Grocery budgeting tips are as old as time and I’m not here to replicate those. Existing articles have great advice on how to extract the maximum possible value out of your budget. Some will even go so far as to convince you to begin canning your own summer harvest. Following existing tips can help reduce your meals cost to less than $1 per serving.
However, if you find it difficult to budget so rigorously and find yourself eating out more than you intend, then your budget may have backfired. Unless you’d like to end up penny-wise and pound-foolish, you should consider increasing the amount you budget for groceries.
The Single Biggest Factor in Your Budget is Dining Out
You can clip coupons, hit up the farmer’s market, buy generic, and shop around but if you’re dining out 5+ times a week then you can quickly blow up your budget. The biggest impact you can make on your food budget is eliminating the times you unnecessarily dine out. That is, those times when the only reason you dine out is because it would take too much time and effort to make something at home.
It Can Be Easy to Dine Out 5x/week
Let’s say you’re running late for work on Monday morning. You’ve brewed no coffee and only have eggs in the house, so you hit the road and pop into a deli on the way to work and spend $6 on a bagel and a coffee. There’s one.
Since you were running late you didn’t back a lunch. It’s easy to excuse because you give yourself one freebie a week to network with colleagues. However, you also get roped into Taco Tuesday with your pal Lebron. There’s numbers two and three.
Wednesday you stay disciplined, and Thursday starts out well until you join a friend for a happy hour. It’s Thirsty Thursday after all and the drink specials are a steal! After a long day and a couple drinks you decide it’s easier to grab some Chick-Fil-A on the way back. That’s number four.
Add in a Saturday night out or Sunday brunch and you’re quickly up to five or six meals out this week. Following the guidelines in this post, you could reduce the number of times that you dine out by at least 3 times per week. Over the course of a year, doing so can save you $1,500. If you’re able to further reduce your days dining out by 5 times per week then you could save $2,500. These values are per person, so a couple might save $5,000 a year. The best news? It’s an easy change to make!
Finding Easy Alternatives to Dining Out
Quick and easy home meals no longer mean a steady stream of frozen pizza and hot pockets. Today there are numerous options for more nutritious, ready-to-eat food. Many of these prepackaged foods will hold for several weeks in the fridge or can be easily frozen to eat at your convenience. For example, a few of my personal favorites from Trader Joe’s include the Ricotta and Lemon Zest Ravioli, Southwestern Salad, and Fiocchetti. Each of these item’s cost between $3-4 and has enough calories for a typical adult’s meal. While the salad won’t freeze well, the Fiocchetti comes frozen, and the ravioli will keep in the fridge for two months and can easily be frozen. The versatility of the ravioli makes it a staple in my fridge.
A little light prep never hurt anyone
If you’re willing to do a little more work, you can spend less than 10 minutes of cooking time to prepare another one of my favorites: Trader Joe’s Orange Chicken. The chicken served alongside rice and broccoli will cost you about $1.75 per serving. Ten minutes is still too much? Try keeping something even simpler on hand like these Teryaki Stiry Fry Udon Noodles. They take two minutes to prepare, are relatively low in sodium, and each serving will set you back about $2. If you still have any doubts about the udon noodles, my one-year-old daughter can vouch for them as one of her favorites!
Give these a try or come up with a couple of your own options. The point is that there are many options these days in the $3-4 range for prepared meals and $2 range for meals that require light prep. The options today are more numerous, healthier, and can save you from unnecessarily dining out.
Tip: Don’t be afraid to opt for frozen veggies. They taste great, come pre-cut, and won’t spoil in the freezer.
Tackle the Low Hanging Fruit
Now that we have a few ideas for where to start with easy meals, let’s take a look at how we can execute a plan for each of the day’s meals.
This is often the lowest hanging fruit. My biggest barrier to eating prior to leaving the house used to be the inability to bring my meal to-go. For example, you can’t bring a bowl of cereal with you as you begin walking to the metro stop or hop in your car. It just isn’t going to work. However, I found I could substitute a bagel or muffin for breakfast instead and bring it with me. If this rings true for you, give a morning pastry a try. I particularly like having some Costco muffins stashed in my freezer. First, they’re cheap; you can buy a dozen of them for $8. Secondly, when you’re in a hurry you just need to grab one from the freezer and pop it in the microwave for 30 seconds before heading out the door. Lastly, they’re huge!
First, consider joining the Great Resignation and take a job with a remote work policy. When my previous job went remote it back easier to make lunch at the house than to spend extra time eating out. There’s so many benefits to remote work, so I don’t see WFH going anywhere. If you do still commute, planning lunch can be trickier. If you’re in the commuting boat, then keep a primary and secondary bagged lunch option. The primary option can be whatever a sandwich and sides, leftovers, or whatever you’ve meal prepped for the week. If you make deli sandwiches for lunch, then the Costco brand deli meat is a great option. The deli meat likely doesn’t taste any better or worse than your local grocery deli, but as long as it remains sealed it will hold in the fridge for a couple months. This can save you from a scenario in which you run out of deli meat, and you dine out because you don’t want to make a separate shopping trip just for some deli meat.
As a secondary option, try keeping a shelf stable meal that you can easily bring with you. My go-to backup is this shelf stable udon noodle bowl. this particular noodle bowl is from Costco but I’ve also seen it widely available at local Safeway grocery stores in the Bay Area. Even though the bowl comes in around $3, combining the noodle bowl with a banana and cheese stick is an easy way to spend about $4 instead of the $12 you might spend otherwise.
Grabbing takeout for dinner can often be an act of fatigue. It’s easy, almost effortless to talk yourself into grabbing takeout after a long day. When you’re feeling this way, you’re going to want an easy go-to meal available to avoid breaking your food budget. The classic trick is tossing in a pizza. While it’s not a bad option, it gets old quick.
Consider keeping a few of the easy alternative options I listed above on hand for your most tired nights. You already know you’re bound to have at least one day a week where you are fatigued, so plan for it! The forethought to have these meals on hand could save you $8-10 each time you would have otherwise grabbed takeout.
Set a Realistic Goal
Once you find easy alternatives to dining out, it can be tempting to set your goals too high. However, you’re almost also better off setting an attainable goal. Start by reducing the number of times you dine out by one to two times a week. Once you’ve accomplished your goal and adjusted your habits, you can reassess. If you still feel confident that you can achieve a more difficult goal. Great! Go for it
Aim low and take it slow. You might be savings thousands soon enough by spending just a little bit more at the grocery store.Log in or Register to save this content for later.