Why and How I Eliminated Eating Out for Convenience in Grad School (and You Can, Too)

Shortly after my husband and I got married and combined our finances, we faced a reckoning in our budget. As we created our first combined spending plans and started our system of targeted savings accounts, we realized that our month-to-month spending was out of sync with our values and short-term goals. Chiefly, we wanted to put aside more money for travel spending, which meant that we had to find other areas in our budget to cut back. On the chopping block: eating out for convenience.

While our restaurant spending was never astronomical, we had each fallen into a pattern of buying convenience food on a regular basis. Among other reasons, I tended to buy a quick dinner on campus when my lab experiments ran into the early evening, my husband bought a fast food dinner every week on his way from campus to an evening activity, and we also occasionally went out to dinner just because we didn’t feel like cooking.

We determined that these convenience meals were not a great use of our money, especially in light of our travel goals. So we made a spending rule: We only ate out with other people on social occasions; we eliminated eating out alone or with each other. We held to that rule almost perfectly for our last few years of grad school, though I admit we started deviating a bit while dissertating!

In this post, I’ll share our strategies for sticking with our no-convenience-eating-out rule. I know this topic is of high interest to grad students (with busy schedules!) who are looking to reduce their spending. Most recently, we discussed it at length in Grad Student Finances’s monthly live money chat. (If you want to join our next money chat, sign up for the mailing list here to receive more information.) Even if you don’t want to eliminate eating out for convenience entirely, implementing these strategies will help you to enjoy eating out more when you choose to because it’s not done out of desperation.

Further reading: Give Yourself a Raise: Prepare Your Own Food Even with a Busy Schedule

Identify Your Patterns

The very first step to eliminate eating out for convenience is to take note of when and why it happens. In all three scenarios I listed for my own life, dinner was the issue. My husband and I never ate out for breakfast and rarely did for lunch, as we were consistent brown-baggers. Since dinner was the problem time for us, that was where we focused our energy for creating solutions.

I realized that I tended to get hangry and need to eat right away; if there’s not ready food available, I would buy something because I couldn’t wait an hour or two to get home/shop/cook. So part of my solution was to keep homemade food available (more on that next).

The pattern you identify in your convenience eating could relate to any meal or snack of the day or more than one of them. Maybe you’re not a morning person so you habitually stop for a coffee and bagel on your way to work. Maybe you like to take a nice break for lunch, and part of that is leaving your office to go to an eatery on campus. Maybe you need a pick-me-up snack in the mid-afternoon to keep from nodding off while reading. Maybe you tell yourself you deserve a night off from cooking after a long day in the lab. Work first to identify the situations in which you habitually buy convenience food or are tempted to, whether those are based around a meal, a time of day, a feeling, a stressor, a regularly scheduled meeting, etc.

Keep Food on Campus

If you are buying convenience food on campus or on your way to on from campus, like my husband and I were, the easiest solution is to keep food on campus in your office, department lounge, or whatever personal space is available to you.

Further reading: Make Your Stipend Go Further: Bring Your Lunch to School

We were consistently bringing our lunches with us every day and keeping them in our shared refrigerators. After identifying dinners as our weak point, we started bringing in dinners as well. On the days of the week that we knew in advance that we would need to eat on campus (like before a regular evening activity), we just brought in our lunch and dinner together. But I also started bringing an extra dinner in with me on Monday to stay in the fridge for the week to be eaten on whatever night I happened to stay late (and if that was early in the week, I’d bring in another the next day). In this way, I planned for the eventuality of needing to eat on campus, even though I didn’t know exactly when it would happen.

You don’t necessarily need to bring in a full extra meal to make this work. If you just need to tide yourself over for an hour or two, a snack will do just fine. If you choose shelf-stable foods or long-lasting refrigerator foods, you don’t even need to change them out every week.

Batch Cook

No kidding, batch cooking changed my life. When I first started eating out of my own kitchen and learning to cook, I prepared one-serving meals, which was very time-consuming and didn’t allow me to use frugal strategies like buying in bulk. I also ate a lot of pre-prepared foods and meals out because that kind of cooking was so exhausting. Our slow cooker changed all that for me.

