How can I save money on food when I’m never home?

14-On-the-Go-Make-Ahead-Meal-&-Snack-Ideas

Do you have any tips for saving money on food when you’re never home? I’m spending too much on food while I’m out! -a reader

I was asked the above question on Twitter recently and I thought it was an excellent question — and there was no way I could respond to it in 140 characters. So I promised the reader I’d respond in a post.

Here are some of my thoughts:

1) Evaluate Why You Are Never Home

This might seem like an unnecessary step, but I think it’s very important to consider. Are you always gone because you have to be (i.e. you have a very demanding job or multiple jobs that you need to have in order to pay the bills) or are you always gone because you choose to be (you’ve accepted a lot of extra commitments and responsibilities you don’t have to do, but you want to do or you feel like you have to do out of a sense of obligation or guilt)?

These are vital questions to ask ourselves. Do you love your life? If not, what small steps can you take to start changing it so you have more breathing room, more down time, and more time to be at home?

Could you downsize your home and lifestyle and work hard to pay off all your debt so that you could lower your expenses and take a less demanding job? Could you cut out a few of your extra commitments or scale back in some other way?

In most cases, we have more control over our situation than we realize. But we have to be willing to say no, to make sacrifices, and to set clear boundaries. And then we have to abide by these things, even when it’s tough. In the long run, it will be worth it!

2) Take 15 Minutes Each Day to Plan Ahead

It would be fantastic if you could plan a weekly menu at the beginning of each week, but if your schedule is constantly changing and you’re not sure how the week will pan out, get into the habit of making a daily menu plan instead.

At the start of each day, look at your calendar and to-do list and make a simple plan for what you’re going to eat that day. Then, while you eat breakfast or before you leave for the day, take a few minutes to gather up a few snack items to take with you on the road, make a cup of coffee for yourself for the road, make a sandwich or two for your lunch and dinner, and fill up a big bottle with ice water or iced tea.

Taking 10-15 minutes to put together a plan and then putting together some food and drink items could easily save you $10 to $20 or more each day… and I think that’s well worth the 10 or 15 minutes of time it will take! As an added benefit, you’ll probably end up eating a little healthier, too.

oatmeal-packets

3) Make Homemade On-The-Go Meals/Snacks

On the weekends or any time during the week when you have an extra 30 minutes, invest that time into making some on-the-go meals and snacks. Here are a few ideas, most that can be prepped ahead of time:

4) Think Outside of the Drive-Thru Lane

The drive-thru lane is quick, easy, and expensive. It’s also usually not  a very healthful option.

If you’re out and about and you really need something to eat and didn’t have a chance to plan ahead, consider going to the grocery store instead. If you have access to a refrigerator and kitchen at your workplace, you could buy a loaf of bread, a jar of peanut butter, and a jar of jelly or buy a bag of salad greens and a rotisserie chicken from the deli.

Buying groceries might cost you a little more than it would cost you to go through the drive-thru lane once, but they’d give you enough food for lunch for at least 3-4 days. Just store the leftovers in the fridge at work and you’ll have lunch for the next few days.

I also encourage you to plan ahead: buy some items you can keep in your desk drawer or fridge at work. Stock your purse and glove compartment of your car with snacks. Keep a cooler with some snack foods in the fridge at home that you can just grab on your way out the door if you end up needing to run out unexpectedly for a few hours.

It takes a little bit of time to plan ahead like this, but when you calculate how much you’ll save in dollars and calories, it will make that little bit of time investment every bit worth it!

Readers: what are your tips and suggestions for this reader? How do those of you who aren’t home a lot save money on food? I’d love to hear!

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Comments

  1. Amie says

    I agree that planning ahead is the key. My husband had to go away for an intense 11 day training session. He will be provided breakfast at the hotel, lunch at the work/training site, and was given a $25 Kroger gift card which he will use to buy some microwavable meals. His days are very long and include double shifts. With this in mind, we shopped ahead. I used coupons and sales at Kroger and Walgreens to snag: peanuts, Fiber One Bars, fruit snacks, bread, cheese, sandwich meat, some freebie protein bars & drinks, Crystal Light drink mixes, chips, a few 12 packs of soda, etc. We were able to purchase his food items within our regular grocery budget. If we hadn’t done this, he would easily spend $10-20 per day. I spent about $50 these items, additional food items, and dog food.

  2. says

    My husband and I both brown-bag lunch most days. A small thermos can bring hot soup, drinks and even water without having the hassle of microwave (though even a drip coffee pot with the basket rinsed well works too if you just need hot water). Yogurt, salads (both pasta and greens – bring salad dressing separately), sandwiches, apples and PB (or substitute), celery and carrot, etc. all work well in an insulated lunch box. For a while we had to brown-bag both lunch and dinner a couple of days a week and we brought things like cold fried chicken, leftover pizza (eaten cold) and things like that for one meal for a little variety.

    If you have access to a microwave, take an hour or so one day when you are home to make a regular dish you like and then parcel it up into single serving portions. Pop them in the freezer (I guess making sure things freezer well would be the prerequisite for this!) and then just grab, put in an insulated lunch bag and then heat up at work. It’ll act as it’s own ice pack on the way so you don’t even need to worry about that.

