If you understand the value of cooking and eating at home but need practical tips to make it work, here are some strategies to make dinner at home every day a priority.
When we were saving to build this house, we committed to stop going out to eat for a year, which was hard. No take out, no fast food, nothing. Even though we didn’t feel like we went out to eat all that much, it was shocking to discover how much we were spending on food outside the home. We would spend normally order pizza once a week and go to an inexpensive sit down restaurant once a week, and it all added up to about $500 per month in restaurants. And that’s just for two meals a week! It was shocking.
So we knew that cutting that out of our budget was important to be able to save what we wanted. Now I love cooking and baking, but there is something about having to do it every single day that be a bit soul crushing. The planning, cooking, serving, cleaning, and shopping can get old fast. But during that year of strict eating at home I learned a few systems to keep my spirits up and our food budget down.
To be honest, I am glad that we can now treat ourselves again with a meal out. But the year of cooking sort of reset my expectations and allowed me to see restaurants as a treat and home cooking as the norm. Here are some ways to make it as enjoyable as possible.
1. Plan your meals
This can be super simple or very complicated. But if you want to start eating at home on a regular basis, meal planning is key. Don’t get overwhelmed with complicated calendars or a monthly plan. Just plan out what you’re eating for dinner for one week on a piece of paper.
But the most important part is knowing what you are going to make for dinner that specific night. Think about it once it in the morning and know what you’re making. Do you need to defrost anything? Marinate? Do you have everything you need? Are you sure?
Then in the early afternoon, start whatever you can. Chop and put things on plates and pop them back in the fridge. Make the salad and the bread. Take out the canned stuff and put it next to the stove. The less you have to do at dinnertime, the better.
This also stops people from sharing their opinions about what you have planned for dinner. It’s already started, people. We’re eating it.
2. Stop making every meal a multi-course affair
So if the first step stressed you out a little (make the bread?! start the salad?!), keep this one in mind. Not every dinner has to be fancy. In fact, most dinners should not be complicated.
If you are making bread, multiple side dishes, and a dessert most nights, that is exhausting and can’t happen seven days a week. You are setting yourself up for failure. Find some simple, one-pot recipes that are still good. They don’t have to be the most amazing thing you’ve ever tasted. There is absolutely nothing wrong with serving hot dogs, fresh fruit, and baked potatoes. Don’t kill yourself trying to impress people. Your family would prefer a happy wife and mother over elaborate meals on a daily basis.
Other easy dinners that are more than acceptable: scrambled eggs, sandwiches, salads, or baked drumsticks.
3. Prioritize what should be homemade and what shouldn’t
It’s easy to get carried away with the idea of cooking “from scratch”. Does that mean that we have to make every salad dressing, every French fry, and and every tortilla that enters our house? No.
Some things are worth making from scratch, and some aren’t. (There’s actually a great book specifically about this if you’re interested.) This is a very personal decision depending on your tastes and your budget. If buying some things ready-made helps you with your ultimate goal of eating at home every night, then it is best to go ahead and buy them. If you are constantly frustrated by cooking because everything seems hard because you have to make tortillas instead of serving quesadillas as a simple meal, then please stop. Just buy the tortillas.
4. Plan to fail, and have backups available
Even if you have planned your meals, have the staples you need, and have some simple meals you can whip out, there will be days when you just can’t cook. This happens to all of us. When there are kids involved or a job outside the home, life can get extra crazy. So if you really don’t want to resort to takeout or drive throughs, you need some ready-made convenience foods.
These are only useful when you have them in the house already for when you need them. So get a few frozen meals, make peace with it, and leave them there for when you need them.
5. Embrace Leftovers
Once you get in the habit of cooking at home you will have a lot of food. This means… leftovers. If you hate leftovers, I understand. But leftovers represent a night that no cooking has to be done, so it’s time to make friends with them.
If you have leftovers after every meal, designate one night a week as leftover night. If that night rolls around and there aren’t quite enough leftovers to make a meal out of them, add a salad, sandwich, or frozen meal to round it out. Just get those leftovers eaten! They represent money and hard work and it is too depressing to throw them out.
So if you have found yourself in a place of wanting or needing to cook dinner every night, I hope these strategies help it feel more achievable.