While batch cooking is not limited to slow cookers, it is a good entry point. I started making 8+ servings at once of hearty chilis and soups in our slow cooker, which were easy to toss into a Tupperware and bring to campus for lunch or dinner. From there I moved on to other styles of cooking, but always making at least 4 servings at once. Batch cooking is perfect for a busy grad student as it is so time-efficient.

Batch cooking was key to eliminating our convenience eating out because 1) it created those meals that we wanted to keep on campus and 2) we always had food ready for reheating at home. Gone were the days of convincing ourselves to eat out because we had no groceries at home or cooking would take too much effort.

Further reading: Eliminate Eating Out for Convenience with Batch Cooking

Eat Before You Cook

Batch cooking also leads easily into this tip: eat, then cook. When I arrive home from work hungry, the last thing I want to do is spend a bunch of time cooking! People are always saying “don’t grocery shop while hungry” because it leads to poor decisions, and I apply the same logic to trying to cook while hungry. I get impatient and am liable to go off-plan.

So my (largely unconscious) strategy became to eat a pre-prepared meal upon arriving home, then do any necessary cooking for the following day(s). I did try to batch cook on the weekends, but usually I also needed to do it once or twice during the week, so I made sure that I had a dinner already available on those nights so that cooking could be put off until the later evening.

Use Your Freezer

Tying in closely with batch cooking and always having a meal available to you is freezer cooking. This is not a strategy I personally employed, but it works amazingly well for many people. Basically, you prep/cook one or more meals that are to be immediately frozen and then reheated/cooked at a later time. If you have a meal available in your freezer, you will never have an excuse to stop for convenience food on your way home.

This strategy also works very well for people who want to batch cook but don’t want to eat the same thing every single day. You can cook a four-serving meal, for example, eating one and freezing three. Rotating through that a few times will give you a selection of different freezer meals so you can spontaneously choose which to eat for any given meal.

Meal Planning

I’m a big believer in creating habits to avoid decision fatigue. I do not want to have to think about what I’m going to eat 3-4 times per day, 7 days per week. Eating the same meals over and over again makes my life so much easier. Grocery shopping, cooking, and eating all become consistent and decisions are minimized. If I have my meals planned out and food available to me, such as through batch cooking, I don’t have the opportunity to decide to eat out for convenience.

Luckily, my personality allows for eating the same dinner multiple nights in a row without becoming dissatisfied. If you crave more variety, meal planning can help you preserve that while still eliminating on-the-spot decisions. When you meal plan, you decide in advance what you’ll eat throughout the week. Often, weekends are used for shopping and prepping/cooking all of the meals, so all you have to do during the work week is carry out the plan with minimal effort.

To combine decision elimination with batch and freezer cooking, you can create a pattern of eating one type of meal every Monday, a different one on Tuesday, another on Wednesday, etc. An even more advanced level of meal planning coordinates the ingredients in the meals you eat throughout the week. The different meals will all draw from a common set of ingredients, which allows you to buy in bulk. (Combine that coordination with the sales cycle at your local grocery store and you are a super-frugal meal planning genius!)

It’s a tough adjustment going from eating family meals growing up or dining hall meals in college to cooking for one or two as a young adult. There is absolutely a learning curve, and sometimes convenience eating is part of that. But as you gain skills in the kitchen and clarity on how you want to use your money, you can make the decision to eliminate eating out for convenience. Start with identifying when convenience eating crops up in your life, then apply these strategies to combat it.

What strategies do you use to avoid eating out for convenience?

Eating Out

source
source

To reduce your spending on eating out, you can either eat out less frequently or choose less expensive foods when you do. You choose the approach that is most consistent with your values.