    For “emergencies” in my desk at work I keep granola bars, trail mix, yogurt or chocolate covered raisins and dried fruit. In the car and purse I keep granola bars. You could keep individual packages of trail mix (made at home if you’d like) or power/energy/protein bars if those suit your needs better. I always carry a water bottle too so I can just fill that up from a water fountain. I also keep an extra set of silverware in my desk and a few paper napkins (usually left over from the birthday parties) just in case I forget those at home. I’m hoping to get a set of camping silverware or two to keep in the car soon.

    Do I get stuck sometimes? Yep. But it’s a lot less often than before!

    Best wishes,
    Lea

    • Julie says

      Our family of four eats packed lunches every day, both during the school year and school breaks. I am certain the amount of money it saves us is significant and we are, without a doubt, eating healthier. Admittedly, there are nights I resent packing “yet another lunch” for the next day. It does take a little time and planning! But I never regret it the next morning. Every once in a while, my husband will comment that he feels a little childish taking lunch each day to work like that, but overall he knows it saves us money. And since I have low blood sugar problems, I’ve been in the habit for years of taking snacks, fruit and bottles of water with me wherever I go.

  3. Lindsay says

    I have dealt with this issue over this summer. I live in a rural area and am about 25 minutes from town. My kids have swim team practice twice a week that straddled lunch time. Since we usually have other errands to run while we are in town, I would want to succumb to the pressure of going through the BK or McDonald’s line.
    I would cringe though thinking of the houseful of food we had waiting on us! Instead, I take about 5-10 min in the mornings to pack some sandwiches, goldfish, juice boxes and bottled water to bring along. We may eat in the car or we will go to our town’s splash park and eat. This easily saves us $10-15 each time we bring a “picnic” from home.

  4. Meredith says

    The best thing I can advise here is to re-think what a meal is. A meal doesn’t have to be a sandwich/salad/soup/bowl of noodles, etc. A meal can simply be like MSM’s snacky lunch. Get a bag and throw in a cheese stick, nuts, an apple and some carrot sticks. Keep items in your fridge that are ready to go items. Apples, Oranges, and Bananas are good grab fruits. I keep these on hand for my husband to grab for his lunch (if I don’t have time to make it). Of course canteloupe may be on sale but it isn’t going to save you money if it rots. Another thing that I do at times….that many frugal bloggers frown upon…is if you are in that big of a rush, is have ready packed things to go. Of course you could make 12 pbj sandwiches and grab throughout the week. However, if that even stresses you out, just buy a box of Uncrustables. While it may not be as healthy or cheap as homemade you are still saving oodles of money and it is healthier than the drive through. I keep some (not many) of these things around out house. I will pick up a DiGiorno pizza in the freezer in case I get a last minute music gig and my husband and daughter are on their own. I also buy the Jif to-go pb packets. They are nice to grab to dip things in for a last minute option.

  5. Cheryl says

    I used to do lots of weekend festivals. In summer, I would make a batch of gazpacho, keep it in the cooler to sip throughout the day. Another meal would be cottage cheese with a fresh pear or chunks of cantaloupe.

  6. Becky says

    My hypoglycemia was so bad after my second child, that I had to snack often. I used a small cooler with ice packs (to have in the car) to pack cheese, fruit, protein bars and water.

    • KT says

      I am also hypoglycemic, and snacking throughout the day not only keeps my blood sugar up, but it also makes my meal times not such a *big* deal. Veggies, crackers, cheese, nuts, fruits, and granola bars are all great options for grabbing snacks to go! Packing plenty to snack ensures that I am not overwhelmed with hunger around lunch time, which is usually the mood I’m in when I am tempted to pick up fast food. The less hungry I am, the more rational my decisions it comes to food for lunch. :)

      • Julie says

        Yes, being hypoglycemic has its advantages — it forces us to always have foods with us we can munch on when we start to feel “icky.” I’ve looked at it as a asset in a way, because it has made me rethink eating, being healthier, making better choices, saving money, etc. My kids have also adopted my habits and feel better as well.

  7. says

    If possible, I would encourage you to pack yourself a breakfast and lunch the night before. Keep it simple! Yogurt and fruit for breakfast, a sandwich and carrots for lunch, or something like that. If put together the night before, then you can just run out the door the next morning. I know that if I wait to put meal stuff together till the morning, it never happens because I’m too busy trying to just get out of bed and dressed!

  8. says

    It’s not as frugal or healthy as made-from-scratch stuff, but we do a Costco run once a month or so and get lots of on-the-go food at bulk discounts. GoGo Squeez Applesauce, cheese sticks, those 100-calorie Thin Addictive cranberry almond crackers, etc. Grapes also travel pretty well. Some combination of the above can tide most people over until out of drive-thru range.

    • says

      I think this is great advice for people who just don’t have time or energy for making things from scratch! It’s a much better alternative than daily trips through the drive-thru lane!

      Thanks for sharing!

