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March 8, 2017

Save Cash and Calories by Cooking at Home

By Elizabeth Elam, MS, RD, LDN

It’s 5:00 in the afternoon and you’re just getting off work. You come home to a house full of hungry kids, the kitchen table littered with book bags and homework folders tossed haphazardly, and a sink full of dirty dishes. The question of the hour is, “What’s for dinner?” If your family’s favorite take-out place knows your order by heart or you’re on a first-name basis with the cashier in the drive through line, perhaps there is some opportunity to improve the dinner-time routine.

You’re probably aware that cooking at home can save cash and calories, but let’s look at the facts to drive the point home. The University of Toronto analyzed the nutritional information of food ordered at 19 sit-down restaurant chains and discovered the average meal contained 1,128 calories – more than half a days’ worth of calories! Moving onto finances, the average bill for a family of four at Red Robin (one of the less expensive sit-down restaurant chains) is $48.68 (not including tip). According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a weeks’ worth of groceries for a family of four runs about $146 to $289. If that Red Robin (or equivalent) meal occurred four times a week, the expense would fall within the weekly grocery budget at $194.72. However, it would account for just 4 out of the 21 meals each family member eats every week. That $194.72 spent at the grocery store could easily go for all 84 meals of the week!!

Convinced? Now that we know that cooking from home is more healthy and economical, let’s tackle the issue of time and effort. Utilize the five tips below to fit cooking a few meals from home into your weekly routine.

1.) Stock your pantry with commonly used items
A well-stocked pantry is like having a recipe blue print, it’s having the basics. The basics ensure that you can whip up a meal in minutes. Keep a magnetic pad of paper on the fridge and every time you use up an item, write it down for your next grocery trip. That way, you’re never running to the store for a forgotten box of chicken stock in the middle of meal prep… we’ve all been there.

Onions, garlic, salt, pepper, dried herbs, spices, granulated sugar, brown sugar, honey, lemons, limes

Olive oil, canola oil, reduced-fat mayo, vinegars, Dijon mustard, ketchup, barbecue sauce, Worcestershire sauce, low-sodium soy sauce

Canned Goods:
Low-sodium canned tomatoes, tomato paste, reduced-sodium chicken/beef/vegetable broth, low-sodium canned beans, marinara sauce

Grains and Legumes:
Whole wheat flour, all-purpose flour, brown rice and instant brown rice, rolled oats, couscous, quinoa, dry breadcrumbs, wild rice, whole wheat pasta

Frozen Foods:
Frozen vegetables (broccoli, peas, corn, edamame), low-fat shredded cheese (purchase when on sale and store in freezer), meats, poultry and fish (purchase when on sale and freeze)

1.) Go to the grocery store at least weekly
When your pantry is well stocked with the basics, weekly grocery store trips should mostly include produce, fresh meat and dairy, snacks, and perhaps a special recipe ingredient. Before you go to the store, sit quietly for just 15 minutes to think of a plan. Monday – pasta night, Tuesday – fajita night, Wednesday – leftovers, Thursday – soup and sandwiches, and Friday – pizza and salad. Make a list of ingredients you need for each night and then think about what needs re-stocking. Rummage through the fridge and cabinets to see what’s needed. Milk, yogurt, apples, salad mix, pre-chopped veggies, string cheese, bread, crackers, granola bars, and English muffins are just a few common items on my weekly list.

2.) Divide tasks among many hands
Cooking doesn’t have to be (and shouldn’t be) a “one man show”. Engaging the entire family will not only make the process faster, but encourages stronger and more positive family dynamics and a greater enjoyment of the food prepared. Tasks that can be shared include, emptying dishwasher full of clean dishes, prepping a salad, chopping, manning the grill, clearing and setting the table, putting drinks on the table, clearing the table and washing dishes after the meal.

3.) Cook double
Cooking double (or even triple) the amount of food that you and your family would eat on a typical night is a huge time saver come later in the week. Take fajita night, for example. Cooking double the amount of chicken and veggies serves as another night’s protein and vegetables that can be transformed into a taco salads, taco soup, or deconstructed burritos. If food is devoured no matter what quantity you make, it’s helpful to portion out leftover helpings in containers before the family digs in. Or, perhaps you cook just a little extra for yourself to take for lunch the next few days.

4.) Keep it simple
When it comes to cooking at home, an “all or nothing” mindset isn’t going to get you very far. Not everything has to be made from scratch. If your marinating and grilling or roasting your own meat, keep the sides simple by choosing a frozen side dish like Alexia Harvest Sautés with Red Potatoes, Carrots, Green Beans & Onions or Archer Farms Roasted Sweet Potato Chunks. Purchasing pre-chopped veggies can be a time saver if it’s in your budget. It’s common for grocery stores to carry all varieties of pre-chopped vegetables in the produce isle – veggies for roasting, sautéing, soups, and salads. One pan meals are easy clean-up so try roasting meat and veggies on one sheet and preparing whole wheat couscous (takes 5 minutes!) as a starch. Lastly, have five simple, quick and easy go-to recipes on file. Knowing just a few recipes by heart can make the craziest of weeks a little more manageable when it comes to feeding your family nutritious meals.

For meal ideas and inspiration, visit the Avance Care Nutrition Pinterest page where Avance Care Registered Dietitians post their favorite recipes under board titles such as “One-Pan Wonders”, “30 Minute Main Dishes”, and “Freezer Friendly”.

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