Further Reading: How to Cut Your Food Spending – Scaling Back on Eating Out

Eat Out Less Frequently

If you are in the habit of eating out alone for convenience, it is simple to replace those meals with ones you prepare at home. On campus, you can still eat with your peers even if you brown bag your lunch. You could try to replace social eating out with hanging out with your friends in less expensive venues from time to time, or skip dinner and join them for the next activity.

Further Reading: Get Rich With: The Secret Food ‘Stash

Spend Less When Eating Out

When you have influence over where you eat out, choose less expensive restaurants. When ordering, pay attention to prices and consider ordering less expensive entrees or replacing an entree with an appetizer, soup, or salad. Skip or order fewer appetizers, drinks, and desserts. Take your leftovers home to replace a second meal. You could also choose to frequent restaurants that offer student discounts or accept coupons or discount gift certificates.

Further Reading: Sometimes I Don’t Eat. Is that Rude?; 10 Ways to Save Money Eating Out at Restaurants

Cooking and Meal Planning

source
source

Often, grad students are inexperienced with cooking and think that they don’t have time for it. The student who eats out frequently for convenience and buys prepared foods from the grocery store has great potential to reduce his spending on food by starting to cook and prepare his own foods. Students already experienced with cooking but looking to take it to the next level may find additional savings with batch cooking and meal planning.

Further reading: Give Yourself a Raise: Prepare Your Own Food Even with a Busy Schedule

As a beginner cook, you should start slowly with learning various techniques and recipes so as not to become overwhelmed. Try to master only one recipe at a time and choose simple recipes that involve a small number of ingredients and no difficult techniques. Cooking doesn’t always have to involve elaborate dishes or adding heat. To make this process seem less intimidating, think of it as food preparation or food assembly rather than cooking, e.g., salads, sandwiches. You also don’t have to eat something different for every meal out of the week. Having a few recipes that you rotate through for each of breakfast, lunch, and dinner, can take the pressure off of masting new recipes while still giving you some variety.

Further reading: 5 Tips for Saving Money on Weekday Lunches; 5 Ingredient Recipes; 39 Beginner Cooking Tips for Kitchen Scaredy Cats, Bargain Breakfasts

Batch cooking can be a major time-saver for busy students. Batch cooking is when you cook more than one meal at a time, which enables you to eat leftovers on subsequent days and spend a comparatively small amount of time reheating the food. You will likely have to be amenable to eating the same or similar meals multiple days in a row if you are cooking just for yourself. Freezer cooking is a form of batch cooking in which you freeze the meals you have prepared to be eaten weeks later. Batch cooking is also a frugal choice because you can spend less money on food by buying in bulk and using the ingredients you buy fully, and you will be less tempted to eat out for convenience if you have food already made.

Further reading: Eliminate Eating Out for Convenience with Batch Cooking; Best List of Easy and Delicious Freezer Meals

Meal planning can be valuable for reducing impulse purchases and waste. To meal plan, you simply decide what you will eat for each meal during a week or month, assemble a shopping list with only the food you need for the plan, and buy and eat that food. When you meal plan, you can make sure that you are buying exactly the right amounts and types of foods so that extra ingredients neither build up nor go to waste. Meal planning and batch cooking work very well in concert.

Further reading: Meal Planning: The Definitive Guide to Planning Your Meals Stress-Free;

Buying Groceries

source
source

How to spend less money on groceries is one of the most well-trod frugal subjects, so there is an abundance of resources available online to help you. In general, the more value you add in the cooking process, the less you will need to spend on the food itself. Many students enter graduate school without knowing how to cook, but it is a skill that will help reduce the amount you spend on food enormously.

Further Reading:

Retailer Selection

There is a wide range of prices available at different types of retailers on the same or similar food items. Specialty grocery stores like Whole Foods are likely to be more expensive than discount, warehouse, or ethnic grocers. You can even buy from local farmers or check online retailers for low bulk prices. If you are willing to devote the time, keeping a price book will help you determine which groceries to buy at which stores at certain times.

Further Reading: Is a Costco Membership Worth The Cost?

