How to Save Money on Food Costs When Life is Crazy

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We all gotta eat. No matter how busy we are. But being too busy can put the pounds on our bodies while shrinking our wallets. Follow these tips to save money on food when life is crazy.

How to Save Money on Food Costs When Life is Crazy | Life as Mom

Creamy Chicken Pasta with Spinach and Tomatoes

Life gets busy. Whether it’s a heavy-duty sports season, deployment, illness, new baby, there can be plenty of seasons and circumstances that make it challenging to cook at home and conscientiously save money on food costs.

We all want to feed our families food they love and that is healthier for them if we can. We know that food cooked at home is almost always cheaper than food we’d buy at the snack stand or fast food joint. We know that our efforts in the kitchen are worth it.

Unfortunately, cooking and shopping can become a burden when life is crazy. Who wants to add more work to her day when she can easily run through the drive-through for supper?

Is it possible or even worth it to try to make food at home and get to the field/practice/church on time? And how do we do it so that we can save money on food costs?

I recently received this email from a reader:

I need help. You would think, since my oldest is 20 and still playing hockey in college that I would have figured out how to meal plan. But no – it’s been 15 years of McDonald’s, etc…. I also have a 13 year old that plays soccer fall/spring/summer and my 5 year old who is playing hockey. So, I have lots of weekend traveling, hotel stays, and rushed week nights in my future. I should mention I live in Wisconsin, so in winter it is VERY cold. We are often traveling an hour to two hours for an all-day hockey jamboree, then going home. Soccer would be the same – except a little warmer. And then the 2 night, 3 day hotel stays.

Can you help me please with figuring out how to eat with the above life situation? What to make, how to keep warm/cold? My DH really doesn’t want your typical ham sandwich, he eats them every day for work.

My waistline and my wallet will thank you forever if you can help.

Dear Mama, I get you! While I can’t bring supper to you at the field, I do have some ideas that you may be able to tweak to help ease the burden this season.

In fact, these strategies will help anyone eat well as well as save money on food costs when life is crazy or even when it’s not.

How to Save Money on Food Costs When Life is Crazy

How to Save Money on Food Costs When Life is Crazy | Life as Mom

Whole Wheat Banana Pancakes

1. Plan some easy meals.

Dinner doesn’t need to be a 3-course affair. Just make something. For our family, those nights become beans and rice or a quick bowl of pasta with butter and noodles. These are quick and easy to make and can be packed for the road.

Create a repertoire or idea bank of easy meal ideas that you can draw from in a flash. That way when the temptation to eat out comes your way, you’ll have a ready alternative.

For instance, after spending one afternoon at the beach, my husband suggested going out to eat. The kids were wet and covered in sand, so it wasn’t the best moment to splurge. Instead when we got home, I cooked up some chicken tenders in a skillet and stirred up a pot of Stovetop Mac and Cheese. Dinner was cheap and easy — and took about 30 minutes to pull together, far less time than if we’d gone out to eat or picked up takeout on the way home.

When we plan easy meals, we save time and effort, but we also save money on food costs.

Check out these posts for grab-and-go ideas:

2. Shop for a longer length of time.

In busy seasons, you may not have time to go shopping on a weekly basis. Instead, stock up for a longer period of time, buying enough staples to last the month so you don’t have to keep stopping for something more.

Be sure to check the expiration dates for milk and eggs so that you can buy the longest lasting containers. Divide large packages into smaller ones and freeze what you won’t use right away.

How to Save Money on Food Costs When Life is Crazy | Life as Mom

3. Fill the freezer.

I’ve long been a fan of freezer cooking. With my ravenous crew it’s a little trickier to keep the freezer filled, but it’s wonderful while my stash lasts. Take some time on an off day to bulk cook and freeze. By doing so, you’re giving yourself your own homemade convenience foods.

Grab one of these freezer cooking plans and get cooking:

4. Pack snacky meals when needed.

The snacky dinner is one of my best friends. Now, I’m not talking about a meal of Cheetos and Diet Coke. Instead, gather up small portable foods that when combined make a great meal:

  • bread/crackers and cheese
  • fruit
  • vegetables and dippers
  • deli meats
  • simple side salads
  • olives and pickles

These are great because you don’t have to eat everything in a sit down meal. Perfect for on the go.

