No more “Let’s go to the deli tonight.” No more “Dude, just call Marco’s Pizza.” No more “I forgot to give the kids lunch and it’s 12:30 and we’re headed to the park and oh hell, look, there’s a McDonald’s.” Instead, we sigh and make a quick dinner: pasta, microwave stuff, some leftovers. Instead, I have to make 100% sure I build time into my day to feed the kids, no matter how hungry they claim not to be at any given time.
It’s harder than whipping out the debit or credit card and paying for some food. But we ate out a lot.
So do a lot of families. In fact, according to The Simple Dollar, most Americans eat 4.2 “commercially prepared” meals a week. We were definitely higher than that: five, sometimes six of our meals were from somewhere else — and I don’t mean my mom’s house.
We have three kids. When I ordered lunch for us at a local drive thru or even the great pad Thai place downtown, I was forking over at least $20 bucks — and that was only lunch. Dinner usually rounded out to somewhere between $40-$60, and that’s for five people with some leftovers (our ten-year-old no longer eats kids’ meals). My husband estimates we were spending somewhere in the range of $200 a week on what they term “commercially prepared” food.
Think about it. You go to Target. You get a tea and the kids a cake pop. By the time it’s all said and done, you’re at least ten bucks in the hole. You run through a fast-food place on the way to sports practice, and you’re spending at least $20. Pizza for two adults and three children? It’s relatively cheap if you call a chain for delivery, but a sit-down restaurant? That’ll cost you. And for us, it was adding up fast. Hundreds of dollars per week.
So we quit. We quit cold-turkey, no transition period.
Confession: we didn’t stop eating out completely. Once in a while, when the kids have had sports and we’re exhausted and it’s Friday night, we might order a pizza. But other than that, we’ve stopped going to restaurants, ordering delivery, and driving through fast-food places.
How We Quit Eating Out
First, we took a serious look at the money we were spending eating out. We freaked out. Then we started planning — meal planning. My husband’s always been a good cook, but we needed things other than big, showcase meals: we needed lunches and dinners that we could prepare quickly, without a lot of fuss, on nights when we were tired and the kids needed to eat now.
Guess what? Avoiding eating out means eating some frozen food, like chicken tenders, mozzarella sticks, french-toast sticks, steam-in-the-bag veggies, and pancakes — easy things to pop in the microwave or the oven. It means ramen and pasta (our kids love ramen noodles). It means we eat leftovers. When my husband does put effort into cooking, he makes things that keep for a few days, like pulled pork barbecue or mac and cheese. The Instant Pot has admittedly been a big help with this. You can cook meat quickly, and it’ll stay good for a few days, so when we come home dragging from sports, we can pop something in the microwave. My husband and I both have go-to fast dinners: mine is nachos, and his is beans and rice. This isn’t because we’re especially impoverished; it’s because they’re quick and easy.
We also started brewing our own sweet tea. That cut out my Starbucks runs.
How Much of a Pain Was It?
Somewhat. It took some time to get used to not eating out. We figured out some hacks: to keep our energy-burning kids from crashing right after sports, we make them “milkshakes” with milk, protein powder, and stevia (I’m nice; I put sprinkles on top). I had to make time to make lunch.
Problem number one: I don’t cook.
Problem number two: I don’t cook because I hate it.
So we had to make sure we planned for lunches: stuff I could heat up, sandwiches, steamed veggies. Every morning, before my husband leaves for work, he tells me what I can feed the kids for lunch. It’s an immense help. I know what’s coming, they know what’s coming, and if I watch the clock, I have plenty of time to make it.
When I miss eating out the most, though, are those times when we’re all crashing and we need to eat like, an hour ago. The protein shakes for the kids come in handy in those situations; my husband and I generally have a quick plate of nachos (we really, really love nachos in our house) or whatever leftovers we have. And we make sure to have plenty of leftovers.
Yes, eating at home also generates more dishes. So we run the dishwasher more often, and we have to be careful to keep on top of it. That’s a pain in the ass, but it’s a small price to pay.
So How Can You Quit the Habit?
1. Make a plan. Don’t go into this with an empty refrigerator. Know what everyone in your family likes to eat, and be realistic: are you actually going to cook a full meal with a chicken and veggies and other side dishes every single night? You’re not. Don’t get in over your head. Quitting eating out is hard.
2. Hit the grocery store — and hit it, and hit it, and hit it. Be prepared to run through the store on the way home from work. Depending on the day, you’ll likely need a thing or two for dinner.
3. Develop some hacks for quick meals. When I’m freaking out and late, my ten-year-old helps me make PB&Js, and the kids eat them in the car. When the kids are climbing the walls for food, ramen’s quick and cheap and yes, it sounds ridiculous, but my children adore it. Add some steam-in-a-bag veggies to the side and you’re golden.
4. Prepare for trips. When we know we’re going somewhere, we bring food. I bring sandwich makings to the park. On longer drives, we fill a cooler with drinks and stow away healthy snacks. If we know we’ll be eating out because of the length of the trip, we try to pick somewhere healthy and inexpensive.
5. Remind yourself how much this is saving you. When we put it into context — a couple hundred bucks a week — it’s easy to avoid that fast-food place. I cringe on the few occasions I drive through somewhere and hear my total. I can’t believe I’m spending that much on that little, I think.
You can do this. It’s hard, and it’s an adjustment. But we save a huge amount of money — like nearly a thousand bucks a month?! Jesus Christ. Granted we ate out a lot. But even if reduce the number of meals you eat out by half, you’re still saving a ton of money.
That’s not to say we don’t cave once in a while. But we cave in less and less often now. It’s worth the money.