You wake up in the morning to the sound of your buzzing alarm clock. Your feet hit the floor and you start running, shower, dress, hair and makeup, wake up the kids and get them dressed, pack up all the bags and run for the door. Handle the arguments and whining all along the way from cranky children who would rather just stay home today. You get a little too close to reckless driving as you rush to drop off the kids in time for the daycare to feed them breakfast. Quick hugs and then out the door for your commute to work. Work hard all day, answering questions, putting out fires, finishing that major project, giving that scary presentation, and then zip out the door just in time to rush back to the daycare just before they close and start charging you $5 a minute in late pickup fees. The moment you walk in the door the kids start crying because they are absolutely famished as your husband strolls through the door and innocently asks, “What’s for dinner?”
There is no rest for the weary mama sometimes. I dream of days spent on a tropical island relaxing in the quiet, gentle breeze and the sound of waves lightly crashing on the shore. Of servers refilling my tropical punch before it ever gets empty and regularly bringing a plate of fruit, a fresh salad, and some perfectly seasoned and prepared seafood every time I think of wanting to eat. I dream for slow days and quiet nights. But dreams are not reality. Reality tells me that my family is loud and rambunctious. Life is busy and doesn’t stop just because I’m tired. And the family always wants dinner, without fail, every single night.
Which means I’m often tempted to run through the drive-thru, put the pizza guy on speed dial, or just load up the car and head to nearest restaurant that caters to wild children like mine. But I don’t really want to give all my money to the pizza guy or the golden arches. And I really wish that restaurants would learn what real food is instead of pink slime and chemicals.
Is anybody with me?
If feeding my family was somehow not on the list of duties for a mom, I think life would be 10,000 times less stressful and I wouldn’t be nearly as exhausted. Why does eating have to be so dang important?
Until someone invents a way to go through life without eating, we are tasked with the job of feeding our family, nutritious, frugal, tasty meals all day and night, every day, forever and ever, amen. While it is tempting to rely on restaurants to help us out, this isn’t necessarily the wisest option for both health and monetary reasons. Today, I want to talk about how to survive without relying on restaurant meals, or at least to rely on them a little less.
I will never be one to advocate for cutting out restaurants entirely. Some days, mom really does need (and very much deserve) a break! And restaurant food can be really delicious, which, combined with the lack of dishes to clean up, and someone else serving is a dream come true, but a dream that should be enjoyed sparingly.
I try to make “rules” for eating out in my house. Sometimes we follow the rules really well and sometimes, we struggle, but the point is that we try to make better decisions and every little bit helps. Here are some eating out rules to consider:
Only go out to eat when you can take advantage of a sale, deal, or coupon. Just about everyday we get a magazine or booklet or envelope in the mail with coupons for restaurants and businesses in our area. And without fail, I always throw them away. But these can be a great help on days when you just need to take the night off and let a restaurant feed your family. So keep these coupons and put them to good use.
I am a huge fan of text alerts for some of your favorite restaurants. I get text alerts for our local Dairy Queen. Every once in a while they’ll send out a text in the early evening announcing buy one get one free Blizzards until close. I show the text to my husband and without even saying a word, we both concoct a plan that involves me putting the kids to bed a little early while he heads to pick up our blizzards. It’s like an impromptu, super delicious (and cheap) date night! If you see a restaurant that you frequent has text alerts (and you have an unlimited text plan) then sign up and reap the rewards of unexpected deals that might just come at the exact moment you need them.
You can also sign up for restaurant email lists if texting is not your thing. Be sure to check out places like Groupon and Living Social for special restaurant deals that can save you big money. And keep your eyes open for Kid’s eat free restaurants and take advantage when the need arises. If you make it a rule that you only go out to eat when you have a coupon or are taking advantage of a special sale or deal, you can really save a good deal of money on meals that can be really costly.
Order like a money saving sleuth. Most restaurants make you think that their kids meals are really cheap, but oftentimes this is just not the case. Do your kids really need that junky kids meal toy that will break in five minutes? Save some green and order meals for your kids from the adult menu. The kids can split an adult portion or pick from the sides and appetizers menu for a fraction of the cost of most kids meals.
The same rules apply for combo meals. Sometimes these meals really are a great deal (our favorite Chinese restaurant has amazingly low combo prices), but most of the time (fast food restaurants), the combo meals aren’t really saving you much money, especially if you’re like me and you never drink more than two sips of your soda anyways. Check the prices and see if you can combine dollar menu items or a couple sandwiches for a better price than the combo.