How to Save Money on Food Costs When Life is Crazy | Life as Mom

Cherry Limeade

5. Make your own drinks.

Water is clearly the cheapest option. But when you’re shivering/sweating on the bleachers or waiting for choir practice to end, it’s nice to have something tasty to sip on.

Consider one of these homemade beverages that are loads cheaper than the commercial equivalent:

6. Keep an ice chest with you always.

Always, always, always have an ice chest with you — well, at least during warm weather months. Even if you don’t have great things to pack, hauling the cooler with you allows you to run into the grocery store for 15 minutes to grab yogurt, string cheese, fruit, and deli meat.

You won’t need to worry about keeping things cool or forcing your kids to gobble something down. You’ll have a cooler on hand to keep things fresh.

This is also helpful for stashing cold groceries that you might not be able to get home to the fridge right away.

7. Grab healthier or cheaper fast food.

I think everyone can agree that burger joints, like McDonald’s are not always healthy or cheap. Yet, there are still some quick-fix fast food places where you can grab a healthier, quick bite that doesn’t cost a fortune.

Chipotle offers online ordering so that you can skip the line entirely and walk right in to food that’s ready to go. I love Chipotle. Sigh.

Fast food doesn’t have to be junky. Just be selective — and use it as a last resort.

What do YOU do to save money on food costs when life is busy?

I’d love to hear your tricks for eating well and saving money during busy seasons. We’re all in this together.

How to Save Money on Food Costs When Life is Crazy | Life as Mom

Originally published April 23, 2015. Updated January 11, 2018.

About Jessica Fisher

I believe anyone can prepare delicious meals—no matter their budget.

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  1. My first thought from the reader question was to see if there is an adapter you can get to plug a crockpot into a cigarette lighter in the vehicle. Pre-cook taco beef or shredded chicken. For the first meal have tacos with other fixings from the cooler, then for the second meal add to the leftover meat tomatoes and beans for chili, or broth, veggies and noodles for chicken soup or whatever you like to put in white chicken chili. Salads in jars may also be handy to fill out the meals or to have as lunch and save the hot foods for dinners. If the hotel rooms have microwaves or hot plates the options would be much more varied.

    • I’ve heard that newer mini-vans even have a regular outlet. {insert shocked face} You make some GREAT points! Awesome idea bout the tacos to chili thing. Would be easy to have the canned stuff on hand to add to the pot.

  2. On crazy days, my husband barbeques, I bake some potatoes in the microwave, and I cook some frozen veggies or cut up some tomatoes and cucumbers. Very quick, healthy, yummy, and not too expensive, depending what’s on the meat we choose. But this is for crazy days when we come home exhausted.

    When we’re out at mealtimes, we sometimes buy yoghurt (always, always have plastic cutlery in the van!) or a box of granola bars (good for kids with eating issues), or the kids browse the day old bakery section early in the morning.

    A banana is easy to eat for a snack, but if you need calories it won’t be enough. Boiled eggs are always great if you remember salt, and sausages with a little bowl of mustard are easy to eat in the car as well as at a picnic table. Carrot sticks will work as an emergency veggie.

  3. Yes! I love this post! I spent years and years trying to “meal plan perfectly”. When I would get on a “cook from home” kick, I would plan these ridiculous menu’s that included thinks like roast chicken, and 2 baked sides. Seriously. I got better over time, realizing that I needed to learn to cook and eat at home first and switched to 15 minute convenience meals at home (Things like homemade mac and cheese, tacos, tortellini etc). I then moved on to $5 Dinner Mom cookbook and learned how to meal plan in a way that makes sense. Finally, my best friend told me about your “Not Your Mothers Make-Ahead Cookbook” and I’ve been smitten since. Freezer cooking saves me so much time and you have such easy menus!

    PS. I got my Ultimate Bundle on Monday and it was such a great deal! I’ve already dived into Grocery University and all the menu planning bonuses!

    • Yay! So glad to hear that you’re finding your groove! Thanks for your support, too.

  4. Cherie says

    Well Jessica you gave some great ideas for sure.

    My first thought is, for evenings, sandwiches – not all sandwiches have to be ham 🙂 Your chicken and bacon subs are a great start [especially since the reader can make several meals worth of chicken at a time]. If they’re stopping at McD’s most of the time people must be heartily sick of that too!

