How to Stop Eating out and Slash Your Food Bill

Eating out is easy, and it usually tastes delicious, but it’s expensive. Food takes up a large chunk of most people’s monthly budget, so breaking fast food and restaurant habits are some of the easiest ways to cut your overall spending. This can be an especially useful cost-cutting strategy for those who experience an unexpected pay cut or job loss.

Luckily, when it comes to food, it’s possible to cut back costs and still eat well. Let's say your favorite fast food meal costs $8, and you only eat out for lunches during the workweek. That may seem reasonable, but the costs add up to $40 a week, or $160 every month. When you consider eating out more than five times per week, or eating out with children and other family members, the costs quickly multiply.

If you are spending a lot of money on eating out, you may be surprised at just how easily you can save by cutting back food costs. In addition to saving money, you may experience health benefits by avoiding fast food and eating healthier at home. The key is to have a plan in place. Here are some suggestions that can help you kick your fast food habit and save money in the process.

Plan Your Menu

A man holds a shopping basket filled with produce in the dairy section of a grocery store

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Planning is the most important step if you are trying to stop eating out. If you do not know what you are having for dinner that night, the temptation is much greater to simply stop at a restaurant on the way home. Menu planning also cuts down on the number of times you need to go to a grocery store during the week, saving you money at the grocery store and giving you more time to prepare food.

Plan your menu for the month and break it down by week for your grocery list. You can repeat your menu each month with minimum planning, but ensure you've worked in enough variety to avoid getting bored with the meals. If you plan carefully, you can plan to use similar ingredients in different meals each week, saving even more money.

Another option is to use a menu planning service. There are several reasonably priced options available online. You can also save even more money by couponing and planning your meals around the deals you find.

Food Prep Is Key

Cleaning string beans in a sink

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Many people like the idea of eating at home, but they struggle to summon the energy to cook after coming home from a long day of work. Preparing the ingredients, reading the recipe, cooking, and cleaning can take a lot of time.

This is where the importance of food prep comes into play. When you do as much preparation as you can before work, or on the weekends, it becomes a lot easier to cook each night. Here are some food prep tips to save you time and money without sacrificing food quality:

  • Use a crockpot or slow cooker while you are at work—when you come home, dinner will be waiting for you
  • If you are planning to grill, put the meat in the refrigerator to marinate before you go to work
  • If you are planning a casserole, you can set the ingredients together and pop them in the fridge the night before
  • If you are planning meals that have similar ingredients, you may prep an additional meal or two at a time (for example, you could cook the beef for sloppy joes, enchiladas, and lasagna all at once, or grate enough cheese on Sunday to last through the week)
  • If any of your meals can be frozen, you can cook them ahead of time and freeze them for later in the week

Take Advantage of Convenience Food

Frozen food section of a grocery store

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You can save money by not always cooking your food from scratch. Fresh foods are usually healthier, but convenience foods will save you time and money. Some typical convenience foods are grated cheese, frozen vegetables, and pre-cooked meat for recipes.

If you are cooking for just yourself, these options may be easier than preparing an individual meal each night. Perhaps it would be best to rely on these frozen foods as you start cooking from home. As you build better eating and cooking habits, you can wean off the convenience foods and replace them with fresh food.

Have a Back-Up Plan

Spaghetti on a plate on the table

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You may be determined to change your habits and cook for yourself every night, but even the most diligent home cooks get too tired to make a meal from time to time. Preparing for these nights will help you stay on track with your budget.

By keeping some ready-to-eat foods in the freezer or pantry, you've got a back-up plan for the nights you can't muster up the energy to cook and clean. As you pick your back-up meals, emphasize foods that cook quickly and require little effort on your part. These may be frozen or bagged meals.

While it does require some effort, spaghetti and other pasta dishes can be easy to prepare, so they may work as a good back-up plan. Products like Hamburger Helper and boxed macaroni and cheese also make good fallback meals. Pre-cooked meats and deli meat can be added to simple ingredients for a quick snack or meal.

Avoid the Lunch Temptation

Box lunches containing an assortment of healthy eating options like blueberries, carrots, and nuts.

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Many people struggle to avoid eating out for lunch during the workweek, even if they are committed to cooking dinner. This can be a tough hurdle to move past—it isn't easy to cook in most workplaces—but there are several strategies to help make packing lunches easier:

  • Pack your lunch the night before to save time in the mornings
  • Make too much for dinner, then save the leftovers for lunch the next day
  • Frozen dinners and soup are a good fallback for the days you didn't have time to prep lunch
  • Keep track of the days you don’t eat out for lunch, then add them up at the end of the month to calculate how much money you saved—seeing your savings could help motivate you to stick to your efforts