  9. Kim says

    My parents both worked my growing up years. We all brown bagged it for lunch–usually a sandwich, piece of fruit, chips, & maybe a cookie. My cousins played sports, so my aunt & uncle would take a cooler with turkey sandwiches & fruit to ball games. Once, when I was buying insurance, the insurance salesman pulled a loaf of bread, a jar of peanut butter, & a knife out of a file drawer. He told me he was on the Dave Ramsey plan. It can be done. I’d gestimate someone spends at least 4-5 times more eating at restaurants or ordering meals than bringing them from home. The key is to plan ahead.

    • Kim says

      Crockpot meals can often be cooked while you’re sleeping, cooling while you’re in the shower, & then quickly dished into individual serving containers before you’re out the door. I often assemble crockpot meals one day, refrigerate them, & then take it out of the frig & turn the crockpot on the next day. One suggestion is to take 30 minutes in the morning or evening to do the prep.

      Also, we like a lot of normally hot foods cold (if there’s no microwave). Some include chicken & rice, spaghetti, lasagne, tomato based pasta recipes, & tater tot casserole. Try topping pancakes with peanut butter or an omelet, & then rolling them up. They can be heated in a microwave or eaten cold, if you like.

  10. Alaina says

    I agree with lots of what you said here, but the first few paragraphs bothered me somewhat. Some of us, even if we cut back on expenses, still will have a demanding job because it is the job we want to have. Some of us, even if we cut back on expenses, still have school debt we racked up so we could have the job that God called us to. I think sometimes, the debt free crowd (of which I am a part) talks about demanding jobs and being home as something that is attainable for everyone. My husband is a PT, and his school isn’t optional – you go whole hog for 2 1/2 years, 60 plus hours a week. He couldn’t take classes piecemeal because that type of schooling doesn’t allow it, and we have the debt to show for it. And I’m ok with that. Our expenses are low, but even if the debt was paid off he would still have a demanding 50 hour work week because that is how the medical field is in most cases. And this is the job God has called him to. I am truly not trying to be a nag, I just think that sometimes we hold up this ideal of ‘debt-free and all the parents at home’ when that is what only *some* families are called to, not all families. I hope that makes some sort of logical sense.

    • says

      You are *absolutely* right that it’s not always optional to cut back or downsize. And just to clarify: I also don’t in any way believe that having both (or even one) parent working from home is always the best option. I think it’s a great option for many families, but it’s just one of many options. You need to do what is best for your own unique family. And, if you’re a Christian, what God is calling your own unique family to.

      My encouragement was just to consider if you loved your life how it was. This is why I said this paragraph:

      “Do you love your life? If not, what small steps can you take to start changing it so you have more breathing room, more down time, and more time to be at home?”

      If you love your life and/or know that it’s the lifestyle/job that God’s called you to, there’s no need to re-evaluate things or choices or not being home as much. Just press onwards and upwards and figure out things that will work best for your own unique situation.

      Thanks so much for mentioning this so that I could (hopefully) clarify my stance.

  11. says

    With my son’s special needs, it seems like we’re *always* on the go to make it to therapy and doctor’s appointments. I have hit way too many drive thru’s with screaming kids because I didn’t plan ahead. I try to give my kids a big breakfast before we leave for the morning, and I pack granola bars and no-bake energy bites for the car/waiting rooms. The protein in these usually holds them over until we get home, and I can give them some healthy snacks before dinner. Usually they’re so full from a big breakfast and snacks, they don’t even want a traditional lunch. So, our lunches are often snacky type foods, or simple Trader Joe’s heat and eat things if we do happen to be home.

    When we’re not home for dinner, I really try to plan things out to make the most of my crock pot and leftovers. I’m not one to eat leftovers as is, but I love re-purposing them into other meals. So, if I make a big roasted chicken at the beginning of the week, I have dinner for the next three days essentially done! Burritos, chicken gyros, and chicken and rice casserole can be assembled in less than 10 minutes–less time than it takes to order take-out. During the weekends I try to prep snacks (put crackers or cut up fruit into baggies) so I can pull them out as needed.

    My time is a valuable resource right now, and while I can sometimes be seen in a drive-thru line, it’s much less than it used to be because I’m planning ahead more. And we’ve saved enough on groceries and incidentals in the last few months that we were able to plan a family get-away and have it completely paid for before we leave :)

    • says

      {Hugs!} You have a LOT on your plate… and you’re such an inspiration to do the best you can in a hard situation! Thank you for sharing; I know your comment will be an encouragement to many!

