#997 Cook for Yourself And Prepare Your Own Meals

25 Oct

Most of the kitchen stuff I use is inherited, gifted or found at yard sales.

I’ve really gotten myself into a tough spot with this one…I’ve become such a good cook that my husband and I can’t ever eat out. If we go out to eat, we think of how much better and cheaper we could have done it ourselves. It wasn’t always this way. In fact, the only kitchen tools we started out with were a square skillet that was warped from heat, one spatula and a couple pots. We started with spaghetti Bolognese – boil pasta, sauté hamburger and vegetables and add to bottled sauce – and we made enough to last a week or more. Spaghetti for breakfast, lunch and dinner! So it’s a relief that our “problem” is now that we eat so well at home that we have a hard time spending the money to eat out. It’s a good “problem” – one that saves a lot of money. And you can have the same “problem” too…just start cooking for yourself and see how much cheaper and tastier it is than eating out.

Food is a basic human need that all of us have to fulfill every day. In order to sustain healthy life – it has to be healthy food. Why have we gotten so lazy about this basic block of survival? And compromised our health and happiness along with it? It’s hard not to eat healthy if you are preparing your own food. And, I’m not going to lie, it takes time to make food. Dinner is usually the biggest meal, so it takes the most time. But cooking for yourself is tastier, cheaper and healthier than the alternatives. And, if you timed it on average, you probably spend less time making a meal yourself than waiting in line or at the drive-thru at fast-food places during meal rushes. Going out to eat at a restaurant is always a lengthy ordeal of waiting for your name to be called, being seated, having the waiter take your order….

If you cook for yourself, you won’t ever have to ingest unreal amounts of sodium, sweeteners and additives (why do they put corn syrup in EVERYTHING?) Anything pre-packed (usually frozen) that offers a meal shortcut is pricey, tasteless, loaded with sugar, sodium – or both – and doesn’t make sense if you are trying to save money on groceries to buy packaged meals like frozen pizzas and dinners. If you cook for yourself, you have complete control over when, what and how you eat. In fact, the advantages of cooking for yourself so far outweigh any other option that once you start, you won’t go back. To save time, it’s easy to do double duty with dinner – it also becomes tomorrow’s lunch. I started making breakfast, lunch and dinner when I was a typical, young professional working 8:30 a.m. – 5 p.m. with a ½ hr. commute both ways, so cooking for yourself and family is not just for stay-at-home moms or dads.

Bake your own birthday cake for a fraction of the cost of a bakery. You control how much sugar and frosting the cake has and can use Neufchatel cheese instead of cream cheese for lower fat deliciousness.

Another truth is that cooking takes practice, and knowledge is built over time. My husband had to be subjected to any number of “experiments” gone wrong that turned out to be what we were having for dinner. In fact, he started to dread “experiment night,” which meant I would try something off of the usual menu. Luckily, as I got to be a better cook, those terrifying “experiment nights” seemed to become few and far between. He’s come up with quite a few dishes himself. As I enjoy it more, I do most of the cooking, but it’s nice to trade off with your partner when most of your meals are prepared at home. Neither of us started out being good cooks. We had to eat a lot of questionable meals to figure out what we were doing.

It’s more fun to cook for or with someone else, so if you’re a single person, find a friend who’s interested in saving money and cooking at home as well and trade off who hosts dinner or split the cooking evenly (and the bill). You’ll both learn together and enjoy a good time.

It seems like a lot of people are put off by preparing food and taking the time to do it (unless you’re French and celebrate it every day). So here’s an example to get started cooking for yourself that shows it’s easy, way cheaper than running to McDonald’s and doesn’t involve eating spaghetti for a week straight.

It includes a work week’s worth of meals – breakfast, lunch and dinner plus snacks.

Shopping list

Bread (I prefer an unsliced loaf of good bread that can be used for sandwiches as well, but a whole-grain sliced loaf is fine)

Eggs (1 dozen)

Milk (1 gallon)

Cheese (a good hard one like Parmesan (8 oz.) and a softer one like Cheddar or Monterrey Jack (1 lb.))

Yogurt (plain or vanilla) (32 oz.)

Butter (Pack of 4 sticks)

4-6 Fresh vegetables of your choosing (I’m going with onions, carrots, potatoes, lettuce, broccoli and celery)

3-4 Fresh fruits of your choosing (I’m going with bananas, strawberries, melon and apples)

Whole chicken (5 lb.)

Bacon (12 oz.)

Pasta (1 lb.)

Rice (1 lb.)

Lentils (1 lb.)

Tuna or other canned fish (2 cans)

Coffee or tea

Nuts of your choosing (14 oz.) (I’m going with cashews)

Scale the amounts you buy to the size of your family from single person to large households to last the week. I’ve made the list assuming you have things like salt, pepper, oils, condiments, baking staples (flour, sugar) and spices in your cupboard.

Now you get home and wondering what to do with it all. Here’s a work week’s worth of meals to cook for yourself.

