But food is the budget category with the most wiggle room. You probably can’t negotiate your rent or your car payment. But usually you can reduce how much you’ll spend to feed yourself by opting for more at-home meals.
The following tactics will set you up for mealtime success. You’ll be able to create fast, tasty and nutritious meals that are a much better deal than delivery or takeout. Yes, even if you have a coupon.
This one’s for the carnivores, obviously. Vegetarians and vegans can just skip ahead. Those who do eat meat, listen up: Start cooking the stuff before you freeze it. For example:
- Brown that ground beef/chicken/turkey, divide it into the portion sizes you most often use, and then freeze some or all the portions.
- If you’re planning to grill chicken breasts, cook more than you need and freeze the extra (whole or cut up).
- Roast two of those on-sale pork roasts/tenderloins, then slice or chop the extra one for the freezer.
- Prepare a meatloaf mix as usual, but freeze half (or all) for some other day. The night before you want to cook it, move the container from the freezer to the fridge. It should be ready to plop into a baking dish by the time you get home from work.
Next time you need meat for a recipe — or as the centerpiece of a future meal — you’ll be ready.
A few pro tips to save money on meats:
- Shop any loss leaders. Meat costs a bundle these days, but sometimes a particular cut will be on sale to get shoppers into the stores. Often these are limited deals; buy as much as you’re allowed.
- Buy whole chickens. As a nation we’ve evolved to prefer chicken breasts, but they cost a lot. Choose whole birds instead, which go on sale regularly; then remove the breast meat to cook and freeze. And if your household isn’t fond of thighs, wings, drumsticks or backs? That meat can be frozen for use in future chili, soup or stir-fries. The carcass can go into the slow cooker to make broth (more on that in a minute).
- Watch for “manager’s special” meats. Sometimes it’s just a small markdown, but sometimes you can’t believe what you’re seeing. Recently, we found ham for 49 cents a pound; my partner cooked and glazed it, then sliced and froze the meat for meals and for lunchtime sandwiches.
- Save pan juices. Any liquid that comes out of those meats is gold. Chill it, then freeze the fat that rises to the top to be used later for sauteing vegetables. Freeze the defatted liquid to add to casseroles, stews or any other dish that needs a flavor boost.
We keep a bag and container in the freezer just for vegetable and fruit scraps, meat bones, and the liquids used to cook potatoes and other veggies. Once full, the bag and container get emptied into a slow cooker and the contents simmered overnight. The results wind up in freezer containers with labels like “veggie and beef broth” or “peapod broth.”
(Yep, we cook down pods from the peas we grow: It makes a delightful base for split-pea soup.)
This is completely free food, people, because it’s made from stuff you were going to throw away. Making broth is the sort of thing that classically trained chefs do. Learn more about this and other tactics in “11 Ways to Turn Table Scraps Into Delicious Meals.”
Here’s how that shook down recently: My partner used frozen chicken fat (see above) to create a roux, then added a quart of freezer broth made from the bones of an on-sale turkey he’d smoked on the Weber months earlier. The resulting gravy was wonderful with roasted chicken thighs (bought on sale). The rest of the gravy was combined with cut-up leftover poultry and cooked vegetables, then framed in homemade pie crust to make two delicious chicken pies.
Nutritious, inexpensive and full of flavor (and fiber!), beans are a great boost to the budget. Folks in a hurry buy them by the can — and wind up paying at least twice as much for the convenience. Don’t do that.
Instead, prepare several cups of beans at a time in a slow cooker or Instant Pot, either plain or seasoned the way you like. Drain, cool and freeze them flat in plastic bags (which are easier to stack in the freezer). Now you’re ready for tacos, burritos, rice bowls or other bean dishes.
Pro tip: The beans will thaw quickly if you stand the bag upright in a container of hot water. Oh, and save the drained-off bean liquid. It combines beautifully with that homemade broth we mentioned earlier, for soups, stews or curries.
This could be the inevitable rice, to go with some of those frozen beans. But you could also cook and freeze quinoa, couscous, farro or any other grain you like, either to serve with beans or to be used as a side dish. Or, in the case of quinoa, a whole bunch of quick breakfasts: Search for “breakfast quinoa” recipes to learn about this very nutritious alternative to plain old oatmeal.
Or if you’re into oatmeal, try this: Once a month, cook four weeks’ worth of oats and freeze in four containers. Move one container to the fridge each Sunday night. You’ll be ready to scoop out and heat your breakfast every day, either at home or once you get to work. Cost- and nutrition-wise, it beats the heck out of a fast-food breakfast sandwich.
5. Chopped veggies
Set aside half an hour once or twice a month to chop onions and/or celery and/or peppers. Freeze them in separate bags so you can grab a handful of one (or all three) when you want to make a soup, stew or casserole.
It’s incredible how much flavor they add, especially if you start off by sautéing the frozen veggies low and slow. As they caramelize, they make your house smell wonderful – kind of a sneak preview of the meal that’s on the way. If possible, have a piece of rustic bread handy so that you can wipe out the frying pan once the veggies are done. Call it a poor man’s bruschetta.
And if all you’re having for dinner is burgers or brats? Fry up some of those onions and/or peppers while the meat cooks, and the humble repast will seem a lot better than it is.
Pro tip: See if your supermarket has an “ugly but still good” shelf in the produce department. We’ve gotten amazing deals on red and yellow peppers this way, and those lovely bits of color add visual appeal along with flavor.
6. A portion of tonight’s dinner
I think of this as engineering leftovers. Freeze one-eighth or one-quarter (or more) of whatever you fixed for supper. Now you’ve got a future brown-bag lunch, or a meal for one (or more) some night when you don’t feel like cooking.
Keep a list of what’s in the freezer and when you put it in there. Otherwise, you might end up with a lot of UFOs (unidentifiable frozen objects) that won’t get used.
Pro tip: Consider cooking more than you usually do so you’ll have extra food to save for later. For example, you could make a two- or three-pound meatloaf, then slice and freeze what’s left for a fast entree or for meatloaf sandwiches (the highest and best use of this dish, in my opinion).
Combining your frozen foods
Now it’s time to mix and match. Some possibilities:
- Pre-roasted chicken breasts with a side of freezer quinoa, to which you’ve added a little lime juice and cilantro.
- A super-fast chili made from a can of tomatoes from the pantry, seasonings, and some browned meat and chopped veggies from the freezer. Serve it over precooked rice.
- A bowl of precooked grain topped with sauteed veggies and diced roasted chicken; vegetarians or vegans could opt to cook some diced tofu along with the vegetables.
- Tacos made from a pound of that cooked ground turkey and spices from this recipe. (I leave out the salt, and I also make three batches of the spice mix at a time so I’ll always have some in the cupboard.)
- A handful of celery, onions and peppers can start off a stir-fry, topped off with whatever other vegetables you have on hand (frozen or fresh) plus soy sauce, rice wine vinegar and anything else you like. Toss in some pre-cooked meat, along with some of that thawed rice to color and crisp it.
- On a chilly winter evening, it’s hard to beat a hearty soup or stew made from freezer broth (don’t forget the bean broth), any meat you have on hand and whatever vegetables you have in the crisper drawer. Even if all you have are potatoes and carrots, the addition of onions, peppers and celery will make the soup lovely as well as tasty. Bonus points for some slices of that rustic bread served alongside.