  12. Michelle says

    We had to make this as a conscious decision when I went back to work. Something had to give, and it has frequently been eating at home. Some of the things that work for us:
    1. After grocery shopping, we bag things into individual serving sizes. That big bag of carrots? Let me introduce you to the Ziploc snack size! And if we do it right after grocery shopping, it’s easy to grab and go later, when we have no time!
    2. We eat in season. Summer tends to be salads and sandwiches. Cheap, easy, and super fast. Fall, I’ll make a big crock pot of something, or a big pan of pasta, and put it in individual serving containers. Pop it in the microwave for a few minutes and we’re good to go!
    3. Plan the night before. The “morning of” sounds good in theory, but the night before is when I’m really thinking about what I’m doing. Yes, I might get to sleep a little later, but it’s worth it!
    4. Pre-packaged isn’t always bad. Is it more expensive than doing it yourself? Yep. But it can be cheaper than eating out! My most recent favorites are the P3 packages. Meat, cheese, nuts…all my toppings to add to a partial bag of salad-in-a-bag to make a 30 second salad! And there’s 4 different options.
    5. Plan 2 more snacks for the day than you’ll think you’ll need. That way, when you get hungry for something, you have choices. It also means you have a back-up, for when that 9 hour day becomes 10 or 11…or 12.
    6. Water is your friend. Freeze it and you can have cold water for a portion of your day. Drink it, and you’ll feel fuller. It’s a great filler and great for you! And it’s usually free at most restaurants.
    7. Don’t shy away from kid’s menus. The cheapest option is to plan ahead and not eat out, but when you must, consider the kid’s menus. So many places make the adult meals larger and with more food than you really should have. But they won’t stop you from ordering from the kid’s menu, so take advantage!
    8. Use fast food as a supplement, not a meal. Can’t pack meat with you? Grab a small hamburger. You can still pack your own chips/crackers/fruit/etc. to go with it! Ask for a glass of water, and you could be out as little as $1.00. It may not be the best option, but it’s a step in the right direction.

    • KT says

      Love this advice! I especially agree with packing multiple snacks to have a choice when hunger strikes… nothing like craving a couple pieces of chocolate but only having carrots on hand. I do try to keep a couple different snacks on hand to anticipate whatever my craving might be. Anything I don’t gobble up, I’ll save for the next day. :)

      I also agree with the part about using fast food to supplement, not completely equal, a meal. I do this all the time, if I’m grabbing fast food! Shaving off the cost of a drink or sides helps so much.

      Great advice! :)

    • Claire says

      Great advice! You have some tricks that are new to me… thanks for sharing!

      Also, what we like to do is to stock up on energy bars (i.e. Clif bars, Luna bars, etc.) when they go on sale & we have coupons. It ends up being much less than $1 per bar (depending on the deal we get), they are easy to throw in your bag, and if you get the right ones (i.e. not covered all in chocolate) they are also pretty heat-resistant if you are out & about in the summer. They are usually 180 – 300+ calories so they will get rid of your hunger for awhile, especially if they have higher protein counts (some do). Great for on-the-go or to store at work on days you are caught without enough food.

  13. Wanda says

    On a slightly related note, I have worked around 55+ hours per week outside the home for quite a number of years. My husband and I own businesses and have to put in a lot of hours. Most evenings, after we eat our evening meal, I start the next day’s food while I am cleaning up the dishes and kitchen. I regularly prep a crock pot meal, stash it in the fridge and start it the next morning before I head out. Also, use one of your tactics and often cook double and put away the second half for another night. We try and only eat food we cook and avoid eating out most of the time. And I have collected a few super fast, last minute pantry suppers that serve me well when I get home late and am tired and hungry. Take left overs to work the next day, and don’t despair, you can do it!

  14. Sarah says

    These are defiantly getting tried at home. A few things we do at home take leftover baked or grilled chicken chop up and put in skillet add a pk of taco or fajita seasoning prepare as package directs then add shredded cheese til it melts. Using clean skillet take any size burrito shells add mixture and fold in half put in sprayed skillet till golden on both sides…..u have homemade chicken quesadillas, I like to add sautéed peppers n onions but the kids don’t like them so that’s up to ur family.

  15. says

    I agree with the rotisserie chicken. I eat it hot the first day. The breast meat is great for sandwiches on bread or in a wrap. I eat it on bagged salad mix. If there is anything left, I cook it down for broth or chicken soup. One chicken, many options. Healthy, fast and cheap. This week, two stores in our area had them for $4.99.

    The girls love yogurt and cereal together as a meal or snack. Cheese, crackers, peanut butter, pepperoni and grapes make a great fast meal. Kids and adults love them.

  16. Katie L says

    Keep a small cooler in your car. You’ll have a lot more options if you can keep some things cool for several hours. For no-heat take-along food, we like chicken or tuna salad, bean/corn salads, wraps, cold cuts & cheese, raw fruits & veggies, popcorn, and nuts.

  17. rose says

    I agree with all the suggestions. Planning is the key to making it work but you also have to be flexible and be willing to forgive yourself if you can not make it. I meal plan for a month. When school is in session meal planning it is a lifesaver for our family.

    If we are going to be out for the whole day, appointments, tournaments, etc. I pack the cooler. I fill it up with snack size fruit and veggies so no fighting over who ate it all. Good luck to you in finding what fits your families needs.

  18. says

    Crystal, this was one of your most informative posts ever. I really like the fact that your first suggestion was to evaluate why she’s never home. It’s always good to pause and look at why you’re in the situation you’re in.
    Stopping at a grocery store instead of a fast food restaurant was more excellent advice.

