Typically, one of the first things to go by the wayside is healthy cooking and eating habits. As soon as time gets short, we start relying heavily on more processed foods – or even worse – take-out or restaurant meals. Those are budget killers and the stuff of caloric nightmares and dubious nutritional value.
Of course, eating processed food every now and again won’t kill or harm you, or decimate your budget, but there are some very simple strategies you can employ to minimize your reliance on them, capitalize on the time you have to spend in the kitchen, and stretch your food dollars as far as possible.
Here are some methods I’ve used over the years that have really helped me save my sanity and keep mealtimes stress-free, maintain my food budget, and stick to a healthy diet.
Plan a weekly menu.
This is about as basic as it gets, but it’s perhaps the single most important thing you can do to help reduce mealtime chaos.
Knowing ahead of time what you are going to eat each day pretty much eliminates any last minute scramble of trying to figure it out and then checking cupboards to see if you have what you need on hand to make whatever it is you finally choose.
Make a grocery list so you have what you need on hand.
Your weekly menu is no good at all if you don’t have the ingredients for what’s on it. Use the recipes you’ve selected for all your meals to determine the necessary ingredients, then check your cupboards to see what you already have on hand. Make a grocery list of everything you need to buy to cook the meals you’ve selected.
And once you’re in the grocery store, be sure to use the list when you’re shopping and cross things off as you put them in your cart. That way you won't miss anything.
Shop for groceries one day a week, on the same day every week.
If you shop at the beginning of the week you’ve planned the menus for, this will ensure that you have the ingredients you need for each meal over the next 7 days. That makes meal prep a whole lot easier and less stressful.
Shopping only one day a week also means you spend less time in the grocery store. That saves you time, obviously, but also saves you money because you are less likely to make impulse purchases when you stay out of the store.
We are all very familiar with the grocery store run for milk that ends up with a full cart at the check-out.
Avoid that scenario by skipping the store runs except for planned weekly trips with a menu plan in mind and a list in hand.
Use the weekend to cook your most labor-intensive and time-consuming meals.
We all know that on weekdays we want meals we can put on the table very quickly and with the least amount of effort. But that doesn’t mean we have to permanently give up our favorite recipes that call for somewhat lengthier cooking times or a bit more complicated prep work.
Just reserve the recipes in your repertoire that are more demanding of your time and/or effort for weekend meals.
Don’t cook on Monday. Serve leftovers.
This one single habit has saved me untold stress over the years. Really, I can’t recommend this strongly enough.
It makes the transition to the work and school week so much easier and more manageable.
Whenever possible, cook enough on Sunday for at least one more meal on Monday, and you will have a much calmer start to your week. Guaranteed.
Always try to get plenty of mileage out of every menu.
There’s absolutely nothing that says you have to cook every day. Even when I had four teenage boys at home, I typically cooked only 3-5 times a week.
I’ve already mentioned eating leftovers on Monday. But I recommend carrying that forward and getting at least two dinners from your cooking efforts as often as you can. After all, many recipes are actually better on the 2nd or 3rd day.
And it just makes life easier for yourself to get two meals for your cooking efforts, either by planning for leftovers during that same week, or freezing a meal for later use.
This approach is even better if you can stretch the recipe to get a few lunches out of it during the week as well. Aside from lowering your stress level, it helps to provide a little more variety in your lunchtime menus beyond peanut butter and jelly sandwiches -- without exceeding the weekly budget.
And you’ll be astonished to see how many of your colleagues will stare longingly at what you pack for lunch and tell you how good it looks -- as they sit in the lunchroom with a fast food meal or a deli sandwich they bought that cost many multiple times what your delicious brownbag meal did.
It happens to me every single time I bring leftovers from home. No joke.
Make any dinner leftovers seem fresh with a colorful tossed, green salad and a good loaf of (preferably whole grain) bread, and you’ve got a great meal.
Below is what a weekly menu plan might look like using this approach.
There used to be an old advertising campaign for Prince Spaghetti that said something like: “Wednesday is Prince Spaghetti day.”
And that was the way homemakers of old planned many of their menus. They had set days for certain meals, and it did not vary much from week to week.
You may find that approach oversimplified, but there’s absolutely no need to reinvent the wheel every week when you’re cooking. Once you’ve found some good, balanced recipes that work for you and your family, it’s perfectly fine to keep reusing them on a rotating basis.
I have many recipes, but I typically rely on about 10-12 favorite standbys that I use over the course of the month. Over the decades I have added maybe a couple of new recipes to my regular menu plans each year, but I am generally cooking the same things over and over again.
