Eating out, take-out, restaurant meals, dining out, take-away, delivery… whatever you want to call it, not preparing your own food is the #1, top, chief, primary, far and away most commonly cited roadblock to frugality. Without fail, this is the most frequent question I get from readers. Without deviation, this is cited as the largest area for budgetary improvement. And without alteration, this is the toughest thing for people to modify in their quest for all-encompassing frugality. And I feel this pain keenly–it was the most challenging thing for Mr. Frugalwoods and me to give up as well! What is it about food prepared by other people????!!!!
Welcome to my monthly Reader Suggestions feature! Every month I post a question to our Frugalwoods Facebook group and share the best responses here. The questions are topics I’ve received multiple queries on and my hope is that by leveraging the braintrust of Frugalwoods nation, you’ll find helpful advice and insight. Join the Frugalwoods Facebook group to participate in next month’s Reader Suggestions!
Since we have thousands of Frugalwoods readers participating in the July Uber Frugal Month Challenge, I wanted to provide a robust set of resources and suggestions on how to overcome the take-out monster. I polled the ever-brilliant minds of our devoted Frugalwoods Facebook group to bring you this month’s rundown on a topic nearest and dearest to our frugal hearts: the art of cooking at home. For every meal. Every day. Of the year. Ok that’s a tad extreme, even Mr. FW and I eat out about once per month. But you get the idea.
I’m going to bust out my old Frugalwoods adage here that food is a necessity, but expensive food is not. And while I’ve devoted reams of the internet on how to shop for groceries efficiently and frugally, eliminating take-out and dining out is BY FAR the most significant impact you can have on your food-related budget. We all know that eating out is a raw deal, but we do it anyway because it’s easy and it’s tasty. I don’t deny that.
But I do challenge you to consider if all the money that gets eaten up every month by take-out is truly worth it to you in the end. It’s not facilitating your longterm goals (financial or health-wise) and it’s not a productive use of your hard-earned bucks. if you’re not sure how much you spend on such culinary conveniences each month, then it’s time to start tracking your expenses, which you can do with Personal Capital, a free expense tracker that I use and recommend.
If you’d like to peruse my thoughts on this epic topic, may I recommend the following:
- How We Broke Our Eating Out Habit In 9 Steps
- Our Complete Guide To Frugal, Healthy Eating
- How Planning Ahead Saves Us Serious Money (hint: this is what it’s all about)
And if you want still more, check out my entire section devoted to FOOD, glorious food.
Before we get to the braintrust’s tome of suggestions, I must highlight that the #1 reason cited for eating out is a failure to plan ahead.
There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a planned, agreed-upon-in-advance, special dinner out. It’s delightful to plan for it all month, anticipate what you’ll order, and then truly enjoy yourself. But scrambling to order sub-par Thai at 8pm on a Tuesday because you forgot to go grocery shopping? That’s what needs to stop. Fear not, however, for many a frugal acolyte has gone before you and successfully vanquished the take-out beasty. So take heart and you don’t have to take my word for it–take theirs!
With over 124 responses to this query, I can tell you this is one popular, and oft-considered, frugal topic. I couldn’t include everyone’s response below, but you can check out the full conversation on Facebook.
How Frugalwoods Readers Avoid Eating Out/Getting Take-Out
Caroline says it’s about planning ahead and having a low barrier to entry, “Make sure you have enough ready-to-cook-in-a-short0time food at hand, whether at work or home. [My husband] takes fruit and yoghurt [to work] and occasionally a treat of some kind such as a small chocolate. He takes trail mix/nuts, sandwiches, a whole bag of food and virtually never hits up the vending machine or the local takeaways… and probably eats more healthily and far, far more cheaply as a result. It’s a mind set and a habit. The key thing is it must be easy and quick at the time you want it, there must be a very low barrier to entry or you’re sunk!”
Sevilla shared, “I’m a really good cook, and very picky about what I eat. I’ll only eat out of it’s something better than I could make myself, or as a specific social evening, friends visiting from out of town for example. My mom and I were reminiscing the other day about how in first grade I tried the school lunch on day one, packed my lunch on day two, and never looked back!!
