The Dirty Secret Behind How We Cook At Home

Babywoods 1 models our groceries

You know how I always talk about the fact that we cook at home every night? Well, I think it’s time for me to come clean: we actually don’t. But don’t panic, we’re not getting takeout or going out to eat. I promise! Not to mention the fact that exactly zero restaurants deliver to our rural home… Rather, we have a hack we’d like to share.

And I say “we” because, as most of you know, Mr. Frugalwoods is our sole home cook. My chief contributions to cooking are that: 1) I eat it and; 2) I write about it. See? I’m so helpful! I dabble in the odd baked good, including baking our sandwich bread every week (although I cheat and use a hand-me-down bread machine, so I’m not sure that really counts for much… ). Otherwise, food prep is solely the domain of my husband. So really, this hack is his, but since this is my blog, I get to make it sound like it was my idea. Whee!

The Hottest Frugal Topic On The Planet (not hyperbole)

In the almost four years that I’ve been writing Frugalwoods, I can tell you without a doubt, hands down, and with zero hesitation that cooking at home is the most frequently discussed, most hated, most loved, most heavily debated element of frugal life. No contest. It’s one of those things that must be done every freaking day because we all have to eat (some of us more than others… speaking for my pregnant self here).

Cooking at home is such a fiery topic, in fact, that I have several epic tomes on how to do it (not kidding about epic… one of these posts is 6,107 words long. That’s like two chapters of a book. All about food. Yep). Here are but a few of these volumes in case you’re looking for inspiration:

A simple quinoa-and-veggie dinner bowl a la Mr. Frugalwoods

Hungry for even more about food? Check out my entire FOOD category (yes, believe it or not, I have EVEN MORE posts about food!). Featuring lots of photos of our food and an annoyed Mr. FW as I buzz around him in the kitchen with my camera, to which he replies, “Some people are trying to work here!” Yeah, yeah, me too!

Why oh why is food such a red hot, flaming pepper of a topic? Because cooking at home is essentially an ironclad prerequisite for a frugal lifestyle. There are few (no?) other things that come so close to being a frugal commandment, but I daresay cooking at home is commandment #1. While the occasional meal out is totally fine and can be managed with ease by most budgets; unless you’re a certified mega millionaire, you can’t eat out all the time and still expect to save tons of money and enjoy a financially secure life. The mark-up on restaurant meals and take-out is simply too astronomical. Mr. FW and I eat out about once a month, which seems to be a perfect balance for us. It’s a fun treat, it’s a fabulous date night, but it doesn’t impact our budget much at all. Eating out, or getting takeout, as an occasional, planned-for, budgeted-for treat is great! But dining out all the time and grabbing takeout at 8pm on a Tuesday because “there’s nothing in the fridge” is not so great. This type of eating out is both a drain on your monthly expenses and also serves to obliterate the novelty inherent to a meal out. When dining out becomes rote, it stops being a special treat.

When I talk about “cooking at home,” I’m referring to everything edible (or drinkable) we consume. Coffees, beers, lunches, dinners… you name it. Preparing this stuff at home and, for example, taking your lunch to work every day is often cited as the #1 way to–rather easily–start saving more money every month. Of the over 20,600 people who’ve taken my free Uber Frugal Month Challenge, I swear that nearly ALL of them have emailed me about how much they were able to save JUST by ceasing to buy coffee and food out. It’s the proverbial–and actual–low-hanging fruit of extreme frugality. Think I’m kidding? Start tracking your expenses and tally up every dollar you spend in a month on food and drink. Every. single. solitary. dollar.

Cooking: Hobby Or Bane Of Existence?

Our chief sous chef Frugal Hound

Often, it’s a bit of both. Some folks love to cook, (weirdos) which is great for them! I, personally, hate to cook and so, Mr. FW is our household cook. He is one of those people who loves to cook, but here’s the caveat: only when he has tons of time, which between working, homestead labor, and parenting, is… basically never.

If he had hours of free time every day he would construct amazing dishes of divine proportions–I know this because that’s what he does on holidays. His Thanksgiving feasts could be in Better Homes and Gardens. But on regular old weekdays? He ain’t got the time. So how exactly do we eat? Through efficiency, routine, and a division of labor.

Our Dirty Cooking Secret: Mr. FW only cooks dinner once a week!