This approach saves so much time in planning and preparing, it’s a real sanity-saver. So don’t feel you have to constantly be coming up with fresh ideas for your family dinners.
It’s easier that way, it’s better for weight control, and it’s better for the budget. I call it the KISS (Keep It Simple for Sanity) approach to meal planning and cooking, and it works.
Do double duty with recipe ingredients you cook for the week.
Try to plan more than one meal in the week using the same ingredients. That way, you can cook enough of that ingredient for two dinners at once, saving yourself cooking time.
An example of this would be rice. Brown rice, in particular, takes a fairly long time to cook, so incorporating it into more than one meal a week allows you to get the cooking done with one large batch the first time you use it so that you have pre-cooked quantities all ready for the next time you need it.
Having cooked brown or even white rice on hand for meals that call for it can cut your meal prep time in half. That’s a good thing for busy households. Either add it to the recipe as called for, or heat it in a covered dish in the microwave with a tiny amount of water, fluff it with a fork, and you’ve got yourself steaming rice ready to serve as a side dish.
Another example would be legumes. I often buy the dry, bagged version because it is much cheaper. But if I’m going to go to the trouble of cooking them for one meal, I might as well cook a batch big enough for a second recipe during the week to save precious time.
The same strategy applies to any recipe that calls for pre-cooked meats, pasta, or vegetables. Planning to use the same ingredients in two meals, but only cooking them once is a major time-saver.
Many recipes call for fresh produce ingredients, which I definitely recommend if they’re the most affordable option. But it’s perfectly okay to save yourself some time by instead using frozen vegetables, such as squash, spinach, broccoli, or frozen stir fry vegetables, to name a few. Sometimes these are even the most economical way to buy the vegetables.
There may be a potentially small sacrifice in flavor, but it’s usually hardly noticeable in the final product, and it’s well worth the time savings realized in using this tactic if it helps you to stay on track with your budget and healthy eating goals.
Simply defrost the vegetables first in the microwave so that you’re not adding icy cold frozen ingredients to a simmering pot of sauce, and voila! You’ve shaved several minutes off your prep time.
You can also make substitutions when it comes to herbs and spices, such as garlic, parsley or cilantro. Whenever you are just too harried to wash and chop, then by all means use the powdered or dried version if it will help you get the meal on the table.
Stock basic staples in your pantry.
Even if you’re great at planning, stuff happens.
We all have those days when we arrive home to find, for example, that we forgot to plug in the slow cooker or get the meat out of the freezer before leaving the house.
Or maybe something comes up so you don’t get to the grocery store as planned.
Whatever it is that happens, your meal plans are out the window.
However, there’s no need to panic or reach for the take-out menus if you make a habit of always keeping some basic ingredients in your pantry. As long as you have onions, carrots, celery, and some kind of legumes, along with pasta, tomato product, and a few dried herbs and spices on hand, you can always pull a quick meal together.
Those items don’t spoil easily as long as you store them in a cool, dry place, so maintain a supply and replenish it when it gets low. It will get you out of many a dinner quandary.
Keep a pad of paper or an erasable white board posted on your refrigerator.
A magnetized whiteboard, pad of paper, or basket to hold a small pad of paper will serve this purpose nicely.
You and other members of the household will use this to write down any food (or household) item that you use up in the course of the week, so that you know to include it on your grocery list.
Having the list handy means you’ll do it before you forget.
This is one of those simple, indispensable organizational tips that can truly make life easier, by ensuring that you’ll have the ingredient the next time you need it and won't suffer any unpleasant surprises when you go to cook.
Freeze leftovers and whole grain loaves of bread in individual or dinner size portions and use them for a quick meal for those time crunch situations when you arrive home unexpectedly late and it’s already the dinner hour.
It only takes a few minutes to microwave the leftovers, and about 5 minutes to bake or toast the bread to a nice warm crustiness. Make up a fresh, tossed salad as an accompaniment, and you have a pretty terrific meal in minutes.
As an alternative or a supplement to that approach, I recommend having a bag or two of sauce-free frozen ravioli or tortellini on hand for “emergency” rations. These are healthier options than most processed food, and if you stock up on a few bags when they are on sale, they can be very reasonably priced as well.
Create a simple, basic sauce in minutes by adding a little basil, oregano, garlic powder, onion powder, and salt and pepper to some canned crushed or diced tomatoes and heating it through.
Make a nice fresh salad while the pasta is cooking, and perhaps include a loaf of the previously mentioned warm bread, and you have a satisfying dinner for minimal effort and far less cost than take-out.
These strategies have saved me untold amounts of time and money and have helped keep my food-related chores almost entirely stress free, and our meal times pleasant and unhurried.
I hope they can do the same for you.