Erin says, “With a baby in the mix, I’ve had to scale back my cooking time and focus on getting food ready fast! So, no homemade pizza dough for awhile. Frozen veggies have been surprisingly helpful, and not just for blending into baby food. I never thought saving a few minutes of washing and chopping would matter, but for now it does! We also always keep some combo of canned black beans, wheat tortillas, salsa and cheese around. Everything but the salsa goes in the freezer and that could too, so it’s always there for us. Add some veggies and it’s insta-dinner, flavorful and pretty healthy as we go light on the cheese.”
Shimon wrote, “I try to always have 3+ different freezer meals ready to go for when we don’t want to cook. That way we have selection and convenience without the added cost!”
Rhea shared, “I batch cook large quantities and freeze it for later. Right now I’m a single mom working 6 days a week, so energy to cook is a hilarious pipe dream. The crockpot is my very best friend. I wake up at 3 or 4 am (wacky reversed schedule, works better for my personality) and have infinitely more energy in the morning than the evening (I actually go to bed at the same time as the kids – 7pm) so I do my day’s food prep in the morning, shove it in the crockpot or fridge for later, and supper is waiting when I arrive home completely beat. I make 3 times as much as I need to and pack it away in the freezer for the mornings where something happens and I don’t end up preparing for supper.”
Sage has a novel approach, “Does it count as cheating if I simply answer, ‘Our household is vegan!’ But in all seriousness that cut out nigh all of the possible places to eat out in our area – and once the habit was cut, it was easy not to start up again.”
Lauren enjoys the process, “When I make my meals myself, I can add precisely what ingredients I like. I am a picky eater with food allergies, so eating out isn’t an ‘easier’ experience for me. Cooking doesn’t have to be a chore. Make things you enjoy eating!
Lisa’s trick is one of my very favorites, “Pre-made food in the freezer, in portion sizes. Defrost something, boil a pot of pasta set the table, food! Whether it came from batch cooking, a leftover or a change of mind one day, over time putting a container or two in the freezer, and a pot of rice cooked portioned and frozen, it quickly ads up to options! Options = less panic, calmer eating and happy bellies.”
Anna reports it’s actually a time-saver to cook at home, “What has helped me with takeout is realizing how quickly I can make a meal, particularly a quick veggie pasta or white rice with steamed veggies in the rice cooker. Less than 30 minutes start to table, and we never get delivery or back and forth to a restaurant quicker than that.”
Anne’s strategy is, “Remembering that simple, fast meals like BLTs or grilled cheese and boxed tomato soup are DELICIOUS.” Yum.
Liz says, “I use a dry erase board to write out the week’s menu for dinner. I make sure all ingredients are on hand by the weekend. Always try to make enough for a leftover lunch. Pack up said leftover lunch immediately into a container you can grab and throw in your lunch bag in the morning.”
Lisa reports, “For us, making sure that we have some pre-made or boxed meals around is crucial to keeping us away from takeout. We always have some frozen pizzas or mac and cheese in the house so we can whip something up quickly and easily on nights where we don’t feel like cooking. Also, I take my lunch every day to work. To keep me from ever needing to buy food at the office, I keep snack packages, granola bars from home, and all of the free chips I get at work events in my desk so that, if I forget my lunch or oversleep and can’t pack, I have a reliable fallback plan. Lunch may be a weird combination of a soup cup and breakfast bar, but at least I’m not spending a huge markup for a frozen pizza at the cafeteria!”