Stick to Your List

Create a grocery list before heading out to any retailers and stick to it once you’re there. You can cultivate your list throughout your week using an app such as Our Groceries. A complete and firm grocery list gives the simultaneous advantages of eliminating impulse purchases, minimizing food waste at home, and preventing last-minute trips to the store for forgotten items.

Buying Less Processed

You are likely to stretch your dollar further by buying fresh base ingredients and constructing your own dishes. The classic suggestion here is to “shop the perimeter” of the grocery store, which generally tends to include the produce, meat, dairy, and bakery sections, and to buy few items from the interior of the store, which is where the more expensive products are housed.

Coupons

Couponing has been recently popularized by shows like “Extreme Couponing,” which has resulted in both heightened interest and criticism. The more organized and comprehensive your couponing system, the more savings you can potentially realize. However, some are critical that couponing is time-consuming and does not facilitate buying healthy, non-branded items.

Substituting Out Expensive Food

Depending on your dietary preferences, you may try to substitute lower-cost foods for higher-cost foods. Normalize the cost of the food you eat by the calories, macronutrients, and/or micronutrients you receive from it. One common suggestion in this vein is to eat less meat because meat is quite expensive; instead, seek our lower-priced sources of protein.

Free Food

source
source

It is often possible for grad students to feed themselves for free for at least a couple meals per week, should they want to defray costs in that area. Grad students who are food insecure also have university- or government-sponsored options to feed themselves for free.

Further reading: 10 Ways to Legally Score Free Food; How to Eat for Free – 12 Ways to Score Free Meals

University and Departmental Events

Universities offer free food frequently at events to incentivize attendance or to show attendees appreciation, such as at seminar series, workshops, and conferences. Opportunities will be most plentiful for first-year students and near the start of the school year. If you plan to attend such an event, the free food can often replace a meal on that day. If there are leftovers, ask if you can take a second box or plate for a meal later in the day. It is also possible to create meals from the leftover food from catered events that you didn’t attend, if it is made available to non-attendees. Being on the right email listserv or having the right personal connection can alert you to these opportunities before the free food is nabbed by other students.

Restaurants

Many restaurants offer free or partially free meals for promotional reasons, such as for your birthday or for signing up for a mailing list.

Further reading: How to Get Free Food at 156 Restaurants without Getting Arrested; 400+ Restaurants that Offer Free Birthday Food

Food Pantries

If you are food insecure, there may be an on-campus food pantry from which you can take food for free. Your city likely has food pantries available to the public as well.

Further reading: Food Pantries on the Rise at College Campuses as Tuitions Increase; Colleges Launch Food Pantries to Help Low-Income Students

Food Stamps

Some graduate students may be able to apply for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) if they meet the citizenship, work, and income qualifications. This program provides a certain amount of money each month into an account that you access with a specialized debit card. The money can be used toward eligible food in grocery stores and other retailers. Each state runs its own program, so you will have to check directly with your state to determine your eligibility.

Further reading: Can Graduate Students Get Food Stamps?

Dumpster Diving/Freeganism

You can also score free food by dumpster diving, if you are adventurous and it is legal where you live. This form of dumpster diving is when you recover perfectly good food that has been discarded, generally by grocery stores and institutions. About 50% of food in America is wasted. Most people who dumpster dive do so as part of the larger food rescue movement, but a side benefit is that you can feed yourself partially or completely (freeganism) without paying any money. Of course, you have to have a certain constitution to employ this method, and it is advantageous to learn from an experienced mentor.

Further reading: The Food Waste Fiasco: You Have to See It to Believe It

Food

cornucopia
source

Food spending is one that students often turn to when they want to free up money for other areas of their budget. While a certain amount and quality of food is a necessity, for most Americans much of their food spending is a ‘want.’ There are several approaches a grad student can take to spend less on food while still meeting needs.

Cooking and Meal Planning

Buying Groceries

Eating Out

Finding Free Food

Further reading: 15 Simple Ways to Spend Less on Food and Still Eat Well; Our Complete Guide to Frugal, Healthy Eating