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


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.


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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  • Judy says:

    In addition to saving money by planning meals and packing lunches, it’s important to know exactly what we are putting into our bodies. There are so many preservatives and unhealthy ingredients that you don’t even see when eating from a drive thru.

  • Terri says:

    I am mail lady and I am always trying to find new recipes and ideas for packing my lunches. Thanks for the freezer PB&J sandwiches. Believe it or not I never thought to freeze them.

  • Conrad says:

    In OP’s defense, some of us are never home because we do like to be out of the house. I literally use my place to sleep and cleanup. Same with my kids. Seriously, if you live somewhere nice, sell your electronics and go outside. Downtime can be as easy as a sandwich at a park.

    Counter advice (or supplement): Don’t take a job that pays less unless you are 100% sure it will lead to more money. You will feel unfulfilled and begin filling your time with bad things, including binge-eating. I’ve seen it. A lot.

    I’m assuming OP means there is no microwave, kitchen, or fridge while he’s out all day. Maybe he’s a sales person, or has children that need to be carted to activities preventing him from going home. Sandwiches are good. Get a good quality cooler and ice packs. It should last most of your day. You could prep things like protein snacks, but if you hate to prep–yogurt, fruit and nuts (in bulk). Heck, cans of beans like bodybuilders do.
    Honestly, a single person can eat out pretty cheaply if he’s resourceful (coupons, dollar menus, sales), even healthily. I’ve found that with a cooler, some ice, and 15 minutes at a grocery store are unfathomably more efficient and cost effective than cooking 3 squares at home.

  • Stephanie says:

    My suggestion would be to take 10-15 minutes at night and plan your next day. If my kids are going somewhere pack their lunch box. I’ve let them choose their own. I also make a healthier bar in a jelly roll pan on Sunday’s to get through the week. These cool and I store in ziploc cash in the freezer. We hard boil eggs on the weekend I pre-peel them. I also buy precut veggies at SAMs club it’s cheaper than running all over for sales. I use restaurant style portion cups for ranch, yogurt dip, hummus, or PNB.

    Make the lunches or foods away from home a little fun, get creative and your people will love them.

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