How to eat for a week – simply, healthfully and thriftily:

Day 1

Breakfast: Eggs – scrambled, fried, poached, over-easy (this is the traditional domain of bachelors so obviously very easy); Toast; Water/Tea/Coffee/Milk

Prep/cook time: 10 min.

Lunch: Salad – lettuce tossed with vegetables and some tuna on the side. Drizzle on some olive oil; Strawberries; Water (tap)

Prep time: 15 min.

Dinner: Roast the chicken with some onions and carrots; Mash up some potatoes; Fruit salad with bananas, strawberries and melon; Water/milk

Prep time: 30-45 min. (dinner always takes the longest but you gain leftovers!)

Roast time: 1 ½ – 2 hrs.

Day 2

Breakfast: Yogurt with some fruit; Toast; Water/Tea/Coffee/Milk

Prep time: 5 min.

Lunch: Leftover chicken tossed with some mayo for a chicken salad sandwich; Couple of slices of cheese and some carrot sticks; Apple; Water

Prep time: 10 min.

Dinner: Lentil curry with rice; Green salad; Strawberry-banana shake; Water/milk

Prep/cook time: 1 hr.

Day 3

Breakfast: French toast (Bread dipped in egg and milk mix, skillet-fried and topped with cinnamon and sugar, maple syrup or fresh fruit); Water/Tea/Coffee/Milk

Prep/cook time: 15 min.

Lunch: Tuna sandwich; Couple of slices of cheese and some carrot sticks; Apple; Water

Prep time: 10 min.

Dinner: Chicken soup (left over chicken with carrots, onions, celery and pasta or rice); Grilled cheese; Steamed Broccoli; Melon; Water/milk

Prep/cook time: 40 min.

Day 4

Breakfast: Eggs; Bacon; Hash browns(skillet-fried grated potato); Water/Tea/Coffee/Milk

Do not deep fry.

Prep/cook time: 20 min.

Lunch: Leftover chicken soup; Banana; Water

Prep time: 1 min.

Dinner: Lentil soup with bacon; Apple crumble; Water/milk

Prep/cook time: 1 hr.

Day 5

Breakfast: Melon slices; Yogurt with banana and honey; Water/Tea/Coffee/Milk

Prep time: 5 min.

Lunch: Leftover lentil soup; Banana; Water

Prep time: 1 min.

Dinner: Baked pasta and cheese; Green salad; Parfait (Yogurt layered with fruit/oats/granola); Water/milk

Prep/cook time: 1 hr.

Snacks (mid-morning and mid-afternoon):

Nuts

Fruit

Vegetable sticks

Hard boiled egg

Prep time: 1-8 min.

Wow – that was not only so easy, but also included at least 5 fruits and vegetables every day (counting ones in soups), protein, grains, legumes, dairy… and little to no sugar, sodium, processed food or any other food evil. And it’s not a diet – in the South Beach sense of the word – it’s a diet in the humans-eat-food sense of the word.

Total cost (estimated for one person: can easily feed two): $78.63 (includes both coffee and tea)

Bread: Whole-wheat loaf $2.50

Eggs: 1 dozen, large Grade A $1.88

Milk: 1 gallon: $3.54

Cheese: Parmesan 8 oz. block $4.50; 1 lb. cheddar $5.00

Yogurt: 32 oz. $2.50

Butter: 4 sticks $1.99

Onions: 5 lbs. $2.99

Carrots: 2 lbs. $0.99

Potatoes: $0.65/lb 5 lbs $3.25

Lettuce: $1.50/lb 1.5 lbs $2.25

Broccoli: $1.50/bunch

Celery: 1 lb. $0.99

Bananas: $0.57/lb. 3 lbs. $1.71

Strawberries: 1 lb. $2.99

Melon: $2.50 per

Apples: $1.50/lb. 3 lbs $4.50

Whole chicken: $1.43/lb, 5-lb chicken $7.15

Bacon: $4.60/lb, 12 oz. $3.45

Pasta: 1 lb. $1

Rice: 1 lb. $1

Lentils: 1 lb. $1

Tuna or other canned fish: Chicken of the Sea Chunk Light in Water 5 oz. can $1.50 (2)

Coffee: 16 oz. ground roast $5.70 or Tea: 50 ct. English Breakfast $4.95

Nuts: 14 oz. cashews $5.80

I’m not being very budget conscious here – you could pick cheaper nuts, get pre-grated Parmesan in the bottle instead of fresh, pick cheaper fruit than strawberries or get frozen fruit that costs less…I picked a pretty moderate example of what to buy, which leaves room for a lot of trimming in the budget area.

Here’s the McDonald’s version. I consciously tried to pick the equivalent to the do-it-yourself menu, which does not include soda or ordering a “meal deal.” A meal order only gives you a deal if you order soda, which is equivalent to empty calories, even diet soda is bad for you.