  19. Joanne Peterson says

    We keep a picnic basket ready with the essentials of plates, bowls, cups, napkins, utensils, a plastic tablecloth, paper towels, wet wipes, clips to close the bags, and plastic bags to put the trash. I keep packed the none perishables in the basket such as chunky granola, cookies, chips. crackers, and nuts. I check it frequently to make sure it is stocked.

    We also keep on hand small size 100% juice packs and water bottles that I freeze. Then I pack the cooler with extra non frozen juice and water, and frozen large bottles to keep everything cold. I pack lunch meat, hard boiled eggs, cheese sticks, cut up fruit and veggies.

    When I have things already partially packed, it does not take long to finish packing.

  20. Amy says

    Great post! It irritates me to no end when my sister or friends will “run in” to buy a $1.79 bottle of pop and $2 bag of chips for a snack. You should always bring a drink and a snack BEFORE you leave the house!

    If you are serious about saving money, you have to make the point to do what Crystal is suggesting. Sure, sometimes there’s an emergency but most of the time a few items can be thrown in a bag out the door instead of spending $5-10 for snacks at a 7-11! Those same snacks might cost $2 total if you bought them from a grocery store and took them from home.

    • Amie says

      I agree! We drink soda in my house and I can often pick up a 12 pack for no more than $2.50 and sometimes much cheaper and 2 liter bottles for about $0.50 each. My husband drinks more than I do and at one point, I was trying to get him to cut back to 2 sodas per day. He agreed, but really wanted one more at work so he started buying 20 oz bottles for $1.25 each – 5 days per week. I spoke to him about it and told him it would be much cheaper if I just bought 1 more 12 pack or a few 2 liter bottles. I have not bought a gas station beverage in years. It has become a habit to quickly fill a water bottle, pour some juices for the kids, and grab some quickie snacks before we head out. Really, how long does it take to pour some animal crackers in a ziplock bag or storage container? There have been a few times that I was out with kids longer than anticipated. The last time this happened, my oldest son started begging for a soda at the check out, but there was no way. I grabbed a pack of Kool Aid drinks for $1 instead. Everyone was happy, no one was thirsty, and we had leftover drinks for less than the cost of that soda. It also dawned on me several years ago that if my kids start begging for food in the grocery store, I should just grab a few ripe bananas for them. It is a healthy, inexpensive snack.

  21. Kathy says

    Let me first say that I apologize if I am duplicating an answer but I did not read every answer. Here goes: first, I love Crystal’ s answer but here is an alternative for the Times you might just WANT to eat out : I keep a folder( the school supply pocket kind you can pick up for pennies at back to school sales ) in my vehicle with coupons for restaurants and fast food places I like. These are available in the newspapers, home mailers, etc. Then when I am going to eat out, I choose from these places and I know the coupon is right there with me. Hope this helps!

    • Riann says

      Great idea! I have one at home but that doesn’t do me much good if I am out and about.

    • Crystal says

      My children receive coupons for free kid’s meals and ice cream cones for many restaurants in our area for participating in the summer reading program at the library, summer camps, Vacation Bible School, etc. Many of the coupons do not have expiration dates. I have a small accordion-style file folder (labeled A-Z) that I picked up from the Target $1 spot that I keep in the car for easy access. I alphabetize all of the coupons they receive by the restaurant name and add any new restaurant coupons from the Sunday paper each week. We usually eat lunch out on Sundays after church, so we try to pick a restaurant where kids eat free and save the other free meal coupons for when we’re out of the house for multiple activities.

  22. Alissa says

    When I returned to work after my second child, I made excuses to go grab lunch (because everyone else does) and then a coffee as I was returning to work. I don’t go in to work every day, so it wasn’t as pricey as it could have been. I have returned to the habit of preparing my lunch, filling my coffee on the way out the door to avoid my morning purchase, and I made a little extra coffee in the morning, put it in a travel mug with some milk and chocolate, and I have my afternoon “mocha” all ready for me. Not only did that save me anywhere from 10-20 dollars, but I also spared the gas!
    If you dedicate yourself to finding a solution, I’m confident you will see how creative you can be. It’s not always easy, but it’s worth it!

  23. says

    Thank you SO much for all these ideas. We are unable to cut back on our going as we are currently doing foster care which makes us gone 2-3 days a week. Then I have 2 days for our own children. That leaves 1 or 2 days I am home. It is HARD. After reading Crystals book and Large Family Logistics I am starting to make myself plan the night before. I am almost always home at night so I can get things together the day before. What a difference that makes. The one issue I do have is that I shop about once a week so my fridge is CRAMMED full most of the time. I struggle to make room to do individual snack sized bags of food. I need to though. I make my own yogurt by the gallon. Same with keifer etc. So I have these items and I am struggling to make sure we eat at home because I don’t have the ability to transport 8 individual containers. Not to mention I NEVER get them all back. And using paper is just not an option. Any suggestions as to how to keep the water cups from getting lost in the house? All my children have a cup but we stuggle to keep track of it when we go to leave?