Jamie wrote, “1. Plan to eat things you actually want to eat. This vastly decreases my desire to order out. I don’t particularly like salads, so they are not a regular part of my meal plan. 2. Know that sometimes you just won’t have much energy, so keep food that’s easy to cook (pasta with olive oil and Parmesan is a low-effort go-to for us), and a few cans of soup for when you get home late, starving, and just need something NOW. The BEST thing for these situations is homemade, portioned out meals in the freezer. I travel a lot, and these are particularly helpful when I get back from vacation or work travel and really don’t want to eat another meal out. And to paraphrase Ms. FW, no one ever died from eating a peanut butter sandwich for dinner. 4. Find things to do with friends that don’t revolve around restaurants. Invite them over for dinner or for wine and cheese, go for a walk, or find an activity you all enjoy. My favorite part about meeting friends is the talking, anyway, and you can talk more freely and comfortably in your own house over a cheap bottle of wine than you can at a restaurant!”
Alexandra has a unique solution, “I’m a mystery shopper. I take two restaurant jobs per month and those are our take-out meals. One client is a fast food place and the other is a fast-casual place. I have to take detailed notes about the service and food and write a report afterwards, but sometimes I’d rather do that than plan another meal or wash another dish.”
Brenna wrote, “I meal prep my breakfast, lunches, and snacks for weekdays. This way the lazy option is just staying in and eating what I’ve prepared. I do make my own frozen pizzas from scratch which is very satisfying! They’re only marginally cheaper than buying frozen ones from the store but I enjoy the time in the kitchen. When temptation hits, I always try to think: would eating out help me get closer to my goals? From either the diet or money perspective the answer is always no. And those goals matter more to me than the in-the-moment craving. As well I’m finding that take out never tastes as good as I imagine it does and I’m usually disappointed. I just need to remember these facts!”
Pernille said, “Two words: ‘Instant Pot.’ I always have ingredients for several quick meals like tortellini soup with Italian sausage which from start to finish can be made in about 15 min and is a big hit. I used to always have some good frozen pizzas waiting. When I make elaborate meals that need to cook for a long time I make extras and freeze like meatballs or bolognese.”
Jenny kept it real for us, “My tip is to acquire a couple of small children. Restaurant visits will never be the same again, so that is that taken care off. Take-aways they don’t really eat it, and I hate food waste. Also, it is much quicker to run up to the supermarket 5 min away to get a pizza and run it in the oven for 15 min than to wait for takeaway.” I can concur that dining in a restaurant with a small child is, uh, interesting at best and cataclysmic at worst. Why torture yourself?!
Barbara suggests, “Breakfast for dinner!”
Crista reports, “We cook large batches and freeze the leftovers… also, keep a few easy prepackaged, and shelf-stable foods in the house (pasta & sauce, vacuum packed Indian meals), that we consider our emergency supplies. These can serve as an alternative to eating out in rare circumstances when we just don’t have anything frozen, or are otherwise not able to prepare food from scratch.” I love this approach! While pre-packaged foods are usually more expensive than cooking from scratch, it’s much cheaper than take-out, so I consider it an excellent frugal plan.
Kara has a creative approach, “We wanted to work out more and eat out less, so we started allotting ourselves a certain amount of ‘restaurant money’ for our time working out. The more we work out, the more we ‘earn’ for restaurants to use as we wish, so we end up having to pick between picking up a quick dinner on our way home tonight versus going on a date night next week. Having that choice makes it easier to say no to the weekday fast food, and it makes our date nights more special.”
Kim shared, “For one, I thought about how much I actually liked the takeout I was buying and realized that a lot of it wasn’t that great, it was just convenient and not all that healthy. Then I learned how to cook and challenged myself to regularly try new recipes. Now, the food I make at home is a lot more appealing than eating out, and cooking is kind of a hobby. Then I stepped it up a notch by making freezer meals ahead of time. If I’m not in the mood to cook, throwing some freezer food in the microwave is a lot more convenient than going out and getting takeout. I’ve even made bread mixes that can be thrown in the bread maker quickly and timed to be ready when I wake up in the morning. Fresh bread is a lot more appetizing than a bagel sandwich from the coffee shop. I haven’t totally mastered appetizing work lunches. Someone asked about how to remember to take your lunch to work… My trick is to leave my car keys in the refrigerator with my lunch – problem solved! An old roommate laughed hysterically when she saw me do this the first time, and within two days she was doing the same thing.” I love it!