Skip the desserts and drinks. I know, restaurant desserts look so fancy and delicious, but you can get a half gallon of ice cream for a third of the cost of that fancy restaurant dessert. Buy your desserts at the store or make your own treats for special occasions so you can spend your hard earned money on things that will bring you more pleasure than the 30 seconds it takes you to eat that sliver of cheesecake.
Another huge way to save money at a restaurant is just to stick with ice water. Your body and your wallet will thank you. You don’t need a soda with your meal, especially when it costs $3.95. Drink costs can add a whole lot of money to your bill, so just skip it and drink healthy, free, ice cold water.
The real trick to saving money on going out to eat though, is to just simply, not go out to eat. I know, this is much easier said than done. Our best solution is to be as prepared as possible for those nights we just want to cave and call the pizza boy.
Frozen Meals – No I’m not talking about the tv dinners in the freezer section of the grocery store. I’m talking real, homemade food that you’ve made weeks ago and stashed in your freezer for a lazy night. I hear you, who has the time to make extra food on top of the food you have to make today? The trick is to always make extra. When you make soup, make enough to feed an army and freeze what’s left in the pot after dinner. When you make lasagna, layer out another pan for the freezer, it will take you five extra minutes. Throwing together a casserole? Double it. I”m sure you get the idea. You don’t need to double every single night, but the more you can double now, the easier life will be next week (or next month).
Stockpile a backup plan – My easiest trick for avoiding the pizza man is that I always have easy foods in the pantry, ready for a crazy night. Forgot to pull the meat out? Burned the chicken? Bombed that new recipe? Don’t sweat it. Just pull out some eggs and pancake mix and whip up some brinner (breakfast for dinner). Or grab that package of hot dogs and box of mac and cheese that you keep on hand and make your kid pleasing meal in no time. Always have a couple options in your pantry/fridge/freezer that can be whipped up quickly at the last minute. Don’t put these on your meal plan regularly. I promise, my backup plans have never “gone bad” before I had a chance to use them. There are always crazy nights when my things just don’t go as planned.
Meal plan – Speaking of a dinner plan. Never, ever go without a meal plan. Even if it’s just a chicken scratch list of dinner ideas jotted down on the back of a receipt. Your family is guaranteed to need to eat every night, so make a plan for something to feed them, every single night of the week. And then use that plan when you shop to make sure you have all the ingredients on hand when you need them. Nothing ruins a good meal plan like a last minute trip to the grocery store every night.
One of my biggest problems with feeding my family is coming up with what to feed them every night. With a meal plan, I sit down once every two weeks, ask the family for their input and then make a plan. From that point on, I don’t have to think about ideas, I just execute the plan. I wonder how many more times I can use the word plan in this paragraph? Plan ahead, plan ahead, plan, plan plan. Be prepared.
Brown bag it – Oh, you were hoping I wouldn’t go there huh? When I worked in an actual office this was the hardest thing ever. I despise eating sandwiches, especially soggy ones that have sat in my lunch box all morning. And frozen dinners taste gross and leave me starving two hours later. Now that I work from home, I’ve learned the power of leftovers! Utilizing leftovers doesn’t require you to work from home. My husband takes leftovers to work too. I used to build leftover nights in my meal plan. Not anymore. I hoard my leftovers for my lunches. There are so many things that taste even better the next day. And hot, delicious dinner food is always better than a soggy sandwich, in my opinion. But, if you’re not a leftover person, then try sandwiches, salads, soups, or just bring a ton of healthy snack foods to graze on all day (yogurt, crackers, cheese, fruit, veggies…)
The point is, you can save yourself at least $25/week if not much more by simply bringing your lunch instead of going out to eat for lunch every day. That’s $100 a month! I could do a lot with that money. Also, if you’re a Starbucks junky, the same rules apply. I know it tastes good, but you could go on a luxury vacation at the end of the year with all of the money you saved by skipping your daily $6 coffee fix. By a coffee pot and some flavored syrup and make your own!
Again, I don’t advocate never going out to eat. We all deserve a break and life is too short to deprive yourself of good things (including expensive designer coffee). The point is to limit these things to special occasions and true emergency situations so that you have more money left in the bank at the end of the week and healthier bodies to live with for the rest of your life.
This post is part 2 of our monthly series on Saving Money. Find part one here: Money Saving 101