    • Kelli says

      I don’t know about the house but I’ve seen each child have their own color cup and a magnet hot glued to it so it can stick to the fridge. It’s right there when you need it and you put it there when yore done HTH

    • shannon says

      When doing something like homemade yogurt on the go, could you take a larger container of yogurt and then small serving bowls that would stack. Then when it is time to eat, spoon out the yogurt. (I know you make your own yogurt, but one of the best size containers I have are the individual greek yogurt containers from the store. Maybe you could buy a few when on sale and keep the containers to be reused.) That would keep you from having 8 smaller lidded containers.

  24. Rebecca says

    I work a full time job and have an hour commute each way. I pack a lunch every night for my husband and I. I include bottles of water, sandwiches, string cheese, and cliff bars. Anything we don’t eat is left over for the next lunch.

    I also make coffee every morning so I don’t drive through one of the many places I pass each morning.

    I also have a stash of protein bars at work for the days I’m extra hungry or stay late.

    When I make any food I consider if it’d be good to freeze. Frozen meals make the easiest lunches. And they are so simple especially when you haven’t planned ahead or can’t predict your schedule. You can just pull it out in the morning or night before. And it keeps you from getting bored with the same old pb&j or whatever.

    I think the biggest key for not eating out is to not let it be an option. If your only options are to plan ahead or starve you’ll quickly find ways to plan ahead, even if it’s just keeping meal bars in the car!

    • Susan says

      Wish there was a “like” button. Plan ahead or starve — just do it.

      It takes time and effort to change one’s habits. I went through a period of time when I had a bad fast food habit. Made up my mind one day and just forced myself to stop and found other healthier and less expensive ways to not starve.

  25. Carla says

    I almost always take a cold drink a banana and a small container of pretzels with me in a lunch box so I have something to snack on if needed. I have saved a lot of money I am sure! It is a small way for me to be organized by putting it in the refrigerator the night before.

  26. Anne says

    I cook and assemble most of the food I eat when away from home. I use leftovers, both as is and in new combinations, use my crockpot and freezer, and have some go-to things on hand that I can throw together for a quick meal at work or church (I’m blessed to have a frig, microwave and toaster oven at work and a microwave and frig at church where most of my activities are). I also budget for one meal out per week, making it a treat rather than a chore. I either go to the deli in my office building (he makes some things from scratch that I don’t make at home) or I pick strategically from the restaurants/grocery stores available to me, getting food that tastes good and energizes me even if I didn’t make it myself. I also pay full price for soda, one serving at a time. I have finally broken my daily soda habit and paying full price for each serving keeps at it a once-a-week or so treat.

    • Susan says

      Like this.

      I also pay full price for individual portions of soda and chips sometimes. I can easily consume an entire bag of chips, so as part of a weight-loss effort — not a money-saving effort — if I really wanted chips I started buying a single serving size. You get a lot less for your money for sure, but I spent less overall because I didn’t do it very often.

      Same with soda. An occasional 20-oz bottle for $1.79 is less in total out-of-pocket than continually buying 12-pack or 2-liters. If I don’t have it around I don’t drink it nearly as often. Much healthier this way.

  27. says

    (I haven’t read through all of the comments) Don’t forget to stock ziploc bags, chip clip or laundry clothespin, etc to put on bags. My husband took a trip recently and had to buy ziploc bags and tape to put on packages he was bringing home. :)

  28. Heather Golden Horton says

    I really appreciate all the ideas people are sharing! As a teacher and private tutor who is married to a Coach, we need lots of ideas to make our schedule more practical. Glad Crystal provided this forum:).

  29. says

    I always bring something to drink and a snack with me when I go out the door. If not, I am bound to buy an iced coffee for $3.

    If I do not plan ahead and end up eating lunch out, I go to a grocery store and buy 1 roll and 2 slices of deli meat along with an apple. I make my lunch and it really did not cost me much more than if I packed it from home.

  30. Marie says

    so many great ideas! I keep a cooler in the car for the kids with snacks and drinks for when we’re out. There were so many ideas shared I don’t really have anything original to add except that it really does add up. We just came back from a two week vacation and I planned all the meals ahead of time. I shopped mostly at Aldi’s. We were going to Wi.Dells for a week and then a family camp for a week. We’d have one night at home but no time to shop so I had to think ahead for both weeks. At first my husband thought I spent alot on groceries because he saw alot of groceries. Now I did allow for certain items we don’t normally have because after all it is a vacation and a treat from me would still be cheaper then the $6 dots ice cream out per person! So out of curiousity I figured out the amount I spent on groceries times the number of meals for two weeks divided by 6 people and it came out to $1.38 per meal!!! Can’t beat that. And the best compliment was when my father in law said, “If I’m stranded on a dessert island I’m bringing you with because you think of everything!” With a little planning it is possible to save time and money.

  31. Amy R. says

    I LOVE this post with all of the suggestions! So simple, but is often “forget.” No more excuses! :)

  32. says

    Love these suggestions. Hubby has been traveling a lot lately, so can’t wait to “plan ahead” and give him some variety. Why didn’t I think of freezing banana bread! Love!

  33. says

    So many of these ideas are good.

