Five Ways to Save Time and Money at Dinnertime

Staff Writer
Baystateparent Magazine

There’s a big misconception about the cost of eating a healthy, whole-foods-based diet. You see, it’s not only about the price of the food, it’s also the fact that so much is purchased and then not used.

Think about your last big grocery shopping trip, the one where you stocked up on fresh vegetables, a boatload of fruit, and each family member’s favorite dinner ingredients. Did you end up cooking and eating it all? Or did some of it (most of it) end up in the hopper? Get this: according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Americans waste enough food every day to fill a 90,000-seat football stadium. 

Fortunately, a little mindfulness goes a long way in this arena. Here are five ways to reduce that percentage and make your food dollar go further, while at the same time streamlining dinner preparation.

1. Plan weekly menus. Sit down before grocery shopping and plan out your dinners for the week, using the sale flyers for inspiration. Be realistic: You might want to cook a fantastic meal each night, but in reality, you will probably have time to do that twice in the coming week. Having a plan will make it less likely you’ll overbuy perishable foods, only to toss them as they go bad. It will also help you avoid the after work “what’s for dinner?” panic, a prime time to overspend at the grocery store or take-out food place. 

2. Cook once, eat twice. Baked or broiled seafood can be served as a traditional dinner one night and fish tacos the next, with a minimum of fuss or extra ingredients. Extra cooked chicken might inspire a family-size skillet of chicken fried rice or a chicken quesadilla. A big batch of meatballs can be enjoyed with pasta, sliced and used as a topping on homemade pizza, baked in a casserole dish with sautéed spinach and cheese, or popped into toasted rolls with some mozzarella cheese.

3. Pantry raid. Organize your pantry so you can tell at a glance if you have rice, pasta, beans, or any other staples you might need during the week, instead of buying yet another box or can and coming home to find you already had some. You’ll probably find the fixings for a quick dinner in there, too (spaghetti with marinara sauce, anyone?).

4. Recycle leftovers for lunch. Package dinner leftovers for lunch the next day. Brown-bagging it not only helps you use up your leftovers, but it’s also healthier and less expensive than buying fast food or cafeteria food, especially if your dinner was full of whole grains, lean protein, and fresh fruits and vegetables. You’ll also save money by not buying separate grocery store items for lunch, such as expensive deli meats, packaged salads, and those unsatisfying frozen meals.

5. Think like a chef. A good chef doesn’t let anything go to waste. For instance:

• When you get home from shopping, take the time to assemble a fruit salad, cut up vegetables for snacks, or sauté those chicken cutlets. Fresh food is much more likely to get eaten if it’s in the fridge and ready to go, rather than still in its packaging.

• Extra grilled foods can be used again in a wrap, with pasta, or as a quesadilla filling. 

• Make a big salad and let family members dress just the portion they are eating. The leftover undressed salad may be stored in the fridge for several days, eliminating the need to make a fresh salad daily. 

• Extra cooked pasta or rice can be mixed with tuna and light mayo or tossed with some grilled vegetables, canned chickpeas, and your favorite vinaigrette for lunch.

• If dinner leftovers consist of one slice of meatloaf, a few string beans, and half a baked sweet potato, pop them in a freezer container, label it, freeze, and take this mini-meal for lunch next week.