Eating at restaurants and getting take-out sure is easy. You don’t have to cook, you don’t have to clean up, and everyone can order what they want. If you order out for delivery, you don’t have to do anything but make the trek from the couch to the door and back. Sadly, taking the easy way out is usually not the best thing for your wallet or your waistline. Eating out can get expensive, and restaurant food usually has more calories and sodium than you should be ingesting. You may have thought about cooking at home more, both to save some money and keep your family healthier, but then time gets away from you and before you know it you’ve spent another month relying on Mexican-food Monday, Thai Tuesday, Wonton Wednesday, Thin Crust Pizza Thursday, and Fried Chicken Friday. I’m going to share with you my fool-proof game plan for cooking at home most days of the week. You’ll never go back to Sushi Sunday; well, maybe every other week you will.
Make a Plan
You’ve heard it before: If you fail to plan, you plan to fail. It’s definitely true in this case. If you decide to cook at home tonight, but then you look in your fridge and see nothing but some wilted celery, suspicious looking container of something white, and some rogue hot dogs, you’ll be on the phone to your favorite take-out place faster than I can type “eat your vegetables” which is pretty fast – I make my living typing and I love vegetables.
Start by writing down five dinners you’d like to make that week (I do five because I usually eat out twice a week, but you can do more or less). Pick things that you know are fast and easy that you won’t mind cooking and will look forward to eating. If you pick complicated, labor intensive meals, you have a greater chance of opting out of the work and eating out instead. Search sites like allrecipes.com for fake-outs of foods you love. Will you miss getting take-out burritos? Then brown some ground beef with taco seasoning, set out tortillas, beans, grilled veggies, and toppings, and you’ve got burritos! Is it pizza you pine for? Buy a pre-made crust such as Boboli (they have great pizza topping ideas on their site), throw on some cheese and toppings, and bake. Add a bagged salad, and you have a relatively healthy and super easy dinner on the table in about 20 minutes.
Make a List
Once you have your meals decided upon, make a shopping list with everything you’ll need for the week. Then list your meals in order of what day you’ll have them on. Make meals using perishable items (fish, meat, delicate veggies) at the beginning of the week, and meals using longer lasting ingredients (eggs, beans, canned goods) at the end of the week. Pick a day each week to go grocery shopping. The best time to go is on a weekday during the day when markets are less crowded, but Sunday mornings are good too. To save money, clip some grocery coupons.
Make it Work!
When deciding to form a new habit like cooking at home most nights, it’s always good to start small. If you say to yourself, “I’m going to do this forever,” it’s very daunting. Just tell yourself you’re going to cook at home X number of meals for one week, or one month, or whatever sounds manageable. Tell yourself that after that you can stop if it’s too hard. When the amount of time passes, you’ll hopefully find that you like your new lifestyle and you won’t want to quit! If you’re still not into it, re-commit to another week, or month, and see how that goes. I have a small magnetic white board that I keep on my fridge. On it, I write the meals for the week, any ideas I have for next week’s meals, and at the top, I wrote “Feels So Good!” to remind myself how good it feels to sit down to a healthy, delicious dinner that I cooked for my family. I like looking at what meals I have planned and looking forward to them. It’s also a good way for everyone in the house to see what’s on the menu and make suggestions. I often go into the kitchen and see that my husband has written “Chicken Casserole” or “Pesto Pizza” in the space where I write ideas for next week’s meals. I got my whiteboard at Staples because they have great coupons, but you can find them anywhere that sells office supply stuff.
Make it Good
Now that you have your plan, I’m going to help you get started by giving you five of my absolute favorite, easy, crowd-pleasing dinners. You can do this!
Breakfast for Dinner: This is a great one for using up odds and ends you have lying around. I chop up whatever veggies I have on hand (like peppers, zucchini, mushrooms, spinach, etc) and sauté them in a non-stick pan with a little garlic or onion and olive oil. Sometimes I add sausage or bacon if I have it. When the veggies are cooked the way I want them, I pour in beaten eggs (2 or 3 per person) and stir until they’re cooked through. You can also add your favorite cheese. I serve this with homemade biscuits, but it would be great with toast or potatoes.
Pasta Dinner: Simmer frozen turkey meatballs in pasta sauce for 20 minutes. Add to cooked pasta. Serve with a salad and Parmesan cheese for sprinkling. Done!
Fajita Dinner: Marinate chicken breasts, steak, or shrimp (or all three!) in fajita seasoning and beer. Grill and slice. Serve with grilled veggies, tortillas, and topping of your choice. Even easier? Slow cooker fajitas.
Beef Stew Dinner: Place 3lbs beef stew meat in a slow cooker. Add 2tbs mustard, 2tbs chili powder, and some cayenne pepper if you like it hot. Add one bottle of beer (I like to use a Mexican lager such as Corona) and stir. Then dump in a big can of chili beans, a regular size can each of black beans and garbanzo beans, a can of corn kernels, and a 4oz can of green chilies. Cook on low for eight hours. Serve with cornbread, and sour cream and green onions for toppings.
Grilled Cheese Dinner: Invest in a panini press! I recommend something that has interchangeable plates and can also be used for grilling and waffles. I have this George Foreman Grill ($104.16) which I bought from Buy.com, and it was relatively inexpensive after I used Buy.com coupons. It pays for itself because it makes cooking dinner at home a snap. Just put out bread,cheese, and anything else you think you might like on a gooey, melted sandwich (mustard, sliced meats, olives, grilled onions, roasted red peppers, sun dried tomatoes, etc.) and let everyone assemble their own sandwiches. Then just squish them in the panini press until they’re browned and melted. I love the panini press because you don’t have to add any butter or oil to get the sandwich toasty and delicious like you do if you pan grill it. It’s just healthier. I serve this with soup or cut up raw veggies.
Bonus Recipe: Want dessert? Try this amazing Cake in a Cup in 30-60 seconds recipe. It's seriously magical.
Do you have a strategy or recipe you’d like to share? Please do! I can’t wait to see your ideas.