    I know my troops won’t do things like ‘bowls’ on the run – plus there’s the mess factor, and the utensils etc – but those things can be turned into sandwiches just as easily – pulled pork or chicken with whatever sauces you prefer, mexican style, bbq etc. The fillings can easily be frozen in meal sized portions.

    Calzones are another great choice – and they freeze beautifully. Meatball subs are another favorite here – and again, use store bought frozen meatballs for convenience or freeze your own. Even stews can be sandwiches on a hearty bread that will stand up to the moisture – just leave out the potatoes 🙂

    BFD – egg and sausage/bacon etc sammies are good too – especially to bring for a long day – you can have that for lunch and then some from the cooler for dinner instead of waiting till the last minute!

    If you’re willing to do bowls don’t forget pasta salads – I used to do one with no mayo, just sun dried tomatoes [and the oil they’re packed in] and cheese and olives that held up well in warm weather – but you can just toss in anything tha people like in your house, with some oil that goes with, or mayo or salad dressing, and get some paper bowls and plastic silverware [I don’t want to tote dirty dishes in my car – despite my environmental concerns – to each his own]
    Also, of course, for times when you’ll actually be around for dinner eventually but not time to prep and cook before that [unless it’s hours before] which is often my situation – crockpot anything is the best

    • Great suggestions. Pasta salad sounds yummy.

      Did you see the update on Facebook? Those subs can reheat in the crockpot! Yay! Texture is not exactly the same, but nice for when you’re on the go.

      • Cherie says

        I did NOT see that! But it makes sense – and would be perfect for me as my issue is usually that I’m gone in late afternoon [gym before late pickup which is a good half an hour before we get home in traffic] and come home with STARVING kids and little time.

  5. Shannon says

    Since my husbands diagnosis Of celiacs disease( he can not tolerate gluten) grabbing quick food is not easy. I rely a lot on the “snacky” type meals for when we are on the go I also like to keep a bag of Trader Joes gluten free chicken nuggets on hand( the best gluten free ones I have tried to date). I could make something from scratch cheaper, but I have found ready made foods keeps us from eating out on the days I don’t want to cook!

    • Yep. I find a few convenience items can help you bridge that gap and prevent the takeout run.

  6. MH in OH says

    #1 I agree with keeping the van stocked – we are doing a fair amount of running around with soccer season right now and it is SO helpful to have the van stocked with clothes for changeable temps as well as water, cutlery, and some portable snacks. Even a sharp knife for cutting up apples!
    #2 Even though you are out and about or traveling on weekends – doesn’t mean you can’t go to the grocery store. A box of cereal and a half gallon of milk with some fruit, deli meat/salads, cottage cheese and precut veggies, not to mention the store’s salad bar/quick serve area all make easy meals. You can also get the non-perishables on your list. I recently stopped in to a grocery store to pick up lunch while on a business trip.
    #3 Even if you are getting dinner from a quick serve restaurant – just buy the main dish. Supplement with sides you have packed yourself. A burger (to go) and an apple from home and water is better than a burger and fries and pop.

    • Great, doable suggestions. I like the idea about supplementing with your sides. We’ve done that. It feels like a treat, but it’s cheaper.

    • Danielle says

      We do the opposite when we ski. Food is super expensive at the lodge (and not very good), so we always bring the main (sandwiches, deli meat, etc.) and then get an order of fries to share. It’s a small treat, less expensive than the entrees and it makes my kids not mind that we brought our own lunch. I also usually bring some type of treat as well. Homemade (or even store bought) cookies/treats seem to make even the most dull brown bag lunch better, especially if you don’t do sweets on a regular basis.

  7. Holly McKinney says

    My two kids are still playing competitive soccer twenty-five years after they started and still play on multiple teams which means six or seven days a week for games or practices year round. We saved a great deal of money and everyone’s sanity by camping as much as we could when we had to travel for games or tournaments. The kids could take part in team dinners and we always suggested potluck events rather than restaurants. After dinner, we could go back to our campground where they could swim, shower, or just relax away from everyone else. We always took our own food or if it was cheaper to fly than to drive, we found a grocery store to stock up on sandwich meats, breads, fruit, yogurt, cookies, juice, cereal, etc. We always carried our own food in coolers when driving and frequently the other kids on the teams were happy to have homemade cookies, fruit, sandwiches, or cereal with our kids between games.