Day 1

Breakfast: Egg McMuffin; Water/ Coffee/Milk

Order, pay and wait time: 5-20 min.

Lunch: Premium Caesar salad with grilled chicken; Apple slices; Water

Order, pay and wait time: 5-20 min.

Dinner: Chicken McNuggets; Fries; Fruit & walnuts; Water/milk

Order, pay and wait time: 5-20 min. (No leftovers here)

Day 2

Image via flickr by theimpulsivebuy

Breakfast: Fruit ‘N Yogurt Parfait; Hash Brown; Water/Coffee/Milk

Order, pay and wait time: 5-20 min.

Lunch: Premium grilled chicken classic sandwich; Fruit & walnuts; Apple slices; Water

Order, pay and wait time: 5-20 min.

Dinner: Premium crispy chicken classic sandwich; Fruit & walnuts; Strawberry sundae; Water/milk

Order, pay and wait time: 5-20 min.

Day 3

Breakfast: Hotcakes; Water/Coffee/Milk

Order, pay and wait time: 5-20 min.

Lunch: Premium Southwest salad with grilled chicken; Apple slices; Water

Order, pay and wait time: 5-20 min.

Dinner: Quarter pounder with cheese; Side salad; Fruit ‘N Yogurt Parfait; Water/milk

Order, pay and wait time: 5-20 min.

Day 4

Breakfast: Big Breakfast; Water/Tea/Coffee/Milk

Order, pay and wait time: 5-20 min.

Lunch: Filet-O-Fish; Fruit & walnuts; Apple slices; Water

Order, pay and wait time: 5-20 min.

Dinner: Premium grilled chicken ranch BLT sandwich; Baked apple pie; Water/milk

Order, pay and wait time: 5-20 min.

Day 5

Breakfast: Fruit & Maple Oatmeal; Fruit ‘N Yogurt Parfait; Water/Tea/Coffee/Milk

Order, pay and wait time: 5-20 min.

Lunch: Premium Bacon Ranch Salad with Grilled Chicken; Apple slices; Water

Order, pay and wait time: 5-20 min.

Dinner: Filet-O-Fish; Fries; Side salad; Strawberry shake; Water/milk

Order, pay and wait time: 5-20 min.

Snacks (mid-morning and mid-afternoon):

Fruit & walnuts

Snack wraps

Apple slices

Fruit ‘N Yogurt Parfait

Order, pay and wait time: 5 min.

Total cost (estimated for one person): $112.43

Egg McMuffin $2.99

Fruit & Walnuts (6) $1.99

Apple Slices (7) $1

Fruit ‘N Yogurt Parfait (4) $1

Coffee (5) $1

Premium Southwest salad with grilled chicken $4.79

Water (5) $1.69

Chicken McNuggets (10 pc.) $3.19

Fries (2) (S)  $1.19

Hash brown $1

Premium grilled chicken classic sandwich $4.29

Premium Caesar salad with grilled chicken $4.59

Premium crispy chicken classic sandwich $4.29

Strawberry sundae (S) $1.99

Milk (5) $1.29

Hotcakes $2.29

Quarter pounder with cheese $3.99

Side salad (2) $1

Big Breakfast $3.99

Filet-O-Fish (2) $3.79

Premium grilled chicken ranch BLT sandwich $4.69

Baked Apple Pie $1

Fruit & Maple Oatmeal $1.99

Premium Bacon Ranch Salad with Grilled Chicken $4.59

Strawberry Shake (S) $1.99

Snack wraps (3) $1.99

Save your money – cook for yourself.

That’s a whopping $33.80 difference for ONE person. And the grocery shop when cooking for yourself would easily feed two people plus have a lot leftover. Staples like tea you would not need to buy for more than a month depending on your rate of consumption. The cook for yourself options for families would only get more expensive incrementally, but feeding two people would double the cost at McDonald’s, triple for three people, ect. So McDonald’s gets more expensive exponentially because what you pay for is only a single serving. There’s no way the McDonald’s version I quoted would feed two people, much less have any leftover. Cold fries, anyone?

So for limited fruit, no vegetables besides fries/salads and no variety to speak of, you would end up paying a lot more to get an equivalent meal. Sure you can order only off the dollar menu or get the free water instead of the bottled to knock down your costs, but you would not get anywhere near the same nutrition, and the dollar menu is even more limited than the larger menu. Like I said before, the meals aren’t a deal because it’s cheaper to buy the sandwich and a small or medium fry. Getting a soda in the “deal” is not adding anything but sugar and empty calories. And the estimated time of 5 minutes is ideal – you can sit for 20 minutes or more in the drive thru or waiting in line during peak times. In 20 minutes, you could make your own breakfast or lunch and be on your way. Or be well into whipping up dinner. Bottom line: it’s so much cheaper to cook for yourself.

Here are more simple suggestions that I use all the time for ideas from one of my favorite cooking and eating columnists:

Salads

Quick meals

Few ingredients

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