10 Keys to Eating Out Less and Cooking More

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Eating out can be bad for your waistline and put a dent in your bank account. There's no doubt that heading to the nearest restaurant is more convenient and can be less stressful than getting a home-cooked meal on the table, but it should be saved as a treat, not a daily occurrence. Here are a few suggestions that can help you fight the urge to dine out.

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This seems like it should go without saying, but the No. 1 way to avoid a last-minute trip to the drive-thru is to plan ahead. Devise menus, go grocery shopping, and do the necessary prep work well before dinner time. These tasks can be accomplished a couple of weeks or even months ahead, or as last-minute as the day before. Try putting a dry-erase board or chalkboard in the kitchen to write out the week's menu for the whole family to see.

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Set it and forget it. There are an endless number of slow-cooker recipes that require little preparation and can be ready to eat the minute you walk in the door. It's one of the simplest ways to cook and removes the guesswork from the inevitable question, "What's for dinner?" Pulled chicken, for example, is as effortless as putting chicken breasts and broth in a slow cooker until the meat is moist and falling apart. With a little barbecue sauce and a few buns, you've prepared quick, easy, and tasty pulled chicken sandwiches that will help eliminate thoughts of eating out.

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Choose meals to make at home that have the fewest ingredients as possible. This will not only make grocery shopping simpler and less expensive, but will expedite cooking and make it harder to abandon plans to dine at home. Start with BLTs, omelets, or spaghetti and meatballs.

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Every time you cook, make twice as much. Put some in the refrigerator to have for lunch throughout the week, or freeze the extra to have for dinner weeks or even months down the road. When freezing soup or a casserole, consider freezing the meal in individual servings. This makes it easy to pull out as many servings as needed at one time for a quick meal option.

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When headed out to meet friends, grab a bite at home first. You'll still partake in the social aspect of going out with friends, but ordering just a small appetizer or cup of soup avoids the hefty bill and calorie count in an entire restaurant meal.

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Out doing errands all day and starving? There will be an endless number of fast food and carry-out restaurants along the way. But keeping a few snacks in the glove compartment, purse, briefcase, or backpack can buy time until you get home to eat.

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Sometimes convenience is worth paying for. Specialty ingredients, individual servings, and the like all cost a little more at the grocery store, but the cost is almost always less than dining out at a restaurant.

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Each week, designate a certain amount of money, in cash, for eating out. Once it's gone, it's gone. This money should include paying for that iced cappuccino on the way to work; the baked good grabbed after lunch; and the milkshake after dinner. While these extras seem small at the time, they add up quickly when indulged frequently.

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When craving the lo mein from your favorite Chinese restaurant, try making it at home. The Internet is a never-ending source of recipes and restaurant "hacks" that can get a home cook close to the real thing. Sure, this may be more labor intensive, but will no doubt be healthier and ultimately cheaper.

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If part of what is unappealing about home-cooked meals is all the work, find short cuts wherever possible. Try using disposable utensils and plates as a start -- if the whole dinner table can be swept into the recycling bin afterward, it may be less stressful to eat in. While this may seem costly (in resources and money), it's cheaper than restaurant food and may produce less waste than a fast food meal.