    Our son played Division I in college and our daughter Division III as she did not think she could play Division I or II in nursing school. They always understood that soccer is an “extra” and if the school grades or work can’t be accomplished then soccer has to go. They earned their own money for soccer camps or we applied for scholarships if they couldn’t “work” for the fees. They played from VA to Canada and in Europe as well so it is possible on a lower middle class budget and two parents working full time jobs. We refused to spring for the matching warm ups or bags; those items do not make better players but the quality of coaching or competition can be the difference for a kid. Only about 5% of kids will ever play their sport in college and almost none of them will play professionally so focus on the present benefits for kids playing competitive sports as there are many.

    • Wow. Thank for sharing your expertise. That was a lot of support on your end. I’m sure your kids appreciate it.

  8. Lee says

    I’m not a Sandwich lover either, and we are on the go a lot. I invested in the thermos containers for hot food. It’ll keep things warm for up to 5 hrs usually, you just have to make sure things are really hot going into it. You can do soups (heat to boiling) and easily pack a baguette, or chips, or crackers to go with it. I use them for everything, not just soups, I’ll put pot roast and green beans in my container (I don’t mind things touching) and then pack the rest separate. You could always do separate containers for main dish and sides and divvy them up on plates when you eat. The food stays warmer if the container is completely full, so keep that in mind. 🙂 Good luck, and have fun!

    • Thanks for the tips on the thermoses. I don’t have one, so I’m a little clueless.

    • Melissa says

      Try pre-heating your thermos!!!

      It keeps things hot for longer periods of time! It’s a trick I learned from my dad and I use to keep my husbands food and beverages warm when he works very long days!!

      Add boiling water to your metal thermos and screw the lid on while you heat up the food to proper temp. Dump the water and fill with your food.

  9. Jenise says

    Breakfast for dinner is a quick, easy thing to throw together on a busy night without thinking ahead too much about thawing something, etc.. Pancakes or eggs come together quickly with some fruit. Baked oatmeal is a favorite too and makes great leftovers. I keep pasta, eggs, ready made pizza dough and grilled cheese or quesadilla supplies at the ready for quick meals when plans get away. Being at the ball field during dinner time is really hard. I will bring good snacks to the games like hard boiled eggs, tortilla chips, popcorn, fruit, crackers and cheese to either feed or tie my kids over. Crock pot meals already ready and waiting also help, esp. during the winter. In the summer, I keep some cooked chicken breasts and can make up a salad quickly. Some ready made soups that can heat in the microwave are also good to have on hand.

  10. Amy M says

    How about burritos or wraps? Everything is portable and convenient.

  11. Denise says

    We traveled a lot with my son who played tennis. We tried to stay at hotels where breakfast was included. Sometimes, I would bring or purchase when we got there, bread, deli meat, etc for lunches. I have also, purchased frozen meals (not my favorite, but quick and cheap) to go with a bag of lettuce, etc. This helped keep our budget under control when traveling.

  12. We took a trip to a homeschooling convention, staying in one of the hotels from the “list” but it didn’t offer free breakfast (we usually stay at hotels that do). From previous experience, I knew it was hard to wake up the kids and get going in the morning so it would be best to have breakfast we could eat on the way (there was a walkway to the convention center). I froze muffins (an oat applesauce variety) and took those straight out of the freezer so they’d be defrosted by the time we got there. We took a toaster and bread and peanut butter and jelly so we could have toast pb&j sandwiches (my personal favorite). We made snack bags of goldfish, pretzels, graham bites, etc.

    I second the Thermos idea, I would put beanie weenies in it for my oldest after swimming practice. 🙂

  13. This was a great post, and super timely for me, since my 9 year old started competitive soccer this year, my seven year old has been wanting to begin competitive dance, and my four year old is just starting to do activities. All of your suggestions were great, and the comments from experienced “Soccer Moms” are super valuable as well!

