What I learned from cooking for myself every day for a month.
I love food. I love the ritual of eating out. I love restaurant culture. I spend way too much money on it.
Sometimes my dad makes fun of this by shrugging and saying, “At least you’re not spending money on heroin!"
He’s right! I’m not.
I’m dropping Benjamins on harissa-garlic salmon, 1,200 calorie ramen and anything with the word “pesto” in it. I'm working my ass off to afford $19 half chickens and burgers so expensive I can only assume they're made from unicorn meat. Every time a new restaurant opens, I shed my vegetative personality and become animated and bright, excited for the rush of trying something new.
But as I looked down a the $56 check at one of these "new restaurants I just had to try," I thought to myself: Fuck. There has to be a better way.
And there is: it's called cooking at home. Have you heard of it? You have. But you're not doing it.
Too often, we make the tired excuse that we don’t have time to cook for ourselves. We’ve been luxuriated with plentiful options for eating out, but they’ve arrested our development and we can’t make a marinara any more than we can launch a homemade rocket to Mars. And that sucks for us, because eating in is so, so much cheaper. I already knew this, and you did too, but I was surprised at just how much cheaper it actually is.
So, I did a little experiment. Intrigued by the statistic that eating out just two times less per week equates to about a 50 percent reduction in food spending for most people, I decided to take it to the next level. For an entire month, I pried myself away from my restaurant addiction and cooked for myself to see how much I’d save.
On average, I was spending about $700 per month, or $22.50 per day on food.
I know, that's a lot. By with my job, and my living situation, I didn't feel like I had much of an option. It was much easier and less time consuming to order something from Postmates or Grubhub, then unwind from the stress of the day by going out to eat with friends or my sex-husband after work. Some of that whopping chunk of change included groceries (usually breakfast items since most food delivery doesn't start until the lunch hour of 11 a.m.) but most of it, I shamefully spent on exo-home dining.
… which is exactly why I wanted to halve that amount.
That meant I was giving myself $350 per month to eat. That's about $11 per day, which is $4 less than the daily average American spends on eating out.
The trick that completely saved me here was meal planning and using inexpensive bulk staples. If you allot yourself a certain weekly budget for food, then plan that week’s meals based on said staples and how much you have to spend, then you’re golden. There’s a reason why your parents are constantly telling you to do this.
I gave myself around $87 per week for this purpose, or a quarter of my monthly budget.
My weekly grocery list included the following staples: A carton of eggs, a sweet potato, bananas, blueberries, granola, jam, butter, orange juice, tea, a small thing of yogurt, a pint of cherry tomatoes, a head of garlic, an onion, a rotisserie chicken, a frozen meal or two for when I was too lazy to cook, feta cheese, some bread, salad mix, and a couple of lemons and avocados. That ran me about $76-84 dollars at my local Safeway. It’s not Whole Foods and it’s not organic, but I’m not Bill Gates and I don't care.
The remaining money usually about $10, I used for specialty, one-off ingredients like salmon, tortillas, fresh cilantro, mushrooms, asparagus, different cheese, veggie burgers or snacks. These were things certain recipes called for, but that I wouldn't have in my fridge otherwise.
There are endless combinations of meals you can make with those core ingredients. From that, I melted my taste buds with roasted chicken salads, sweet potato tacos with pickled onions and feta, avocado toast with fried eggs, granola and fruit for breakfast, homemade spaghetti with blistered tomato and mushroom pasta sauce, and a million billion other things I don’t have space to report.
Your list of staples can include whatever the shit you want, but I'd recommend crafting your list based on what you like to eat the most, not just on what recipes call for. Often, recipes want you to include some weird-ass ingredient like toasted sesame oil, coconut milk or nuac chom sauce; stuff that'll make that individual recipe taste great but you'll probably never use again. It's much more economical to spend the little money you do have on things you know you'll eat, rather than waste it on stuff you'll use once then let expire in your fridge.
Another tip? Go shopping every day, or every other day, as opposed to once a week. That way, you get exactly what you need to make a meal without spending money on extraneous extras you may or may not eat right away. It also ensures you keep your produce fresh. After all, there’s nothing shittier than spending $5 on a salad mix and forgetting to eat it before it turns to inedible toxic mush.
Last thing: what will help you save money more than anything else is slowly building up your pantry to include the oils, spices and non-perishable dry ingredients you need for certain recipes. I use chipotle chili powder to give my sweet potatoes a personality, but I’ve also amassed curry, flour, brown sugar, canned tomatoes, red-wine vinegar, garlic salt, good olive oil and a shit load of pasta, all things I can use to diversify the things I make with my staples. For every week, use any leftover money you have to purchase pantry staples like these. Soon enough, you’ll realize you have enough stuff to make insanely good food for a lot less money than you’d spend if you were buying these ingredients all at once.
At the end of the experiment, I'd spent $389 on food for the entire month of May, which is about $12.50 a day. It was a bit over my budget, but I have to admit I have an innate craving for more challenging flavors, and there were a couple times I couldn't resist buying pretentious, completely unnecessary ingredients like harissa, cooking wine or the (sorry, dad) halibut. I also really fucking love avocados, so there were more than a few times I overspent on those little fuckers.
I wholly admit that this could be done for even cheaper provided you have more self control than me. In fact, if you stick to insanely simple meals like chicken and salad or rice and beans, I've read you can live off of that for an average of $4 per day. That's $17,000 every decade, which doesn't sound like a huge amount of money for that long of a time until you, you know, have to buy a house, bail your best friend out of jail, or buy a gently used 2010 Subaru Outback to prove to everyone how much you love outdoor sports.
Long story short, I kind of wowed myself with the amount of money I saved. It was kind of irritating and difficult having to rejecting my friend's dinner invites and not being able to partake in my favorite blood sport of brunch, but I also felt a bit maniacally happy with myself for saving that extra $311 dollars. It was almost as if I developed a slight addiction to the mind game and challenge of saving money, and I also felt like a more capable human being as my cooking skills proliferated. So, not only was I a few hundreds richer, I was also a bit happier and more invigorated than I had been in my Grubhub/ restaurant slut days.
I also lost a bit of weight, which didn't suck. Not much; three pounds to be exact, but that's not bad for someone like me who leads a writer's sedentary, carpal tunnel-filled existence. Turns out, all that walking to the grocery store (I live right by one), carrying home groceries, chopping shit and flamboyantly seasoning while dancing to Baha Men burned a calorie or 20. Plus, homemade food is always less calorically impressive as you can control the ingredients.
Life was good for me under this new paradigm, and if you have a similar weakness for food and drink coupled with a bank account so small you occasionally lose it in the bed, I would definitely encourage a test run.