It‘s no secret that cooking at home is usually much cheaper, and healthier, than eating out. Granted, there are some places with dollar menus and kids eat free, but more often than not you are still paying more than it would cost to cook at home and/or you are not getting a wholesome meal. I admit, cooking at home does take more time and effort, and on some days it just is not possible to find the time to cook at home, but with a little planning it can be done.
One of the first things to remember is that a home cooked meal does not have to be elaborate or all from scratch. There are many times that a sandwich and soup or pasta and sauce will suffice. There are also LOTS of convenience foods available for those times when you are in a pinch. Keep some on hand for super busy days. Hamburger/Tuna/Chicken Helper, canned soups, canned sauces, rice/noodle mixes, etc can all help when you need them. Of course, relying on convenience foods is still more expensive and not as healthy a choice as making everything by hand, but it is a less expensive option to eating out.
Planning ahead can also make it easier to avoid both eating out and convenience foods. On days when you may have a little more time, prepare some of your family’s favorite dishes that can be frozen and then easily reheated. Lasagna, casserole, soups, sauces, and baked goods (rolls, muffins, cookies, etc) are great for freezing and reheating. You could always make a double/triple batch, serve one and then freeze the rest. You can also use the crock pot for those busy days, preparing the meal the night before or for reheating a frozen meal. You can find a bunch of crock pot recipes here. There are also lots of cook once, eat twice recipes here. This is where you cook something like a roast one night and then use the leftover meat for fajitas the next night. You can also learn more about Once A Month Cooking (OAMC), and find recipes, by reading Linds Larsen's The Everything Meals for A Month Cookbook
I also find it helpful to prepare ingredients ahead of time. I plan a block of time, within 24 hours of grocery shopping, to prepare what I have bought. It may include dicing onions/celery/carrots, chopping broccoli, browning ground beef/turkey, baking chicken breasts, shredding cheese, or even just separating a large package of something into smaller packages. I then freeze whatever ingredients I will not be using in the very near future (24 hours or so). Now my options have just increased dramatically if I have to make something with little time and even if I don’t have any “busy days” that week, my dinner preparations have been drastically decreased.
One favorite at our house is homemade pizza. You can make the dough from scratch or many stores and pizza shops sell “fresh” pizza dough that you bake at home. We enjoy the typical pizza, such as pepperoni, mushroom, etc, but gourmet-style pizzas go over the best. Last night I made BBQ chicken pizza with chicken that had been baked, diced and frozen last week. I defrosted the chicken, tossed it with a bit of BBQ sauce, spread some more BBQ sauce on the partially cooked (you want to partially cook it so it does not get soggy when you add the sauce) pizza dough, threw the chicken on and sprinkled with cheddar and mozzarella (shredded and frozen last week). It took 15 minutes to finish cooking and I was done. I added a salad and we had dinner.
So what are your favorite ways to save time and money in the kitchen?