GASP. Ok sometimes it’s twice. And then… wait for it… we eat those leftovers all week long. When Mr. FW cooks, it’s a certified event. He cooks primarily from scratch, because this is both cheaper and healthier. But it’s not quicker. He doesn’t rely on pre-made or pre-packaged foods, so there’s a lot of prep work that goes on: dicing onions, chopping garlic, slicing chard–you name it, he’s doing it. Given this, it can take him up to two hours to prepare a meal.

However, by consolidating his cooking to just one night a week, he reaps tremendous efficiencies. Last week, he made his delicious (and spicy!) chicken chili, which entails cutting up a lot of vegetables, roasting chickens in advance, and then combining everything in a giant pot that’s more of a vat/cavern really. It would be a total, utter, complete waste of labor and time if he made just one measly serving of that chili.

Mr. FW ladling from an enormous vat of chili he cooked

Since he’s already going through all the steps of dicing, slicing, chopping, and cooking, he might as well do it big! It’s almost as easy to make a single serving as it is a dozen. His vat of chili created no less than TWENTY-TWO meals for the three of us. We don’t eat the chili for 22 dinners straight, but rather, portion out enough to last us about a week and then freeze the rest in quart-size ziplock bags in our deep freeze. Thus, his two+ hours of labor are richly rewarded and his work flow made vastly more efficient.

In addition to the tremendous efficiencies of giant batch cooking, the cook-n-freeze methodology is a lifesaver for us busy parents/homesteaders. On a night when we’re out of meals and Mr. FW doesn’t have time to cook? We simply defrost a previously cooked and frozen meal. Voila! Healthy, homemade dinner on tap: it’s the true frugal takeout. By maintaining a stash of frozen homemade meals, we’re never caught in a lurch on a hectic day.

While it’s efficient from a labor perspective for Mr. FW to cook in large batches, it’s also less expensive. Buying in bulk is almost always cheaper than buying smaller amounts of ingredients. In this chicken chili example, he used no less than 4.5 pounds of chicken, which was purchased on sale (and some of which was a gift from our neighbors who raise chickens–yum–as a thank you for watching those same chickens while they were out of town. Nice circle of life, eh?).

We also stretch out expensive proteins–such as chicken–by pairing them with LOADS of beans and vegetables. This particular “chili” also contains black beans, kidney beans, tomatoes, onions, garlic, chili peppers, turkey stock (which Mr. FW made from our Thanksgiving turkey last year and then froze), spices, and more! That makes our investment of chicken go quite a long way indeed. To stretch these meals even further and make them even less expensive per serving, we always eat our meals atop either rice or a bed of salad greens. Rice is so cheap it’s not even funny. And wonderful, warm rice beneath a spicy bowl of chicken chili is a simply scrumptious complimentary food.

In the spirit of seasonal eating, this was our first chili of the fall as we’ve been eating from our garden since June. I am pretty certain we ate a stir fry of kale, chard, red chili peppers, and green beans (all harvested from our garden) for roughly 2.5 months straight. Earlier this week we harvested what was probably our last gasp of kale and chard and are eating that this week to close out the summer. On top of a bed of rice, of course! After several months of vegetarianism, we’re now moving into the more meat-heavy portion of our year (hence the chicken chili!).

One Pot Meals

Our kitchen: where the magic happens

For the most part, Mr. FW is a specialist in delicious, one pot meals. Sticking with the chicken chili example, rather than serve separate portions of chicken, beans, and vegetables, he throws them all together in the same pot (although he did roast the chicken separately in advance) in order to yield an even higher level of efficiency.

His rationale for this approach is as follows: the flavors meld together beautifully, he only has to watch one pot, it’s more amenable to serving over rice, it’s ultimately easier to cook, and it’s vastly easier to freeze. We’re able to defrost a (nearly) complete meal in a bag that only requires the preparation of a bit of rice!

Streamline Your Cooking

If you too do not relish the thought of cooking a full dinner every. single. night. of. the. week, find a way to streamline and create efficiencies in your cooking. And if you don’t want to eat the same meal every night? Cook huge batches of stuff once a week and freeze the leftovers. Then, you can rotate out those frozen meals for a different meal every night of the week (this is also a fantastic way to ensure you never waste food, which is terrible for your wallet, the environment, and a massive waste of your time).

