You can save a lot of money by preparing food at home, and you can save a lot of time by cooking in bulk.
In a recent story on CNBC, Ester Bloom recounts how she saved $100,000 on a salary of $30,000 a year. It was an interesting story and had some helpful hints - after all she was trying to live in New York City on that salary, while her husband was in law school. And some critics will note that she bumped-up her savings by inheriting money from her grandmother - a "money baton" if you will - but unlike the lady who squandered a $60,000 inheritance on clothes, Ester invested the windfall from Grandma.
And maybe that is why being stingy is useful. When you see how heroic it is to save up even $1000, when a pile of money is dumped in your lap (if you are lucky) you will not be tempted to blow it all on a car or clothes or something stupid. Being frugal trains your brain about money.
You could nitpick at the edges of her story and decry her efforts as unrealistic (after all, everyone has to go clubbing, right? Actually, I found that hanging out in bars not only expensive but also not fun). But there are nuggets of truth in there about how to live within your means. I only hope she does not end up being the law school wife, scrimping and saving so hubby can get his law degree, only to later marry his secretary (trophy-wife), who then spends his entire paycheck every month.
But I digress.
One of the nuggets in the article was this:
Once we moved to New York, we split a bedroom in someone else's apartment, cooked in bulk, and shopped at food coops, secondhand stores and other places we knew we could get good deals.
Cooking in bulk, something she mentions in passing, but is essential to home economics - and something our Mothers did back in the 1950's and 1960's. The ubiquitous casserole was a staple of dining back then because it was easy to prepare, often used up leftover ingredients, and could be served a number of times (what we used to call "leftovers" back in the day) during the week or month (if portions are frozen).
Preparing your own food at home saves a lot of money, as I have illustrated before. Not only is the cost far less, it is less hassle than driving to a restaurant and waiting around for mediocre food to be made for you. Oh, and the savings in automobile expenses (at 50 cents to a buck a mile!) add up as well.
But it is a pain in the ass, sometimes, to make your own meals. I get that. You work hard at a job and at the end of the day it is temping to dial out for a pizza, and blow $20 on a bad meal when that same $20 would prepare five at home.
This is where the housewife of 1950 had you beat. She could prepare a large meal - cooking in bulk - and serve a portion that evening, and then save another portion for lunch the next day, and perhaps freeze two more portions for later meals. It is akin to making your own frozen entrees at home, preparing meals days or weeks in advance. It also cuts down on food waste by using up things like fresh vegetables and whatnot that would be thrown away if not put into a casserole, pizza, soup, or other entree.
For example, Mark likes to make pizza. It is less costly than getting a take-out pizza (although probably on a par in terms of price to a frozen ready-made pizza from the grocery store, although those can be gross). It takes just as much labor to make two pizzas, or even three. You can cook one, eat half, and save the other half for lunch the next day. The other two can be frozen raw (or cooked) and then cooked or re-heated at a future date.
Soups work especially well this way, and it is just as easy to make a huge kettle of soup than it is to make one bowlful. Yes, canned soups are pretty cheap, although lately they have gone up from three-for-a-dollar to a dollar a can (at dollar tree) or more ($2-$3 for fancy soups at the grocery store). In terms of ingredients, soup can basically use up things you would likely throw away, such as vegetables (carrots, celery, spinach, onions, etc.) if not used. In fact, that is one dirty little secret of the restaurant and food business. The "soup special" at your favorite restaurant is basically all the stuff that was nearing expiration date that the chef tossed into a pot and simmered for a few hours.
The casserole, of course, was the housewife's friend in 1950, and today it has exploded in terms of what you can make in a casserole. Breakfast casseroles (made with eggs) are quite popular, keep well, and are easy to re-heat in the morning (no more excuses that you "don't have time" to make breakfast - although I can make an egg sandwich in less time than it takes for the teakettle to boil).
Since the 1950's, reusable/disposable containers have replaced the expensive Tupperware® of yore. So it is not hard to store food, safely, in the fridge or freezer. The key is, of course, to understand food safety and to know how soon things need to be consumed so they can be consumed safely.
Preparing food in bulk is a great way of multiplexing the labor involved in food preparation. Rather than expend a half-hour or hour of your time making one meal, use that same labor to make two, three, four or six meals. And once you have a freezer full of frozen entrees you have created, you don't have to worry about being "too tired to cook" when you get home.
The old coin-on-a-frozen-cup-of-water trick.
If you do keep food in your fridge or freezer, put a coin on top of a plastic cup of frozen water. If you see the coin has sank down into the ice, you'll know you've had a power outage and the food may not be safe to eat. This is especially handy if you are going out of town for a few days. However, it is probably a good idea at least once a year to clean out your fridge and freezer and consume or throw away all of the contents, unplug it and clean it out with a bleach solution. Food should not be kept in the freezer for months or years at a time - not only is it not safe, it's just gross.