How A Smart Grocery List Can Help You Cook at Home and Save Money

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Should I Cook Or Order Take Out?

We’ve all been there.

You come home from work after a long day, open the refrigerator door, ravenous with hunger, and you’re confronted with wilted spinach and expired eggs. The dream of a healthy weeknight dinner has extinguished itself, and you’re left with the cold, sad, empty fridge reality. Hungry, you order yourself takeout from your favorite Thai place, and convince yourself that you’ll save leftovers for tomorrow (spoiler alert: you won’t). 

Assortment of seasonal vegetables including squash, turnips, and radishes to consider when cooking from home

My problem was made worse by how expensive I thought grocery shopping was (I had yet to discover the wonders of Trader Joe’s or meal planning then). I’d make plans to cook myself a delicious dinner, and come home too tired to fire up the skillet. Each time, I decided to dine out instead of eat in.

Furthermore, anyone who has ever had to cook for a household of one knows how hard it can be to manage your produce. Every time you buy vegetables with the intention of cooking healthy, they expire quicker than you can say “Chef Boyardee.” As a result, I would regularly convince myself that dining out was the better choice by telling myself things like:

“I’ve worked so hard today, I deserve to treat myself with a meal out.”

“Buying the portions of food required to cook for myself is expensive. Eating out costs about the same.”

“Whatever I cook won’t taste that good anyway.”

I told these lies to myself time and time again, until one day I realized how much ordering food and eating out was really costing me. Once I saw the true value per serving broken out on different websites and realized how much cheaper it was to cook at home, I never looked back. My weekly sushi order ($12) multiplied over the course of the year was equal to $624. With some good planning, that is easily the cost of a round trip flight to the Caribbean from NYC.

You could be here, but instead, you’re spending $10 per week on disappointing takeout during lunch.

From that point on, I never looked back. I searched for recipes all over the internet, and made a promise to myself to bring my lunch to work instead of ordering out. In this piece, I’ll explain why cooking for yourself is a cheaper and healthier alternative to eating out, and how you can build a great grocery list to keep you on track of your financial and food goals.

Eating Out vs. Cooking In: A Cost Comparison

Once I saw how much cheaper cooking for myself was, the choice to do so was easy. The food blog Budget Bytes really opened my eyes to how truly inexpensive this was. I used to feel that I had to cook with top of the line, organic ingredients to make food that was flavorful and delicious.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Take something as simple as biscuits, for example. This homemade recipe is $1.12 for 8 biscuits. Meanwhile, 2 biscuits and gravy at Waffle House can run you almost $4. Regardless of your culinary skills, could you really argue that Waffle House is the height of fine dining?

Here’s another example, a delicious Cream pesto pasta with chicken and broccoli. The cost breakdown is  $5.48 / recipe, $1.37 per serving. A comparable meal in a restaurant could easily cost $15 or more – for just one serving! Meanwhile, the portions listed in the recipe are enough to last you several days.

Delicious chicken pesto pasta like this make for easy healthy weeknight meals.
With a little bit of practice you can learn to make dishes like this at home!

My real “aha” moment came when I learned how to poach an egg for my avocado toast. Here’s how the math works for my region (obviously this varies by how expensive your ingredients are, but I’m using generic store brand assumptions):

  • Eggs: $2.00 / 12 = $0.16 / egg
  • 1 avocado: 99 cents
  • Loaf of fancy bread: $5.99 / 6 slices = ~$1 per slice

Using this equation, my avocado toast comes out to roughly $3. 

Tell me, when was the last time you saw avocado toast on a menu for $3? 

I rest my case.

Even if you YOLO’d and bought organic eggs freshly hatched from free-range chickens, you’d still come out ahead.

How much money can you save by cooking your own meals?

Of course, no one is asking you to give up eating out completely. After all, a fine dining experience can be worth saving up for in itself!

However, if we aren’t careful, these expenses can trickle over time and really hurt our savings goals. For example, eating out at lunch. Let’s assume that the average lunch order runs around $10 (which is probably on the low side). $10 x 5 days = $50 / week spent on take out. Multiply that over the course of the year, and this becomes $2,500.

$2,500 / year spent on sad salads, sandwiches, and saltine crackers. 

Think of how many other ways you can use that money – saving, investing, or planning for a trip. Once you start evaluating with an eye towards opportunity costs, the decision-making can become clearer. Maybe it’s not realistic for you to forgo take out at lunch daily – are there other purchases you can cut back on? For example, instead of purchasing your daily coffee, could you make yourself a cup? Or start by cutting out to eating out at lunch 3x per week?

Glass coin jar that has been tipped over filled with pennies, quarters, and dimes.
A smart grocery list can help you save money and reach your financial goals.

Notice the flexibility here. No one is telling you to stop eating out completely – the goal is to get you to see where your money is going vs. where it could go, and help you plan accordingly.

How to make a smart grocery list to help you save money

Now that you’ve seen how much less expensive cooking for yourself can be, it’s time to stock up on supplies.

However, the mistake that most people make is spending way too much on groceries. Not only does this harm you financially, but also, it can lead to unnecessary food waste. So before you get started on living your best Martha Stewart life, here are 5 tips to help you plan your grocery store trips:

  1. Make a grocery list – and stick to it
    • Tip: If you’re like me and like to add variety, limit yourself to 1 or 2 “fun” grocery items per week. This way, you can focus on making a recipe on this one new ingredient, rather than buying a lot of new items, not understanding how to prepare them, and ultimately having them go to waste.
  2. Use coupons and rewards programs
    • Grocery stores have free rewards programs that are easier to sign up than ever. Make sure you’re enrolled to take advantage of perks. 
    • Just this week, I used a promotional coupon from Ralph’s to indulge in some of my favorite Lindt chocolate, on sale.
    • Use cashback apps like Fluz– you could get up to 35% cash back on your grocery purchases, and stack rewards on top of your coupon deals!
  3. Meal prep to help you plan your grocery list
    • If you need inspiration, websites like BudgetBytes and Instagram have thousands of incredible recipes to get you started
  4. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself
    • There’s a difference between the way food is cooked in industrial grade kitchens vs. what you can make on your stove. That’s totally OK! The sooner you embrace this fact, the sooner you’ll learn to love home cooking. There’s a reason that people flock to comfort food!
  5. Stick with it
    • Try making the same recipe a few times. Don’t just give it one shot and give up. I always consider the first time I try a new recipe as a “practice lap” – the next time, I know how to adjust the seasoning to my liking, and cooking methods. The more you cook, the better you’ll get at spotting these adjustments more quickly, so that each first-time recipe comes out better and better.

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