    Does anyone have suggestions what to pack for lunches/snacks for those that are not allowed Dairy, Soy, and Grains? This added challenge eliminates many of the options that are good for those without allergies or health restrictions.

    • Anne says

      Some ideas are:

      Beef and pork snack sticks (the one we buy has a non-dairy lactic acid starter culture)
      Small pouches of tuna fish
      Small individual bars of fruit leather
      Potato chips

      • Joanne Peterson says

        Nutbutters, sunbutter spread on a banana, or an apple. Some who can’t tolerate cow dairy can tolerate goat dairy. (This is my husband’s situation.) Baked goods made with almond flour, and/or coconut flour, there are some paleo wraps made grain-free. They are expensive, but offer another option. Cold potato and meat salads, hard boiled eggs, raw veggies with hummus, or made with white beans as a dip, nuts, sunflower seeds, homemade knox gelatin blocks made with juice.

    • Robyn says

      These are tough restrictions!

      What kinds of foods to you eat at home? I would just try to adapt things you already make.

      Fruit salad, grilled meat that can be eaten cold in a lettuce “wrap”…

      I feel for families that need to cut out grains. That has to be rough on the pocket book!

  34. Robyn says

    Boy can I relate!

    One of my boys was on the swim team this year, and that has meant a more on-the-go summer than we’ve ever had. (Usually, summer is more of a break with minimal scheduled activities–swim lessons and a park district class, at the most!) But, he really wanted to try it. (gulp!)

    – We made PB & J “uncrustable” sandwiches for the freezer. Easy to grab and pack!

    – Yogurt and granola plus fruit

    – Thermoses of cooked oatmeal with nuts and fruit to sprinkle on became our go-to early swim meet breakfast (Swimmers had to report at 7 a.m. to warm up, so he ate breakfast after warm ups.)

    – the swim team that hosts the meet offers concessions (usually grilled burgers, hot dogs, brats, or other meats). We would buy our main dish for dinner, but pack our own sides and drinks. So, burgers for dinner, with fruit salad, pretzels, and gatorade or water. By bringing our own sides and drinks, we saved a good $15!

    And my best tip? Be realistic when grocery shopping during the busy seasons. Often, I cheap out at the store, thinking I’ll cut up the veggies myself rather than buy pre-cut, or I don’t buy any convenience food at all (I’ll roast the chicken myself to save a buck!), but it backfires. Then I’m too busy to do it, and we end up in the drive-thru, which is even more expensive! :-p

  35. Jenny says

    My family spends a lot of time in the car after school and during the summer running to appointments, practices, and ball games. The summers here average around 100 degrees. If I don’t plan ahead I spend too much money running into convenience stores to buy cold bottles of water for me and the kids. One thing I have done this summer is purchase us all those acrylic cups with the lids and straws. I found some for my kids at The Dollar Tree. We fill them up with ice and water when we leave home. If we are out and about for a while we take them to a gas station and ask to refill them there. I have never had anyone charge me when I tell them we are just getting ice and water. And for some reason my kids drink a lot more water when they can drink it from a straw. :)

  36. Sarah says

    RE: the oatmeal packets. I didn’t like having so many plastic baggies around so I switched to just a clean peanut butter jar filled with oatmeal that I keep in my desk.

    If your workplace doesn’t provide a microwave, try the water cooler. Many water coolers provide hot water.

  37. Allison says

    Cook when you are home, like later in the evening or early mornings, then reheat when it is time to eat. When you do cook, cook a lot, so you can freeze it and reheat on busy days. I schedule my home-cooked frozen meals on a google calendar and take them out to thaw according to the calendar so I don’t forget what’s in the freezer. Here is some food for thought though— If you LIKE being busy and LIKE not being home, then I don’t think revising your schedule and “sacrificing” to be home more is a good solution. Why plan your life, your ministry, or your professional opportunities around meals? Meals should be planned around your passions in life. Meals should serve you and your family’s needs; you shouldn’t live your life to serve mealtimes.

  38. Christy says

    I teach and we are very busy during the school year. Fortunately, most of our activities are close to home. On cub scouts nights, I have something going in the crock pot. We are only home an hour. We eat and then go. I have packed picnic lunches to eat at the picnic tables before sports practices. Sandwiches, pasta salad, cold nuggets or hot dogs.y kids love picnic nights. We never leave the house for weekend activities without snacks and refillable water bottles.

  39. Carol Goodnight says

    Crystal, I agree with Jennifer that this is one of your best posts–it’s so helpful to think through our choices (work, food, time, etc.). This has obviously struck a chord with many! We MUST eat, and most of us must be outside of the home with work, kids’ activities, church commitments, meetings, etc. I found myself away from home most of last school year due to a change in one of our children’s school needs–he went to two schools last year (2 half-days) due to his particular educational situation. And I worked 2-3 days a week in between the times I needed to take him/pick him up. It was a huge change for us.

