Cooking Dinner ... Every Night?

Are you cooking more or less during quarantine? Unless you're already out, of course, some places are opening up. We've got until June 1, and then we'll see, but I know John and I still won't be hitting up any restaurants for the foreseeable future. And that's actually something I don't mind - we've been steadily making all our meals at home and generally enjoying the process. Most things we make are way better than the restaurant version anyway, and it undoubtedly saves us money. And quarantine or not, cooking meals at home is an essential part of homemaking and living on one income.

Thriftyness in general is a valuable skill every homemaker should master, and thrifty cooking is a big part of that. Eating at home will save money automatically but I've learned a lot of different ways to bump up those savings even more. Yes, even when every single meal is eaten at home - it's not as daunting as it sounds, I've found.

Cooking Dinner Every Night

When I look back at all the things my own homemaker mother did (and the list is extensive), it didn't take long for me to realize how rarely we ate out or even ordered a pizza. So she cooked basically two dinners every night, since I have been a picky eater since birth, and even though my favorite were the waffle and ice cream nights when my dad wasn't home, it was always a comfort to have that home cooked meal each night. Because that's a big part of homemaking, creating that place of refuge. So I realize how important it is for me to do the same.

Once a week, I sit with my coffee and planner, light a candle, and plan meals for the week. Mostly dinners. Even though I know it doesn't have to be complicated, it still does take planning and preparation to get food on the table seven days a week. I have a master list of meals that I'm always adding to either from Pinterest or cookbooks (usually Pioneer Woman), and I always make sure the recipes are fairly simple. I check the upcoming week for John's fire schedule, since he won't be home for lunch or dinner on those days, and any other appointments or obligations. On the busier days, I plan for a meal that's more simple, one that I've made before. When I have more time, I try something new or something that takes more effort. Simplicity is key to cooking every night.

After I make this list, I make the corresponding grocery list, based on the layout of the store. Much more efficient that way. Of course, since we've been trying to leave the house as little as possible, I've actually been planning and shopping for at least 2 weeks, usually 3 or 4, but the idea is the same. The list is crucial not only for not forgetting anything but also for curbing impulse purchases and food waste. Once I get the shopping done, I put everything away properly and prep what I can, which is usually washing and chopping produce.

Another way I ensure that we always eat at home? Have go to meals on hand at all times. My dad makes huge batches of homemade pasta sauce in the freezer so we always have pasta ready to go. We also make sure we have frozen pizza, soup, and the ingredients for tacos. This way, there's always something to serve, even if the original meal plan falls through for some reason.

Flexible Menu Planning

I've always done some sort of meal planning, in one form or another. There are times when it makes the most sense to add in as many details as possible, but at the moment we're using a much more flexible system. That's definitely part of the freedom of being a homemaker - I have more time in my day to dedicate to prepping meals.

Before I even get to that planner and coffee step, I take inventory of our fridge and pantry, and I clean while doing it. It's so much easier to clean when we're down to the day before a grocery trip and it's mostly empty. And this way, I can see what we have that can be used up, like rice or beans or frozen broccoli, and incorporate that into my plan so I can buy less.

I used to prep whatever I could on the weekends but now that I have time to make dinner most nights, I pick what we're feeling for that day. I keep tabs on the meal calendar I made in my planner so I know what we have the ingredients for but I don't keep us tied to the order in which I wrote them down. Sometimes I have a pasta night planned but if John has lasagna at the firehouse the night before, he's just not in the mood. But it works out fine since I can easily switch to burritos instead. I just make sure I have two or three meat options defrosted (I don't eat meat but John does), which makes it easy to decide each morning what to make for dinner.

I always keep breakfast and lunch options simple. Lunch is almost always leftovers. For breakfast, we keep eggs, oatmeal, yogurt, granola, and fruit on hand so we can mix and match throughout the week.

Making Meals Stretch Further

Groceries are a big expense. No matter where you live or how frugally you shop, it's going to be one of the biggest expenses in your budget in a month. I try to stick to a budget of $200-$300 a month for the two of us. Here's how:

Shop inventory first. Like I mentioned, I always shop our fridge and pantry first. I hate food waste. And it saves money to make sure you're using up what you already have on hand.

Properly store items. Produce doesn't have to go bad so quickly! Learn how to properly store items to keep them fresh longer. Wash and dry lettuce and put it into a bag with a paper towel. Store potatoes and onions in a cool, dry, dark place - but not too close to each other because the onions will make the potatoes sprout faster. There are all sorts of ways to keep things fresh, so a quick google search will help you protect your most used foods.

Shop with a list. I always think of Hagrid telling Harry Potter to get to the Hogwarts train by Platform 9 and 3/4 - "stick to your ticket Harry, that's very important!" I remind myself of this with every list because impulse purchases are the bane of budget. Make a list and stick to the list. You'll have everything you need and nothing you don't.

Buy in bulk. Although it costs more upfront, buying in bulk on the things your family eats the most will save in the long run. It tends to be cheaper per unit to buy in bulk for things like rice and beans, and having these staples on hand means you won't have to panic buy them when they aren't on sale or stop in the store just for one of these things. Because of course that means you'll walk out with 10 things you didn't need, too.

Use the freezer. Getting a deep freezer was probably one of the best investments we made. It's definitely saved us during quarantine, particularly at the beginning when people were panic shopping and shelves were a little more bare. We had everything we could want. Freezers are great for storing leftovers or making big batches of things so you always have meals on hand. They also prevent food waste, because you can freeze just about anything before it goes bad. And if you have this space, you can stock up on things when they're on sale and never have to pay full price.

Check sales. Always check the sales. Our store sales flyers are always released on Wednesdays and the front page and back page have what are called the 'loss leaders.' This means the store is selling these items at a loss, just to get you in the door because they know you'll buy other things too. Always check these pages when making your menu! You'll save so much.

Eat what you like. That said, don't just buy things because it's on sale. We're in our 30s - we know what foods we like. John will occasionally try new stuff but I pretty much hate trying anything new. Don't be afraid to stick to what you like. No sense in buying something on sale that the whole family ends up hating and not eating anyway. Talk about a waste of money.

Eat seasonally. Now is the time! The summer months always offer better prices on produce, at least here in the Midwest. But eating seasonally will always save you money. Berries are at a premium here in the winter months, it just doesn't make financially sense to be buying them. We try to freeze berries now while we can get them cheap, or we just find a different fruit to eat in January.

Do you cook every meal at home? Any favorite recipes I should add to our rotation?