Take-out

One of the things that’s been great about meal planning is that we haven’t purchased takeout since November 27th. I hadn’t even realized that it has been over a month since we had stopped. If you remember, one of our NY resolutions was to not eat out and we did well until the summer where we fell back into the habit of ordering take-out again.

We’ve made the “decision” to not eat out in the past but we’ve never had a plan to deal with what was making us eat out in the first place. For us, it was a lack of planning and tiredness. Everyone knows that you shouldn’t grocery shop on an empty stomach but I think you should also not plan a meal at the end of a long, tiring day. For us, it was this that made us just throw our hands up in the air and say, “let’s just order in!” Undone by our own lack of foresight, again.

I can even remember what we ordered last – KFC. The eldest loves KFC and so it was her turn to choose. So we ordered delivery without realizing that our meal was to go through a 3rd party food delivery app until after it was processed. I had already had issues with Skip the Dishes – in the Bay area of all places! Ground zero for delivery apps! – where it wouldn’t accept the address I put in and instead just assumed an address based on the postal code. No matter how many times you change it, it just reverts back to the address the computer serves up. I swore right there and then not to use delivery apps anymore. So here I was again at the mercy of two platforms that don’t speak to each other (both KFC nor STD knew how to fix an order from their end) and I had the exact same problem as before: the system served up an address and didn’t take the address I put in. In the end, we had to get our cold chicken order from our neighbour’s front step. The delivery driver didn’t even check to see if someone was home. Never again.

On top of all of this we never even finished the leftovers, wasting a bunch of food after a terrible customer service experience. It left me questioning why we even bother. It takes just as long as cooking something, it’s way more expensive, it’s super unhealthy, and then we wasted a bunch of it.

This wasn’t anything new to me, though. I had often lamented that we were wasting money/health/food in the fridge on eating out but knowledge isn’t power without action. We had never done anything about it.

It was around this time that we had become serious about our 3-year plan (more on this coming soon). I knew that one of the easiest ways to save money was on those last-minute decisions to get takeout (and not drinking alcohol). So in order to change our current paradigm I needed to tackle the issue from a few angles in order to come up with a plan.

1- We inventoried our food: Mr. Tucker wrote down all we had stored in our freezers so that we could work from what we had. Since we buy our meat from local farmers having a list helps us get through to the next ordering period.
2- I made a list of all the meals we enjoy: having a document to refer to when I can’t remember what we can make with X, or when I am feeling uninspired helps so that we cycle through meals and not get bored.
3- I meal plan two weeks at a time: like the post I linked above says, we only shop every two weeks for fresh produce and I base our meals around what will go bad first. Using the inventory of things we already have on-hand allows me to buy only the produce we need. We also have stopped running out for ingredients we forgot to pick up.
4- I build easy meals into the plan: I usually plan a day or two of junkier food: those pizza and chicken nugget nights that are just heat-and-serve. I find by keeping these things in the freezer, it helps us on nights we can’t quite get it together.

Of course, it took some trial-and-error to get to where we are right now and I still anticipate the odd snag when I will cave and get Thai food. Still, here are a few other tips:

Pizza is cheaper than steak: if you find yourself exhausted at the end of a crazy week, try and order the cheapest take-out you can. Save the fancy food for when you have time to cook it at home. The more expensive the food, the quicker it will go soggy in the bag or overcook.

Frozen foods are your friends: there is a plethora of different take-out style options available in the frozen section of most grocery stores. A $3 frozen pizza is cheaper than a $10 takeout one.

Embrace the taco kit: honestly, the easiest meal in the world is a pound of ground meat (or ground round) and a taco kit. If you are feeling fancy, buy guac.

There are a million uses for rotisserie chicken: every grocery store sells them for under $10 and you can usually get 2 meals + out of them. You can use leftovers in wraps, casseroles, soups, chicken salad, pasta, in Caesar salads…it’s hard to find a better deal at the supermarket.

Don’t get me wrong – I love eating out – and there is nothing I love more than dropping mad cash on a really great meal experience (with wine pairing, natch. Man, I am going to miss that…). What I don’t want to do though is just order mediocre takeout (because let’s face it, a lot of it is mediocre) because I am being lazy. It’s been easier during the pandemic when we are all stuck at home anyway. I won’t lie: a lot of the changes we’ve made in the past little while we have made because the pandemic has given us a little boost. So in the same way that not traveling is easier when you can’t actually travel, not eating out is also easy when restaurants aren’t open. Still, even when the pandemic is over I hope that these habits will stick.

