It’s estimated that most Americans spend between 30-43% of their food dollars eating out. In fact, the Commerce Department released a report last year that showed more money being spent in restaurants than grocery stores for the first time in American history. Honestly, this doesn’t surprise me because I’ve been guilty of falling into this trap.
Yes, I know that meals out cost a lot more than meals in. I know that restaurant and ready-made foods contain too much sodium, saturated fats, and other health risks. Plus I know that eating out is a quick way to get into debt.
So why do I still do it? I’m guessing it’s for the same reasons you do. I’m a crazy busy single mom. The to-do list is long. At the end of the day, it’s easy to convince myself that Chipotle will make me happy. Often, I find myself thinking through how much money I could make if I keep working and just run through the $5 Hot Now drive-thru later. (For real. Please don’t judge.)
The sad part is, I know how to cook. In fact, I used to enjoy it. As I was pondering my goals for this year, I thought back to the days when eating out absolutely could not happen. And I thought about what was different. My circumstances haven’t actually changed. I just have more money now, so I’ve started eating out more. I realized that I had abandoned some really strong secrets for getting this job done. So I figured we could both use the reminder, eh?
Meal planning secrets for busy moms
Rarely (if ever) make just one meal.
Before you prepare a meal, try to think of a way to use this meal at least one more time. You could add an extra chicken breast and cover lunch the next day. Or go big and double the whole thing. You can either eat it later that week or freeze it if you are picky about eating the same thing twice. This goes beyond casseroles, too.
If you are making spaghetti sauce, double the batch and freeze one. Making soup? Freeze a second batch while you are at it. I buy 2 cup Ziploc containers for this because I can easily take out smaller portions (for lunch or when only a few of us are home). To feed the whole family, I simply take out 2-3.
Another option would be to cook meat for a second meal while you have it going. Whenever I brown ground beef, I always do at least 2-3 batches. I can easily freeze the other sets so we have a quick meal on hand. I do the same thing for chicken. I’ve also been known to use ground beef for hamburgers on the grill and still throw on an extra pound to brown. Once you are in the kitchen, make use of the time! By the way, did you know that you can brown hamburger in the crockpot?
Another thing I have had great success with is using the same ingredients to make a second (but different) meal. We might have spaghetti one night and I’ll use the same ingredients to make a spaghetti bake for the freezer. Or when we have tacos, I’ll use the same ingredients to make a Mexican casserole for the freezer.
Once you force yourself to think about this in advance, it will become habit. Seriously, this will save you enough time to get a pedicure every single week or change a dirty diaper. Ya know, motherhood stuff. Ha.
Always have a plan.
Without a plan, I’m hopeless. Even with a plan, I sometimes fail. I can assure you that dinner won’t magically appear on the table at 6pm. Trust me, I’ve tried every trick I know. Somewhere along the way, you are going to have to make a plan. And here is the trick: The earlier you make the plan, the more time you save.
You know it’s true. If you think about dinner the day you need it, you are likely to have to get super creative or even go to the store. I find that when I don’t take the time to plan meals, I go to the store several times in one week. This is a HUGE waste of time, not to mention money.
When we go out to my family’s house in the summer, I am always reminded of this truth. Their house is so far from town that it’s a 50 minute drive to a regular grocery store. There is a local store but you pay $8 for a loaf of bread because they have to haul it in through the mountains. We always do the shopping on the way into town. If we don’t buy it then, we aren’t eating it. So a plan is crucial.
If we lived like we were an hour away from the store every day, how would that change our grocery budget and our time spent shopping? I think we can both agree that it would be wonderful.
Cheat as often as possible.
For me, thinking of things to cook is sometimes the biggest struggle. I love to sit on Pinterest and search for amazing meals, but the truth is, I don’t have time to be doing that. Plus there is no need to! Hundreds of bloggers are out there creating meal plans for you! Don’t reinvent the wheel.
Erin from $5 Dinners has amazing meal plans. She puts together the shopping list, recipes, and everything for you. There are two options. One is meal plans for special diets like gluten-free or organic. The other is classified by store. If you want to save money and time, you’ll love these meal plans.
I’m also a big fan of these freezer to slow cooker meal plans. Sarah has done all the work for you. All you need to do is print, buy the ingredients, and prep your meals.
If you like to have a little more control over your menu, try these free whole food meal plans from The Better Mom. You can pick and choose, then make your own plan.
Make friends with your freezer.