  14. Alison says

    As my season of life has gotten busier and busier, my meals have become less glamorous and more scripted. Meaning I don’t try as many new recipes, but stick with the boring things that get the fewest complaints. I also figure out what works on the busy days and just copy. Meaning if I have time for tacos on Monday, then for this season tacos is every Monday night. We are a swim family, so I know that every swim weekend I have the same 4 snacks on hand for the swimmer and the same boring meals that weekend. Travel food requires some planning, and ice chest, etc. Also, I always cook army-sized portions. Everyone eats leftovers in our family. No other way to survive. If you cook big enough meals on a regular basis, you can plan to have a leftovers night (I haven’t gotten there yet – the hobbits all eat the food too fast).

  15. Janet says

    Our meal planning is very much a work in progress, but I have found a few things that help us avoid the last minute run for fast food.

    When I bake, I make a double batch. Consequently, I usually have small loaves of quick breads, muffins, waffles, pancakes, and cookies in the freezer. When you hit the road grab something from the freezer. Baked goods defrost quickly and will likely be ready by the time you arrive to the big game.

    When I make large cuts of meats, I try to make enough to keep the freezer stocked with bags of cooked chicken, ham, roast beef and pulled pork. An 8 oz bag of cooked meat, assorted veggies from the freezer added to some steamed rice make for a quick and easy dinner. To keep it vegetarian use a can of beans in place of the meat. With the meat cooked, it takes less than 20 minutes to make quesadillas. Again with the meat cooked, 8 oz of meat, assorted frozen vegetables, chicken or beef broth, make a quick soup. Serve it with a roll or muffin from the freezer.

    During tennis season, I keep boiled eggs and cubed cheese in the fridge and several types of nuts and dried fruits in the pantry. A small cooler with an egg, an ounce or two of hard cheese, a 1/4 cup of nuts and 1/2 cup of dried fruit per person makes a quick, cheap, healthy lunch. You can prep these supplies for the week in less than 30 minutes.

    My kids play warm weather sports, but during the winter I would suggest a small thermos of hot soup for each person. I would think hot soup after spending time in a cold hockey rink would be very welcome.

  16. MamaC says

    We stayed in a hotel last year that had a mini-fridge in the room, and we were able to get bagels and cream cheese, some milk for coffee, tea, and cereal, and deli meats and cheese along with condiments for sandwiches in there. Made breakfast and lunch that much easier and cheaper to deal with on the road. When we got to the same hotel this year, we were dismayed that there was no mini-fridge in our room as we expected. The bellman told us to call the front desk and ask, and in less than an hour we had one in our room! They don’t always have them available, but it never hurts to ask! We also do the assortment of apples and oranges, nuts, and cereal and granola bars for road trips and stays away from home. Than when hunger strikes we have something at the ready and don’t need to stop or rely too much on fast food.

    • That’s great to know you might be able to ask for a fridge! I never would have thought to ask. Thanks!

  17. MamaC says

    *Then* when hunger strikes… Oops

  18. Ann says

    Keep things super simple. If I can at least get a meat(or protein or main dish part) planned then I know dinner will be okay. Sides can be thrown together quick if we have the right stuff on hand: frozen veggies that were cooked/heated in the microwave and sandwich bread made into garlic toast, or “salad” Which is sometimes just lettuce with watever dressing we have.
    Make extras and have leftovers. (I love leftovers. It means less cooking! ).

  19. Lyn says

    Cook up a large pork roast and family pack of chicken breasts on a weekend then you have the base for quick and easy meals all week: fajitas, quesadillas, sandwiches, add to noodles or rice and sauce, quick chili or stew, soup, topper for salad or baked potatoes. Buy bags of carrots, celery, other veggies and wash and cut up all at once (kids can help) for quick and easy snacks. Frozen fruits are often cheaper than fresh and can easily be mixed with yogurt for a healthy smoothie. Large containers of pretzels or other crunchy snacks are a hit with the kids.

  20. Julie says

    I know I’m late in posting this but I feel her pain. I am a soccer mom to 2 boys who play year round in WI. We are typically rushing from home to practice when I get home from work so I have at times made a lite,quick meal and had them eat in the car, placing the food in a 9×13 pan in their laps to keep the car clean. I have been able to run quick errands while the kids were at practice. I typically meal plan/grocery shop for 2 weeks at a time to help my sanity. I have a very short gap now between club soccer ending and school soccer beginning and am working on stocking up on freezer meals. Your thought on keeping a cooler in the car is a great idea—-did you realize that a cooler can be used to keep hot foods hot too? Thank you for all your great tips.

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