Meal Planning

A interesting video series on inflation from PolicyEd The Numbers Game.

Since reading the Tightwad Gazette books starting when I was 18, I have been a huge fan of Amy Dacyczyn. Most of my financial and housekeeping skills have come from her books and I have read and re-read my copies so often that they are yellowed and falling apart. For the most part, she hasn’t steered me wrong (although, she was wrong about computers not becoming a big deal. No one is perfect!).

Because of this, I have been using “The Pantry Principal” my entire life: buying groceries to replenish my pantry as opposed to making a list of meals and then going out to buy the items on the list. The idea is that you only plan dinner for the next day the night before using anything in your fridge that may go bad. It’s sound logic. The problem is that we ultimately would forget to plan the day before and find ourselves staring at the fridge at 5pm wondering what we could possibly make. Inevitably this led to more take-out or crappy beige food. Food waste became an issue and naturally we were bleeding money.

Conversely, I have a friend who meal plans weekly. She uses the stuff they have on hand and then fills in around the edges with a grocery store run every week. All her take-out is planned and she rarely finds herself at 5pm digging for a frozen pizza. Pre-Covid, this worked especially well because she could see what the activity schedule was for the family and plan easier meals; sometimes it was even PB&J and carrot sticks in the back of the car on the way to hockey practice. But it still wasn’t fast food. She also seems to have a lot less food waste.

Of course, with the pandemic we are trying to limit trips to the store which means having to be better planners. Since we can’t just run out whenever we want, we’ve really tried to reduce our trips to one Costco run (medications & bulk), two produce store runs (fresh fruit and veg), one grocery store run (sauces/grains/milk etc), and one pharmacy run a month. This meant that I needed to work around our shopping schedule.

This past year we started buying local meat in bulk. We also started our first garden and canned a lot of food for the winter. This reminded me that The Tightwad Gazette had a really good inventory system to track garden produce so they wouldn’t eat too much of something and run out before garden season ramped back up again. Using that as a guide, I started tracking all of our freezer & canned goods to make sure we would spread their use to get through until the next bulk order was coming through.

So guided by my freezer and pantry inventory I came up with a plan. Every second Saturday I go through the inventory and plan our meals for the following two weeks. Mr. Tucker hits the produce store and buys all the veggies and fruits we need for that time. It may sound like two weeks is a long time and that food would go bad but not if you plan it right.

The key is to organize meals based on the life of the produce. So the first week may have a lot more salads, bean sprouts, green beans, as well as bananas and berries for snacks. The second week will see more apples, oranges, brassicas and root vegetables on the menu because they don’t go bad as quickly. Planning this way allows you a variety of foods in your diets but without the extra grocery trips.

Of course, the best laid plans means that sometimes we have way too many leftovers that not even lunch the next day will take care of. In that case, we just skip a meal. In fact, we didn’t have a Christmas dinner this year because we had too much food leftover from Réveillon! Every Christmas eve our family does small food (hors d’oeuvres such as mini quiches, sausage rolls etc) and a tourtière. Well, this year we miscalculated and ended up with way more food than we could eat in a night. So the next day Mr. Tucker and I decided to skip the ham dinner we had planned and just eat leftovers. We ended up making our huge meal on the 26th instead. So when that happens, you can just push meals off to the next day. At the end of the two weeks you will end up with a> a brassica which will either keep or that you can freeze, b> a root vegetable which keeps a long time, c> or you just move the last meal from this two week period to the first meal of the next two week period.

I know this sounds like much ado about food but honestly, this has been a game-changer for us. We haven’t eaten out since November, we are never left staring at the fridge wondering what to make, we waste less food, we don’t make unnecessary trips and our grocery bill has gone down. In the end, I needed to realize that even the best ideas from people I trust may not be right for me and my family. I wish I had realized sooner that this was a better way to plan meals. I guess like many things we’ve learned over the past year, it only took a pandemic to make me realize that I needed to switch things up.