I’ve been thinking about how to stop eating out for years now. It’s been a bad habit of mine since I left college: I eat out more than I should – for both my health and my budget. But, according to recent statistics on household spending, I’m not the only one.
- Diners are eating an average of 5 meals each week outside the home
- Gen Xers (ages 34-44) spend the most on eating out
- Funnily enough, Millennials spend a higher percentage of their total income (7%) on food outside the home
- 49% of millennials spend more on eating out than they put into retirement
Guilty as charged. I would say in the last year or so with our wedding, buying a home, and changing jobs my husband and I ate out far more than 5x a week.
With Zagat putting the average cost of a restaurant meal out at $36.40 a pop, I knew I needed to cut back.
But how? How does one go from a scatter-brained, grocery store avoider to savvy chef?
Well, it’s a process. In my attempt to learn how to stop eating out nearly every meal, I tried three different methods once I vowed to only eat at home for 30 days. My results are below.
How to Stop Eating Out – 3 Methods to Try
Whether you’re trying to stop eating out for health reasons or for financial ones, meal planning is key to tackling both. Not only does it keep your grocery costs low, but you can plan healthy meals around what you (and your family) like to eat.
Personally, I hate meal planning. It just seems like a lot of stress and I already work a full time job plus my blog side hustle. Remember, how I said I calculated up the value of one hour of my time? Well, using a paid meal planning service is much cheaper than an hour of my time. So, I outsource. I like the $5 Dollar Meal Plan service. Bonus points because it also doesn’t break the bank.
For those who are like me and either don’t know how to meal plan or would like to do it better, there are resources to make this much easier.
- The Kitchn Guide to Meal Planning [Kitchn.com]
- 11 Meal Planning Apps [DevelopGoodHabits.com]
- Simple Meal Planning for Beginners – Step by Step Instructions [The Busy Budgeter]
- How to Make a Money Saving Meal Plan You’ll Actually Stick To [The Penny Hoarder]
You just have to figure out a handful of meals to keep on rotation and make sure you stock up on those ingredients each week. Doing a “big cook” at the beginning or end of the week so you don't have to stress about preparing food during work hours is also a big help. Here's my favorite tutorial post on how to do that.
Whether they’re pre-made meals or just the kits with the ingredients to assemble yourself, there are dozens (dozens!) from which to choose. Back in 2013 (and again in 2019) when I attempted this challenge, they were relatively novel. Now in 2024, they're old hat.
While the options may seem overwhelming, I enjoyed meal kit delivery best with HelloFresh. I used HelloFresh because after doing an extensive taste test of different options, I found these were the tastiest ones to make, with the most variety, and with the least complex instructions. (These days, I like GreenChef.)
Other options were either easier or not as tasty or delicious but had me in the kitchen for over an hour each night.
Many of my millennial friends complain about the chopping and assembly involved, but I like putting the meals together because it’s practice.
Cooking 3-4 nights each week helped me practice and I could feel myself becoming a better, more mindful cook each week.
My favorite part about the meal kit delivery is how seamless it is because you don’t have to think about the meals or going to the grocery store and there isn’t any food waste or ingredient left over. When we were moving into our new house, I could “pause” the deliveries.
My only gripe is that you have to cook the ingredients in that week. They don’t seem to stay as fresh as things bought at the grocery store, but this adds additional incentive in case you want to try a 30-Day “Eat at Home” Challenge.
Stop Avoiding the Grocery Store
For the longest time, the grocery store was my enemy. Even though I love to eat, going grocery shopping felt like the biggest chore. Between the coupons and the selection and checking melons and sell by dates and ugh…all the people.
Part of it is that I didn’t know how to grocery shop properly. (I’m almost 32 and just now feel I’m getting the hang of it.)
But in order to save money and eat better, I had to get better at it.
Here’s what I’ve learned to make grocery shopping more pleasant
- Buy the snacks, and the special juice,and items to truly delight yourself. When your items at home are just as exciting as going to Chipotle, you’ll eat at home more. It may cost more in the store, but you’ll save money in the long run.
- If you can swing it, go really early on the weekends (or on a weekday) to avoid the crowds at the grocery store. This makes it a much more pleasant experience than fighting over cheese at Trader Joe’s during peak hours.
- Outsource if you can. While this may seem super decadent, I do both: one big grocery shop once a month for my basics and items we need and then deliveries on a weekly basis for perishables. Again, the cost of the monthly subscription is well worth it to me if it keeps me out of the store an hour each week!