Babywoods 1 + me chowing down at a town potluck last summer

I know people who dread cooking–like, totally hate it–and yet, they do it every single night. And hate it every night. People: stop doing this to yourselves!! Create efficiencies in your food prep (here are a slew of ideas from Frugalwoods readers), fire up the slow cooker, batch cook on Sundays, freeze the heck out of your leftovers, and ease up on the nightly cooking.

It is 100% possible, and reasonable, to eat all of your meals at home and yet not cook on a daily basis. Create a schedule and workflow that meshes well with your lifestyle. As with most elements of frugality, planning ahead is your best friend. Know what you’re going to cook in advance, buy the ingredients you need ahead of time, and determine which night (or nights) you’ll be able to devote to cooking.

Back when we both worked in offices, Mr. FW cooked up our lunches (the famous Frugalwoods Rice-n-Beans Recipe) on Sunday afternoons and portioned them out into tupperware in the fridge. Grab-n-go lunches for the full week! I also used to boil eggs, chop carrots, and make other snacks for the work week on Sundays so that I’d be set for food all week long. Dinnertime is not an emergency, people. It happens every dang night. Plan ahead, prepare in advance, embrace imperfection, and make your life easy.

Embrace Misc. Dinners

Speaking of making your life easy, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention our proclivity for the occasional “misc. dinner.” Short for “miscellaneous dinner,” but more fun to say, misc. dinners are nights when Mr. FW doesn’t want to/can’t cook and we don’t want to defrost a meal. Misc. dinners are essentially defined by their name: they are miscellaneous.

On these nights, which I’d say happen roughly twice a month at our house, we eat non-traditional dinner foods, such as bread with olive oil, olives, and cheese. Or hummus with vegetables and popcorn! No one will die if you have sandwiches for dinner. No one will pass out if you eat cereal. A bowl of oatmeal for dinner, while non-traditional, will not kill you. It will be fine. Embrace the ethos of the misc. dinner and give yourself permission to eat one from time to time.

Frozen Pre-Made Food: Have Some In Your Freezer

Mr. FW gives our frozen ‘za two thumbs up

I also must highlight the final element of our always-eat-at-home success: frozen pizzas. NOT pizzas we’ve made, but good old, store-bought, unhealthy frozen pizzas. I HIGHLY recommend your freezer contain something similar. These babies are our get out of jail free cards. These puppies are what you heat up on the worst of the worst nights of busy chaos and delirium.

They are your saving grace from emergency takeout. They are your emergency frozen pizzas (or frozen ravioli or frozen tofu burgers or whatever you please). They are a separate category from your homemade frozen foods as they serve a different purpose.

For us, frozen store bought pizzas (which are a mere $3.99 each versus the exorbitant price of delivery pizza), are both a treat and an emergency fail safe. While expensive and unhealthy, they are a lot cheaper and healthier than most takeout options. Have something like this in your freezer–you will not regret it. I guarantee it.

Eat Your Leftovers: No Excuses!

Leftover love

I leave you with a final missive: eat your leftovers. I really don’t care if you like leftovers or not, you still have to either eat them or freeze them. Food waste is an enormous problem, both for the environment and our wallets, and there’s no excuse for it (except for toddlers who spit out food and then refuse to eat it again… speaking from personal experience here… toddlers are gross). But if you’re not a toddler, you’ve got zero excuses buddy. And if you’re married to/living with someone who doesn’t like leftovers? Then they are most welcome to cook every night of the week. Just sayin’.

You need a system that works for everyone in your family, but it is righteously unfair to put the burden of daily cooking on one (probably already over-burdened) person. People who love to cook nightly are exempted of course–cook your cook-loving hearts out! Once again, if you don’t want to eat the same meal every night: freeze the leftovers immediately (so that they’ll come out of the freezer fresh-tasting) and then defrost different meals on a regular rotation.

While cooking at home is pretty much a prerequisite for frugality, it’s not a penance to slaving away in your kitchen day after day. Economize, streamline, create efficiencies, and enjoy the wonderful life that your frugality has allowed you to create.

P.S. As I shared on Monday, I WROTE A BOOK! (I’m a little bit excited, can you tell?!?) And this book is now available to be pre-ordered, for which I will mail you a signed bookplate. Check out this post for all the details.

How do you handle the cooking-at-home conundrum in your home?

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