When you’re juggling numerous commitments, sometimes you need a little extra boost to make dinner at home instead of going for takeout. These tips can get you started by helping you save time (and cash) cooking at home.
—Jessie Price & The EatingWell Test Kitchen
Start by being realistic about how many meals you’ll cook at home in a week. Do you have other plans? Want to eat leftovers for lunch? Next, decide what you want to eat that week. Not a planner? Some of us don’t love to plan entire meals in advance. If that’s the case, then just pick some of the main ingredients. For instance, you may want to roast a chicken one night and then make soup with the leftovers another night. Maybe you’re craving a pizza one night and plan to do something with ground beef another. That’s the start of a game plan.
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Always stash a few cans of beans in the cupboard. That way you’ll have them to toss with salads or pasta, to add to stir-fries or soups or turn into an easy dip. Beans are packed with fiber and protein; buy canned beans and rinse to remove some of the sodium or cook a big batch and freeze extras for another day.
Keep frozen vegetables on hand for dinners when time is tight. Frozen vegetables generally are just as nutritious as fresh because they’re usually picked at the peak of ripeness and then frozen to seal in their nutrients. Plus they tend to be relatively inexpensive, especially when compared with their "fresh" counterparts out of season.
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Canned salmon and tuna offer a much more reasonably priced alternative to their fresh counterparts. But think beyond mayo and celery. Try giving tuna a new twist by adding white beans, cherry tomatoes, scallions and a squeeze of lemon. Toss salmon with roasted vegetables and a flavor-packed vinaigrette to serve on top of greens for a hearty dinner salad.
Try doubling recipes to get ahead on cooking and have a dinner or lunch ready for later. Added bonus: this helps to use up extra ingredients that you may have bought specially for that recipe (a bunch of herbs, for instance). Recipes that freeze well, such as stews and casseroles, are great ones to double. Also consider cooking an extra chicken or more meat than you need. The leftovers are tasty in soups, salads, quesadillas or hash later in the week.
When you’re making dinner, think about what you’re going to eat for lunch tomorrow. If you’re making a salad for dinner, make a little extra and put it in a container, undressed, for lunch the next day. And what about your leftovers from dinner? Is there a little extra chicken or maybe part of a can of beans? Toss that in with your lunch salad. Packing lunch at night saves the stress of scrambling during the morning rush. It is also a great way to make sure you’re not wasting any leftovers—and to help you eat healthy and save money throughout the day.
Make sure you have sealable storage containers on hand to save leftovers. You can buy inexpensive clear plastic or glass ones at the supermarket. When they’re clear you can tell what’s in them at a glance, and may be more likely to eat the leftovers.
If you don’t have hours to be at home tending a braise on the stove, try a slow cooker. It will give you the same effect (i.e., it gets tough, inexpensive cuts of meat meltingly tender), but you can plug it in, leave for the day and come home to a delicious dinner. Look for used slow cookers at garage sales or make the investment in a new one that is programmable and will automatically switch to a "keep warm" setting when it’s done cooking.