    I found that the packing lunches for us in the morning that was just part of my routine saved us so much time and money. One thing that has worked for me if I don’t have dinners planned for the week is to have several meat options in the freezer and pull out something the night before (e.g. chicken breasts or a roast). I think you mentioned this when discussing dinner meals. I can then marinate the meat in the morning/during the day to grill when we get home, or put the roast in the slow cooker with some basic vegetables and seasonings. The final touches of rice, pasta, baked sweet potatoes, and salads or vegetables at 5pm are not so daunting if a large part of the meal is already started. This is not news to most of you I’m sure–but it’s been a huge help to me! Going to the grocery store (or stores) once a week and just pushing myself through those 2 hours or so of buying lots of fresh options for the week is always worth it.

    One last note–confession: towards the end of the year, I found myself eating lunch or getting coffee with some other parents from one of the schools that has a wealthy demographic. I began to get lazy and forget that we have budgeting goals! I found myself grabbing a Panera lunch or a treat somewhere. When I began to realize that the $9 for a lunch splurge was coming straight out of my part-time work I just did, it woke me up to my earlier priorities. I of course don’t think it’s wrong to eat out, but I must be more intentional about it and plan when I will and when I won’t, for our family’s financial goals.

    A couple lunch items that are my personal staples are:

    –cut up celery sticks and hummus
    –plain yogurt and fruit, like pineapple or oranges (I buy a large container of the plain yogurt and put a cup or so in a container in the morning when I am adding the fruit to sweeten it)
    –Clif or Kashi bars
    –almost daily, a rice cake with peanut butter in the car in the morning with coffee! (I love Alissa’s personal make-ahead mocha! I must try this.)
    –I’ve also recently tried the tuna “lunch” packages when I was traveling and they are pretty good and much cheaper than eating out

    Thanks for your practical and down-to-earth approach, Crystal–we need real life stuff for our real lives!

    Carol

  40. Rhoda says

    We just returned from 8 days on the road as a family of four. Before we left I bought meat, cheese, bread, carrots, granola bars, apples, soda (a rare treat for when we travel) and other misc treats, and a bag of ice for the ice chest. We stayed in hotels that provide breakfast, made sandwiches to carry along for lunch, and only payed for our evening meal. We didn’t even have to buy supper every night as we usually eat Chinese off the menu giving left overs for another day. I also freezed a LOT of water bottles (stainless steel and plastic) ahead of time. These do double duty–extra ice in the ice chest and filtered, fresh water for us. Definitely came in handy in hot CA. And just about lasted the entire trip; we needed extra water only on the last day. My DH made fun of all the “provisions” we carried along, but was appreciative of the savings along the way. Only bummer–one of the two ice chests we brought had a small, slow leak. (It made a great dirty clothes hamper instead!) I know your post was geared more for working situations, but long travel plans can make or break a budget quicker than anything.

  41. Lynn says

    One thing we do when we go to the beach is take hot dogs in a thermos. I heat the hot dogs up on the stove and pour the dogs and boiling water in the thermos. I take a bag of buns and little leftover ketchup packs. They stay hot and it’s a nice change. Every kids on the beach wants one:)

    • Jenny says

      I like the Thermos idea. When we go to the high school football games I usually grill hot dogs ahead of time and wrap them in foil while they are still hot. Then place them in a small lunch cooler. I’m going to try the Thermos next time I need to keep them warm a little longer. Thanks!

  42. Jamie says

    I’ve started packing a cooler to take with us on Errand Day and it makes a huge difference in kids behavior and attitude. I pack frozen water bottles, grapes, a package of graham crackers, and whatever else is available. The kids can get what they need when they’re hungry and thirsty.

  43. says

    Thank you so much for posting this! The post itself is GREAT and all the input in the comments will definitely help me :) I’ve also found this insulated container on amazon that keeps food hot for up to 8 hours!!! Time to kick butt with money saving.

  44. Angie says

    I love freezer meals, but my freezer is out of space! Do you have a stand alone freezer? I’d like to purchase one, but have heard they won’t work if you keep it in the garage?

  45. Tracie says

    We use Sundays to prepare for the week. The hardest meal for us is breakfast as we don’t like cereal and oatmeal gets old. Sharing what we do…. I “bake” a dozen eggs in jumbo muffin tins. I also make biscuits (I chex at and use the frozen kind). We cook up either turkey sausage patties or bacon and make breakfast sandwiches. I wrap them in plastic wrap and viola! breakfast on the fly! We change it up sometimes and use English muffins. It really takes no time at all and it’s a great “grab & go” alternative. We also make up pancakes and keep them in the freezer as a healthier alternative to the store bought freezer type.
    We too utilize rotisserie chicken. This makes awesome chicken salad. I add grapes and pecans to it for “flair”! To keep it interesting for my daughter, we will use wraps or crossaints instead of plain old bread.
    Another thing I am so excited about is our new purchase of a pressure cooker. WOW! I am experimenting with different recipes I have found on Pinterest. I love how this shaves off tons of time without giving up flavor. Thanks for letting me share! :)

  46. Alicia C says

    We live in the country, and just getting into the edge of town to run errands is a 20 minute drive. We take a cooler and put healthy snacks in it to keep us going. Cheese sticks, grapes, apples, bananas, water, sandwiches, nuts, cut up veggies, etc.