Melissa wrote, “I’m single so sometimes I’ll make a big something and eat it all week. Other times I’ll just catch as catch can…. homemade hummus and veggie burger on tortilla, some ramen with veggies and soy sauce… expectations for myself are pretty low!” Mr. FW and I eat hummus and veggies for dinner all the time, so our expectations are similarly low ;)!
Kelly has tasty advice, “We keep taco fixings in the house at all times. It is our easy and cheap meal for when we do not feel like cooking. Because we love the crock pot carnitas recipe that is usually the filler, this isn’t really a hardship either.” TACOS to the rescue!
Erin shared, “I always have frozen pizza at home and our busiest day of the week I have a crockpot of beans on and we have fixings for burritos. So no temptation to stop and get burritos! Also, a family of 6 costs a lot to eat out, even quick food, so that stops me as well! I also pack snacks any time we go out, because I swear the kids are always hungry! I menu plan but also have some quick/easy options around if I need it.” Yes, kids (and parents!) are always hungry at the most inconvenient of times. Packing snacks will save you every time!
Natalie says, “I use the old standby trifecta: crockpot, meal prep and pantry/freezer goods. Works every time!
Emma wrote, “I use my slow cooker lots so food is ready when I come in as well as making extra and freezing for days that are hectic. We also plan for the week ahead so a quick meal is planned for days where I know we’ll be in a rush.”
Roselyne has the same blessing/curse we do, “We live in the country. There isn’t a restaurant that delivers to our house, and the nearest decent restaurant is over 35km away. Kind of eliminates the option… More practically: freezer meals ready to go into the oven for when we can’t deal with cooking, and a good selection of meals that use leftovers (a cup of veggies from 3 different meals + leftover meat from another 2 meals + ends of shredded cheese = GREAT stuffing for buckwheat crepes, Omelettes, burritos, quesadillas… ) Oh, and a bunch of single-serve ziplock baggies of soup or stew for emergency ‘wtf do I bring for lunch we have nothing left in the fridge’ moments.”
Kim shared, “No nice takeout where we live- that helps. If we want something we have to make it. I’m bored of our restaurants, tbh prefer sitting with the dogs, feet up on a comfy couch with no make up on in pjs than dress up to eat out. We do takeouts on birthdays usually and then swear off them as we feel awful afterwards.”
Rosemary wrote, “I always have frozen oven chips (fries), frozen fish in batter or crumbs and frozen peas. All of these can be cooked from frozen and be on the table in around 30 mins. Eating out and take-away is expensive in the UK and add £2 – £4 for parking, it makes the fish and chips a smug bargain.”
Layla shared, “Our mantra: ‘it’s not in the budget.’ We say this to each other to keep ourselves on track and it works as a motivating tool to keep from spending silly nilly.”
Shelba said, “I prepare ahead. Usually on a Sunday, I plan and organize for the week. I generally prepare something soup-like, a casserole, and meat. The soups and casseroles are for 2 meals. I bake sandwich bread and maybe a quick bread–always prepared a quick bread and batter for waffles or pancakes when kids were home. My freezer has things that can be grabbed quick and prepared, like eggrolls/lumpia, tamales, cabbage rolls, enchiladas, stuff that requires a lot of hands-on and trashes the kitchen, which I do in summer when there is a surplus of produce. I have various snacks in snack containers for home or little bags in the car–nuts, dried fruit, that sort of thing–I do this during the couple of hours/week I get organized.”
Laurie shared, “Two words- frozen pizza!”
Jeff says that his strategy for not eating out is to listen to his wife, “I am like, ‘Maybe we should get something instead of making something’ She is like, ‘We have food here, we don’t need to eat out.’ So we try to make the food we like to eat out at home.”