- Keep items on hand for super quick meals. There are so many days when I am too tired to really “cook.” Instead, I’ll whip up pasta noodles and sauce, make a quick chili, or roast sausage and broccoli on a baking sheet. When there is a debate over whether to go out or eat in, knowing I can cook something faster than we could go and order helps to settle the debate.
- I Asked My Mom How to Grocery Shop. (I’m 29) [Man Repeller]
- 11 Budget Shopping Tips for People Who Hate Grocery Shopping [Kitchn]
- Exactly How to Grocery Shop – [The Spruce Eats]
What Happened During My Own 30 Day “Eat at Home Challenge”
Looking at my budget you'd suppose I value three things: projects on my home, traveling to see my friends, and eating out. You know how in one episode of “Sex and the City” Carrie sits in a shoe store and wonders where all her money has gone? That’s me and my monthly take out budget?
I first attempted this “eat at home” challenge back in 2015. (I was on a kick doing a challenge every month back then.)
Now that I’m older, I feel like meal planning and going to the grocery store is easier because it’s for legit adults with houses and lawns and refrigerators to fill. I'm now in that category and now, magically, meal planning is easier and I don't (always) hate the grocery store.
But the takeaways from the challenge below are still relevant. For those who are looking to do a challenge of their own, I’ve included the post below.
What Happened When I Stopped Eating Out
There are health benefits and (obvious) money-saving advantages, but these weren't the real reasons for doing this. Mostly, I just wanted to see if I could implement a change in my life to both be healthier and spend more mindfully.
- At first, it was tough to make a change. I had to plan more meals and be more consistent with my grocery runs.
- I had to sit and think for a minute about how to use what I bought instead of just grabbing for the easiest thing in my fridge and pantry.
- Here's one thing I did that I've never done in my entire LIFE: I saw bananas going really ripe and threw them together to make awesome muffins to eat for breakfast.
- Socially this challenge was especially hard since I work from home and so much of my time is spent there.
- As a solopreneur, eating out isn't so much a means to an end as a way to take a break for a little bit and see some folks. Get out of the damn house. But, my lovely friends were accepting of the challenge; we met for drinks or cooked at one another's houses instead of going out for fancy lunches and dinners. It was nice.
- I didn’t lose any weight. Instead, I gained four pounds. If I wanted something or had a craving, I decided to make it myself…which led to lots of delicious experimentation and (I suspect) the extra pounds.
- I saved about $225 off my monthly eating budget. I didn't get super frugal with my groceries since I knew I was cooking at home, but I allowed myself to try new things and buy upgraded products to try and make the transition easier.
How much should I budget on eating out?
I know there are many families who pretty much exclusively eat at their house, but for me and my lifestyle, not eating out just isn’t sustainable.
Instead, I think it’s good to practice moderation.
So, how much should people spend on eating out?
Really, it depends on your budget. The average household spends around $3,000 a year on dining out, equivalent to around $250 per month. If you take home $25,000 a year after taxes, this is 12% percent of your monthly budget, which is high.
This article from Business Insider puts restaurant spending between 6-7% of income each month.
Your salary may be able to float this easily, but if you’re struggling to save try cutting this number in half and allocating the rest toward your goals.
It's crazy how much stuff adds up when you're not looking.
Failing to make a grocery run could lead to three additional meals out. Even if they're not expensive, that's $30-40 each week, or around $150 per month.
Perhaps the biggest shift of all during the 30 day “Eat at Home” challenge is how much I rather eat at home now. I see now eating out isn't a weeknight necessity, but rather a treat to be enjoyed.
For example: I just returned from 3 days at the beach with my family. I must've done a really bad job of ordering at every place we went, because for the exception of one restaurant, I hated every single meal we had out.
“I can make it better at home.” I found myself saying. And for the most part, I'm right.
**This post originally appeared in September 2015. It was lovingly updated in Jan. 2024
Lauren Bowling is the creator of Financial Best Life. Writing about money since 2012 (formerly as L Bee and the Money Tree), Bowling is an award-winning blogger and money and real estate expert whose advice has been featured on CNBC, Forbes, CNNMoney, Elite Daily, Business Insider, Redbook, and Woman’s Day Magazine and more. After selling the site to a division of The Motley Fool in 2019, Bowling is now back as the owner and primary voice behind FBL and is excited to continue educating elder millennials everywhere about how to afford their best life.