Eating Dinner Together – Part 5 (Brown Bagging It)

Back in the early days of our marriage, Todd and I rarely cooked meals.  I’m serious.  Almost never.

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Shortly after our wedding, I landed a job working in the student housing department at a local university.  My hours were weird.  Our living arrangements were a bit unconventional.  My payment “package” was a little off the wall.

In addition to giving me a paycheck, a parking spot, and an apartment as compensation, the university also provided my family with meal plans at the campus dining center.  Some people complain about cafeteria food.  Not me.  I loved the salad bar, access to more food than I could possibly ever want, and unlimited ice cream.  Sigh.  The good old days…

When the dining center was closed for summers and holidays, Todd and I usually either ate out or gorged ourselves on frozen pizza.  I knew how to cook.  I even managed to squirrel away a month’s worth of freezer meals while preparing for our second daughter’s birth.

The thing is, we just didn’t feel like cooking.  It was easy to eat food that other people prepared for us and we became lazy.

But then, real life happened.  I left my job to stay home with the girls.  Todd had some health issues that left us with pretty steep medical bills.  We had debt.  The days of dining out with abandon were officially over.  I was forced to cook.

For the last several weeks, I have shared my strategies for getting dinner on the table.

I am going to assume everyone reading this knows how to make a sandwich or put leftovers into a Tupperware bowl.  No one really needs to be told how to brown bag a lunch.  In addition, I think most of us can create a decent list in our heads detailing why packing food from home is a good idea.

So instead of talking about either of those topics, today I am going to share with you when our family chooses to pack a meal.  I also hope to illustrate how much money we save each month by eating food we cook ourselves.

1. Todd brings his lunch to work.

Packing a lunch can be inconvenient.  This is especially true if, like me, you struggle to get out of bed in the morning.  Inconvenience trades off for big-time savings, though.

If Todd were to eat fast food, gas station sandwiches, potato chips from the vending machine, or even the daily lunch option from the cafeteria where he works, it would set him back at least $6.00 a day.  This November, that translates into nineteen lunches.

Money saved:


2. Kids bring packed meals to activities.

Every sixth school day, Abbie spends the lunch hour away from home because of her band schedule.  Once or twice a month, at least one of the girls will have an activity that stretches over supper time.  Most of our meals are eaten together, at our dining room table, but these exceptions do happen now and then.

I could pay for a school lunch, but I choose not to.  I could pick up fast food or a pizza for the girls when they have to eat supper at the dance studio, but I do not.  Instead, I pack meals.

Sometimes it is a sandwich. Occasionally I make a homemade TV dinner.  Either way, brown bagging is healthier and cheaper than the alternative.  We pack roughly four lunches a month and avoid three evening fast food pit stops.

Money saved:


3. Meals for the road (and snacks, too!).

A long time ago, the very last thing we did before leaving town was head to McDonald’s.  We always traveled right after work (supper time) or first thing in the morning (breakfast).  Unfortunately, we discovered that McDonald’s makes at least two of our children very ill when traveling.

No more hamburgers and fries on the road for us.  I would rather pack sandwiches and cut up raw veggies any day of the week than clean up unpleasant car debris.  I suppose we could stop at Subway, but waiting for sandwiches there takes more time than just making them myself.

In addition, I pre-buy car snacks and bring them along.  Usually my alternatives are healthier than what we find at the convenience store, and they are definitely cheaper.  Everyone gets their own reusable water bottle in the car, too.  Bottled juice and soft drinks taste good, but in our family, they make life in the car with three kids unpleasant.

It is a rare day when we buy food while traveling.

Money saved:


4. Meals while at another destination.

Last spring, we took a two-week family road trip across the country to Washington, D.C.  We packed virtually all of our lunches while we were gone.  I will admit, navigating strange grocery stores in Cincinnati, Ohio, and Washington, D.C., was not really my cup of tea.  I am glad I did it, though.

We ate better (and cheaper) because we planned ahead.  Our next family vacation will be Disney World, and we already have plans in the works to reduce food costs by brown bagging some of our meals there.  More details will come another day.

Money saved:

Varies, but depending on the vacation, the value is significant.

5. Snacks when we are doing errands.

It took Todd and me a long time to realize that we should avoid running weekend errands anytime before a meal.  When we have children in tow, we move much slower through stores than we anticipate.  As a result, our weekend shopping adventures used to almost always include a trip into a restaurant.

Why shop the sales for new lighting and bathroom fixtures if you are just going to turn around and blow $50.00 on cheeseburgers?  Now, on weekends we eat early lunches at home and head immediately afterward to the store.  If there is even a remote chance that children will start asking for ice cream before we get home, I stash a snack for them in the car.  

It is extremely unlikely you will see my kids munching on granola bars up and down the aisles of Home Depot, but you might see them wolfing down pretzels in the car as we leave the parking lot.

Money saved:


6. Times we do eat out:

Even our family eats out sometimes.  We plan ahead for it, though.  Yes, we use coupons or discounts whenever we can.  And when we cannot?  We enjoy ourselves.  A meal out, just for fun, is a pretty big treat for our family.


Our total saved?  Roughly $220.00 a month.  That’s $2640.00 a year.  Considering that we only spend $350.00 a month on grocery and household items, that is huge for our family.

Next week I will wrap up my series about eating dinner together.  I’ll share some ideas about getting the whole family involved with putting supper on the table.

When is it hard for you to avoid eating out?  What are your favorite foods to brown bag?