I had the luxury of growing up with a mother who made home cooked meals six to seven days a week. It was a treat to go out to eat. We mostly did it when we had a long day of grocery shopping or when she was too tired from work. I also grew up cooking alongside my mom who taught me the basics of cooking, which was definitely helpful.
The problem was, I got in the way more than I helped. So to say I learned how to cook well is kind of a stretch. When I would try and replicate her recipes, it never really turned out right. It was mostly because of my mom’s measuring system; she didn’t have one. Her measurement system consists of a lot of “whatever looks right” or “depending on what you like” or “just a little bit/a lot” or “a handful.” Safe to say, that wasn’t helpful at all. Even when I was physically there to measure what a “handful” or “whatever looks right” meant, it still didn’t help.
The thing was, I loved cooking. I don’t know if it was because it reminded me of home or because I love food in general. I had the basics down, which was a start. I also loved watching the Food Network and when I lived on my own, that’s where I would turn to for help. It’s hard to cook when you’re on your own for the first time, especially if you’re in college, for many reasons (ahem…excuses). You’re too busy with school, there’s free pizza at every club meeting, there’s nobody to tell me pizza and ice cream aren’t considered breakfast, lunch and dinner. It was easier to make a pizza to last me a few days, get a serving of deliciously greasy Chinese food from the school’s vendors or a cheesy burrito loaded with sour cream at the cheap restaurant down the street from campus.
After a while, my money and clothes were getting smaller. It was time for a change. Here’s my first and best tip: meal planning is your best friend. It takes some time to figure out what to make, grocery shop and actually make the food. But in the long run, it saves a lot of money. And I mean, a lot.
If your cooking abilities aren’t that great, start off with some basic meals, like pasta. Here’s my next tip: buying even a simple sandwich everyday can get really expensive. What you spend on a few sandwiches at a deli, you can spend on a whole week’s worth of sandwich fixings and make your own at home. If you have all of the ingredients readily available, it will be easier to make a lunch.
One problem I see people run into quite often is the temptation of coffee. It’s an easy breakfast and pick-me-up during the day. But getting a fancy latte or a specialty beverage can start off at $4 for a small cup. That five times a week is $20 in coffee in one week alone. And that’s if you’re only getting one small cup a day. My suggestion is buying a quick coffee maker like a Keurig. It’s a bit of an investment, but it will easily be paid off in a month. Keurig’s have the option of using reusable cups and your own coffee so you’re not spending money on the coffee pods. A $7 bag of coffee can last over a month. That’s better than the $80 you were spending before.
Speaking of buying beverages and food, I have said in a previous money-saving How to Adult column, one of my tricks for saving money when going out to eat is to try and get a meal that will have leftovers. And most restaurants have happy hour, where food and drinks are sometimes up to half off.
Learn to make a few recipes that make a lot of food for the week. Knowing you have food at home will keep you from going out to eat after a long or lazy day. Here’s another tip to making a lot of food, and cheap: invest in a crockpot! It makes a lot of food that can be packed away for the week, or even frozen.
And, I’m sure I’m going to have a lot of people groaning at my next piece of advice, but it’s good: eat breakfast. I know, I know. It’s easier to just jump out of bed, get ready, and leave. Maybe pick up a muffin and coffee at a coffee shop. But, that adds up and you’ll crash after a while from all of the sugar. The point of breakfast, which is something that took me very, very, very, very long time to understand is that without breakfast, you’ll be starving after a few hours and you’ll go for anything. Meaning, a piece of pizza or a hamburger. A salad when you’re hungry doesn’t necessarily sound the best. But if you’ve had breakfast, you have more time to make a good decision about what to eat for lunch.
Cooking isn’t that hard when you practice and make time for it. If you’re really looking to save money and eat healthier, your best option is to eat at home.