There are days when I easily put 60 miles or more on the car shuttling to appointments, running errands and picking up kids from after-school activities. It doesn’t take much for me to pull into the drive-thru or order carry-out on crazy days like those.
The problem with eating on the run is that it’s expensive – our family of five can easily drop $30 on a fast food meal. It’s also an unhealthy habit. Fast food and restaurant meals are loaded with calories, fat and salt. But how can you handle busy schedules and get dinner on the table without losing your mind?
5 Frugal Dinner Strategies for Busy Families
Plan a menu. The best strategy we’ve used for avoiding the drive-thru is to do some menu planning. Every Sunday, I take a peek in our pantry, fridge and freezer and then sit down with our family calendar. I plan out meals that use items we already have on hand (who has time to go to the store?). I make a note of nights that might be more challenging to get dinner on the table (i.e., an after-school activity or someone is working late), and make sure I plan a quick and easy dinner for those nights.
Don’t forget to take advantage of leftovers. A roast made on Sunday can become a shepherd’s pie on Tuesday. Leftover barbecue chicken on Wednesday can become barbecue chicken quesadillas on Friday. With a little planning, you can make a nice meal one day, and use the leftovers to throw together a quick tasty meal on nights that are insanely busy.
If you’re stumped on what to make for dinner, check out the menu plans at MoneyWise Mom and menu plans with printable shopping lists at $5 Dinners.
Use your slow cooker. I love using a slow cooker to get a wholesome meal on the table without much work at all. Simply toss all the ingredients into your Crock-Pot in the morning, and come home to a dinner already made. I love this method of cooking because you can use cheaper cuts of meat and can make the entire meal in just one pot. You can even get programmable slow cookers that make it easy to set it and forget it!
Check out the books Make It Fast, Cook It Slow and More Make It Fast, Cook It Slow by Stephanie O’Dea for great meal ideas you can make in your slow cooker.
Try batch cooking. Double your recipe when making dinner and throw half of it into the freezer. If you do that every time you cook, you’ll have a stash of meals you can pull from your freezer on busy nights. Or set aside an entire day and try your hand at once-a-month cooking. You can make a whole month’s worth of meals to put in your freezer for those times when you’re schedule is crazy.
You can check out the book Once-A-Month Cooking Family Favorites by Marybeth Lagerborg and Mimi Wilson for menu plans, shopping lists and how-to guides, or check out the weekly menu plans at Money Saving Mom for ideas on how to do freezer cooking in an hour.
Make your own convenience foods. Save time on busy nights by having a stash of your own homemade convenience foods on hand. On a day when you have some time, make up your own seasoning mixes. Wash and cut up produce in advance rather than buying expensive pre-cut veggies at the store. It is much easier to throw together an inexpensive dinner at home (and healthier, too!) when you’ve done a bit of the work ahead of time.
You can find all sorts of inspiration for creating convenience foods on a budget with Mandy Ehman’s ebook Easy. Homemade: Homemade Pantry Staples for the Busy Modern Family.
Buy quick meal options on sale with coupons. Sometimes it feels like your day can change dramatically in the blink of an eye. You can be completely overwhelmed and have no meals in your freezer. Plan for those days, too, (because they will happen!) with some strategic grocery shopping. Buy a few frozen pizzas on sale with coupons to have in the freezer. Stock up on chicken strips and frozen meatballs when there is a good sale. Keep staples like pasta and soups on hand so that you can whip up a quick meal in just a few minutes. And if all else fails, you can always make breakfast for dinner. Scrambled eggs are quick and filling and pancakes are tasty. Check out our coupon resources for places you can find coupons to help you save on groceries.
These strategies have helped us save our money and our sanity on busy nights. We’re no longer at the mercy of the drive-thru and our waistlines and wallets thank us.
What are some of your frugal dinner strategies?
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Great strategies! I’ve used them all. Planning a menu is my lifeline though. When I do, I find that I can take advantage of those freezer meals , crock pot options or simply feel relieved knowing it’s going to be pancakes for dinner.
Christina Brown says
Yep! We did grilled cheese and soup last night! It was a wonderfully simple meal!
I buy large hams and turkeys when they’re on sale (usually 3 times a year), cook one for our small family of 4, chop and freeze what we won’t eat in the next few days. Then I have versatile cooked meat to add to nachos, pizza, pasta, omelets, soups, etc.!
I also make my own “chicken soup in a jar” with the dry ingredients, that I add to boiling water. In the last 5 minutes, I throw in cooked, cubed chicken & frozen mixed vegies.
I also like to make other mixes that I pre-measure into jars, like cookies. I think I’m going to start doing that for bread, too. :-)
Christina Brown says
Excellent way to manage those busy nights! I love the idea of making your own chicken soup in a jar – so easy! Thanks for sharing your ideas!
Kamille @ Save1 says
Wow! You really have a lot of ideas. We also take advantage of our leftover foods; we eat eggs for dinner as well when we are too busy to cook a proper meal.
In our family, we really try to avoid always eating in fast food chains and restaurants; we only eat out a couple of times a month. We always cook our own food at home. What we do is plan ahead in what meals we will have everyday and then buy all the ingredients we need. No matter how busy we are, we always find time to cook our food. Home-cooked meals are still the best for me.