The best purchase I have ever made is my chest freezer. I’ve purchased a lot of things, so that is saying a lot. I love this freezer because it simplifies my life every single day. As I’ve mentioned in the tips above, freezing meals is one of the best ways to save time. Most of us do not have big freezers though, so this gets tricky.
The chest freezer is small enough to not take up too much space in the garage, but powerful enough to store lots of frozen meals. Not only do I freeze dinners as mentioned above, I also make breakfast and lunch for 3 months at a time. We set aside one afternoon and create enough self-serve breakfasts to last 3 months. Then the kids can help themselves in the mornings.
Prep whole foods on the weekend.
Probably the best tip I can offer for doing this meal thing is my Sunday prep night. I chose Sundays because they work for me. The day of the week doesn’t really matter though. Just pick a day that works and set aside an hour or so to prep food. When you get finished, your fridge will look like this…
This is what I have prepared for the upcoming week. Some of this is for dinner. Most of it is for lunch, breakfast, or snacks. The key to making this time effective is help. I’ll say that again—–>the key to making the most of your prep night is involving your children. Just like the chores, it takes some training time. But your children can be very helpful.
At age 4, they can pick grapes off the stems and place them in the bowl. By age 6, the girls were able to peel carrots, cucumbers, or anything else with a vegetable peeler. Today we prepped a 10lb bag of carrots from Costco. The carrots are dirt cheap this way. We peel about 20 carrots for the week and cut them into sticks. I really prefer the way the sticks taste over the baby carrots. I also save some to chop and throw in a meal or to roast in the oven as a side dish. We also cut cucumbers. Typically I do 4 a week. If you remove the seeds, they will last the week in the fridge. We use these for snacks, a side dish, or in a salad.
We always pick the grapes off the stems. After washing and drying them, just put them in a bowl. They will keep at least a week. I find this much easier than washing and picking grapes for each meal. The final item you see pictured is zucchini. I sliced this two ways. In small pieces to sauté as a side dish (which will have leftovers to use in omelets) and in rounds that I will roast in the oven. Zucchini also keeps for a week as long as you make sure you dry it well before slicing. We also boiled 18 eggs for lunches and made baked oatmeal muffins for breakfast. (I now make and freeze the oatmeal muffins with our DIY Breakfast Station.)
One more thing that you might have noticed in the fridge is our granola bars. This is the end of the batch that we made almost a month ago. These are by far my favorite treat. I found the recipe on Iowa Girl Eats. Super easy to make. You’ll never go back to the box again!
Use themes to spice it up.
I used to be so much better at this, but it kinda died when I became a single mom. Each night had a theme. I would then plan the meals around that theme. At first it was super simple. Beef one day. Pasta another. Chicken twice a week. Then I got adventurous and started naming the days. Taco Tuesdays. Meatless Mondays. Fresh Fish Fridays. You get the idea.
I actually kinda enjoyed the challenge of coming up with a meal plan to fit within the theme. It can be really fun even if you just try it for a season of life.
Let appliances do the dirty work.
Hopefully you’ve already thought of this, but just in case… don’t forget to put your appliances to work for you. Use that slow cooker (my favorite one is here). Not only will you save money on electricity from the oven, dinner can be ready whenever you need it. This is a lifesaver for moms with younger children, as those little ones can be very needy around the dinner hour.
Another appliance I can’t live without is my rice cooker. It seemed silly to me at first, but it makes awesome rice with almost no effort. I am particularly fond of brown rice made this way. Also, I can set the timer and it will be finished cooking when we get home from soccer practice or whatever else we had to do that day. Goodbye drive-thru… we don’t need you anymore!
Teach your kids to help.
I mentioned this one above when I talked about our weekly food prep days, but it bears repeating. We don’t do our children any favors when we leave them out of the kitchen. They will grow up to be like the 30% of people who can’t cook more than 4 things. That’s not good for women or men. Not to mention, helping with the family is something we should all be invested in doing because family is important to us.
As my kids have gotten older, I have started assigning meals to them. Each girl (currently age 10 and 11) is in charge of cooking one night a week. They can pretty much do the entire meal at this point because they have been practicing for so long. I’m currently training my 8-year-old boy by having him in the kitchen on one of my nights. On the menu plan, he is assigned to this night but right now he is the assistant chef.
Your turn===> So, what do you think? Did you find some new ideas? Do you have an idea to share? We’d love to hear your thoughts. Better yet, try one of these methods and then report back and tell us how it went!