Laura wrote, “Lunch prep is key for me and I usually do a week’s worth on Sunday so all I have to do is grab and go in the morning. A full week has the same meal to reduce prep and then I change it up each week. If I’m craving take-out I wait 48 hours and usually the craving goes away. For week nights I have a few simple ready-to-cook meals that are just as fast as take-out, such as frozen cooked shrimp or fish that thaws in minutes. My son also knows that take-out is a treat and usually is twice a month with coupons! I use a cash only system so if we decide on an extra day of take-out that means we aren’t spending somewhere else. I also cook larger meals and freeze the leftovers so I can pop it out of the freezer for an easy lunch or dinner.”
Tracy says, “Apart from cost and health implications, I always feel so guilty about all the packaging that goes with ready meals or take away, a lot of which can’t be recycled (at least where I live in the south of England).”
Natasha reports, “Since evenings are always so busy, I prep one big pot or bowl of something that we will eat for lunch all week (soup, pasta salad, etc). That makes it easy to portion it out for lunches with minimal work. I also cook large batches so that we maintain several meals worth of food in the freezer at all times. If meal planning goes awry and we’re left with nothing to eat, I just pull something out of the freezer.”
Deanna says, “1. I always keep a granola bar in my purse for when I need a snack on the run. 2. I do a version of “wait 72 hours” when I’m out and about and itching for drive thru, I tell myself: go home first and if you are still hungry, you can go out and get something knowing that as a frugal homebody, I won’t leave the house to DRIVE to get take-out. 3. I always keep a box of mac and cheese in the house for those nights when you just need a quick easy dinner.”
Ashley reports, “Having a small cooler in my car with an ice pack helps immensely!! I carry bottles of water and sometimes cans of coke or juice. .it is so much faster, easier, and cheaper than Sonic Happy Hour when we are thirsty for a cool drink. I also come home from the grocery store with raw meat and immediately brown all of my ground beef/turkey and put the cooked meat in containers. It’s much easier to make spaghetti sauce/tacos when the meat is browned in the fridge.”
Sarah says, “We have a rule that you can have anything you want, so long as it comes from the grocery store for those times when planning fails or life just gets in the way. Even it it turns out to be something fancy or expensive, it’s always cheaper than takeout/restaurant for 4. If I’m home with the kids by myself, it is quite frequently PBJ or scrambled eggs for dinner in such an ’emergency’!”
Elisabeth writes, “When I know we need food for a busy time I make lunch and dinner during breakfast. I throw meat into the oven to bake first thing so by the time breakfast is over, its done and I can put it in the fridge for later meals. I don’t cook from recipes because of vision, so meals are very simple.”
Elyse shared, “I write out a menu every Saturday for the upcoming week, which also helps with making a grocery shopping list. We know we never want to cook on Fridays at the end of the work week, so I have been putting frozen pizzas on the menu for Fridays in order to avoid the drive-through.” I love this planning ahead approach for Fridays! Know yourself and your limitations!
Jessica relayed, “We talk about how far our money goes buying groceries versus eating out. My kids, 8yo and 6yo, explained to me the other day that they prefer homemade treats to store bought because we can make several pans of brownies for the cost of one small treat eating out.”
Annemarie says, “Good cheese, hummus and crackers to the rescue!”
Leah wrote, “I pack my lunch the night before. Sometimes, it’s leftovers. Other times, it’s a carefully made salad. Doing this in the evening avoids the morning rush and excuses.” Love it.
Sammi said, “One simple rule that I try to follow religiously: Don’t leave the house without a snack. Ever.” I am with you 100%!!!!! I do not go anywhere without snacks. I even take them on hikes around our land!
Pat shared, “I avoid restaurants by having a well-stocked fridge and pantry that provide a huge number of options for quick meals in summer, and in the other seasons, I typically cook one or two big pot meals on Sundays that I can portion and reheat during the week.”
Kristine says, “I invite friends over for regular game nights and cook them all dinner before we start playing. It’s way easier to avoid restaurants if you’re offering free food.”
Carissa wrote, “We NEVER make single portion meals. Everything is big enough to last us both for at least 3-4 meals. We have no problem eating leftovers, and it’s great to just reheat delicious home-cooked food for lunch or dinner.” Agreed.
