The Dreaded Question – What’s for Dinner? 

We don’t really have the right combination of groceries in the house to make anything go together.  Or maybe we do have plenty of groceries but we both have worked all day and we still have swimming lessons or soccer practice or bike rides to go on.  I want to pretend that some magical solution will present itself to fill our bodies with healthy and delicious food that takes less than five minutes to prepare.  Is there even a solution for this problem?

Sure, we could meal prep for a couple of hours on Sunday afternoon and have some delicious meals ready to pop into the oven or skillet.  But who really wants to give up a couple of hours of their Sunday every week?  Only the most disciplined among us are going to keep up that trend long term.  We could load up on frozen foods from the freezer section, but let’s face it – most of those foods are not healthy and the burnout rate on eating things like that day after day will be high for the majority of us.

So Where Does that Leave Us? 

When we are tired and running from place to place, the easiest thing to do is hit up a drive through, stop in a restaurant, or order take out.  In other words, we eat out.  Doing this once in awhile is not going to blow your budget, but a few times a week and you’re looking at some serious spending.  Even if you go to a fast food joint, you’re looking at spending $20-$25 for a family of four.  Easily.  Upgrade to fast casual and you’re well over $30.  If you’re doing this 2 or 3 times a week, well, you can do the math.  It’s not cost effective and can really wreak havoc on a budget plan.

What is the Solution?

Like many other things in life, there is no “one size fits all” solution for this issue.  What I can do is give you different ideas to try on for size and see what works best for your family.

Eating on the go – restaurant style

  • Kid’s night – I love kid’s night. Bonus points if kid’s night falls on a busy night.  You can find lists of kid’s nights in your local area by using my best friend Google.  Here’s an example for my area.  I searched “kids night Omaha.”  Substitute your city and you’re good to go.
  • Groupon – Groupon is great for things that we’re already going to use anyway.  I do my best to stay out of the black hole of items that I have never heard of but suddenly think are the coolest things I’ve ever seen.  Of course I need float therapy!  And what a great deal!  Oh wait, what is float therapy?  Use Groupon carefully, and you can get some great restaurant deals
  • Rewards programs – I sign up for every rewards program I ever see, and I download a lot of apps also.  Recently we ate at Texas Roadhouse and I got a $5 coupon and a free appetizer just for paying with their app.  Like Groupon, we have to be careful we’re not grabbing the shiny object and going out to eat just because there is a coupon.  Here’s what I do to help avoid this problem: I created a folder in my email inbox called “coupons and deals.”  Any time I get an email that is either, I scan it briefly and file it.  I don’t look at it for more than a few seconds.  Then, if we’re out and about and we are going to eat out, I look through that folder to see what coupons or deal might be valid.
  • Order water – Ordering a drink with your meal increases the cost considerably.  $3.75 for a drink x 4 would pay for your next meal on kid’s night somewhere else!
  • Share your meal with younger kids – Have you seen the portion sizes in most restaurants these days?  Wow.  There is no way my 5 year old is going to eat an adult-sized plate full of anything in one sitting.  Lots of times I will order something that includes things he likes so I can share with him.  It’s rare that I can finish everything I get at a restaurant either, so there is no point in both of us having a lot of leftovers.   Speaking of leftovers…
  • Take the leftovers home – If you do have leftovers, always take them home.  Some things won’t reheat that well, but for the most part you can either eat the food again or make something different with it.  Not long ago I had a salad with grilled chicken from a restaurant.  It was gigantic and I had at least half of it left.  I took it home and salvaged the grilled chicken.  Everything else was gross, but I added my own fresh veggies to the chicken and had a delicious second meal.


Eating on the go – home style

  • Drink your meal – A lot of people really like protein shakes.  I’m one of them.  There are thousands of free recipes to be found online and almost as many types and flavors of protein powder.  If this is your type of thing, it’s relatively easy to whip up some shakes and take them on the go.
  • Bring the restaurant to your home – There are a multitude of home delivery meal services.  I will admit I’ve never tried any of them, but I do know several people who have, and the reviews are good.  Some will ship items to you that need to be prepared, but the business model I’m thinking of here will sell you the food already prepared and freshly frozen so that you simply need to reheat.  Score!  It’s my dream come true, less than 5 minutes.  Another idea I was given from a very trusted source it that Qdoba burritos freeze and reheat very well.  You can add your own toppings after reheating, and voila!, a fresh tasting and delicious burrito made to your specifications.
  • Take it on the run, baby – Keep items on hand that are easy to take on the go.  Favorites in our house are apples, bananas, peanut butter & jelly sandwiches, protein bars and pretzels.  When Danny was younger, I always took squeeze pouches and even bought reusable pouches to whip up my own concoctions that he hated.  Here’s a tip, it’s almost impossible to clean pureed kale out of a squeeze pouch. I keep forgetting to try this, but one time I saw a kid at the park gnawing on an ear of corn.  A genius idea as long as you also have dental floss.
  • Advance meal prep – Yes, I know that I said most of us wouldn’t do that for the long term.  But you know what, for one or two meals a week it is doable.  Especially if you make something like chili and turn it into something different for the second meal.  Like a taco tato.  Hungry Hobo fans will know what I’m talking about here.  If you don’t know about Hungry Hobo or a taco tato, here’s a link to their menu in case you are curious.

Find a Balance

The bottom line is that every family is different, every schedule is different and you need to figure out what works best for you.  I’m not asking that you write out a meal plan for the next month, but it is nice to your budget if you have a good idea at the beginning of the week how tings will go based on the plans that are already made.  We eat out probably 4 meals a week (not always dinner) and manage to keep our budget working.  I know you can do it, too.

I would love to hear from you.  Send me an email or comment below to tell me all about your struggles and/or successes with budgeting for food, or tell me how you’ve managed to juggle your busy schedules and feed your family without busting your budget.