Hannah relayed, “Having something in the slow cooker always helps. I’m not tempted to order takeout when dinner is already made”
Kristi says, “We do one big Costco run a month, which always includes pasta (or their frozen spinach ravioli) and jarred sauce for those nights that we are running out of time. We also keep all the basics, such as quinoa and beans, on hand and then make meals based on our CSA haul for the week. Having 7 month old twins has changed how we eat dramatically – no more going to restaurants because of the logistics and we would rather save the money. We also want the babies to grow up eating healthy, whole food and seeing us eat home cooked meals is a huge part of that. We will splurge on take out maybe once a month, but only if it’s something that doesn’t taste as good as when we make it at home (Ethiopian food is a good example).”
Abra shared, “I’m trying to practice a zero waste lifestyle so fast food and wasting food really doesn’t have a place. Each week I go through cabinets and the fridge/freezer to see what we need to eat up and what we’ve run out of. I’m a big fan of making extra servings of a meal purposely for leftovers or freezing for future meals. I try to stick to easy, practical recipes without random ingredients that we’ll never use again. And when our favorite frozen pizza is on sale I grab one or two because life happens.”
Veronica relayed, “I work full time and every Sunday I spend an hour or two food prepping for the week. I peel carrots and place them in water, cut up cauliflower or other veggies, brown ground beef or bake a chicken, make cookies or muffins, portion out my salad greens for work, etc. Then everything is ready to make dinner and work lunches. I have done this for years and it is time well spent.”
Kellie says, “We don’t even like eating out. We can cook much better than what’s available most of the time for a fraction of the price. We travel a lot (like – 6 months of the year) and still eat out rarely. We make our own meals – even in hotel rooms (hotel room picnics I call them! ).”
Jeff reports, “Lately, I always have cans of beans and tortillas on hand. Rinse the beans, heat up the beans in the microwave, add seasonings and salsa, throw the tortillas in the microwave . . . . voila. A healthy, cheap, delicious meal in about 5 minutes.”
Emergency Freezer/Pantry Meals
The near-universal advice I gleaned from these 54 selected reader responses is that you’ve got to have ready-made meals on hand either in your freezer or your pantry. I keep both frozen pizzas and frozen leftovers of meals cooked by Mr. FW in our deep freeze. On hectic nights, we pull out a bag of homemade frozen split pea soup or heat up a pizza. In some cases–i.e. the pizza–this option is not healthier or cheaper than cooking from scratch, but it is cheaper (and likely healthier) than ordering take-out. Leftovers are frugal take-out. You just take them out of the fridge/freezer and enjoy! Perfection.
Don’t delude yourself into thinking you’re going to prepare gourmet meals every single night of every single week of every single month. Have prepackaged meals on hand or cook in large batches and freeze the leftovers. Saying you’ll never resort to these is setting yourself up for almost guaranteed failure. I’m a big fan of knowing one’s limitations and making contingency plans in advance.
There’s No Excuse For Take-Out
Here are a few real-world scenarios where Mr. FW and I resorted to our emergency freezer meals (and avoided take-out):
- We had a baby and were in the NICU with her for a week.
- One of our pipes froze and burst, which we discovered at 7pm on a Sunday night after returning home from a weekend away with our baby and dog…
- We spent the day in the ER with a sick Mr. FW.
- We were feeling tired/lazy.
In none of those instances did we resort to take-out because we were prepared with food in our freezer. From single folks to families of multiple children, there’s a strategy contained in the above list for everyone. It takes a bit of planning, a bit of preparation, and commitment to stick with it, but it’s entirely possible to never order unplanned, last minute take-out.
Of course, you could always follow our approach and move to a place so rural that nowhere will deliver to you and with no nearby restaurants (suits us just fine), but you can also pretend that’s the case no matter where you live. When you remove take-out as an option–as we did when we lived in the city and had 1 million delicious restaurants within an arm’s reach–you’ll be amazed at how possible it is to never order in. Choosing to eat out or order in on special occasions is a great choice, but what’s not a great choice are last minute, frantic calls for take-out.