Plan Dinner Menus In Advance to Save Big Money

In 2008 my family spent $7447.06 on groceries. That represents the total cost required to make 349 breakfasts, 342 lunches, and 320 dinners during the course of the year for my family of four. It also includes all of the snacks and desserts that we consumed at home for the year.

Like most other folks, our family also enjoys going out to dinner occasionally. In 2008, we went out for dinner at a restaurant 29 times. Sometimes we went out for fast food, and sometimes it was to a mid-priced family restaurant like Chili’s. The total cost for those 29 restaurant meals: $1050.32. (Just to be clear, this does not include the few times either the Honeybee and/or I went out for lunch or breakfast.)

Breaking down the numbers, what should immediately stand out is that on a per meal basis, dining out is horrendously expensive. In my case, we consumed 1011 meals at home at an average price of $2.09 per person per meal. But really, that cost is even less because the grocery bill for the year also included snacks and desserts. Assuming 2% of our grocery bill was dedicated to snacks and desserts, then my household’s actual meal price per person is really only $1.80.

Now compare that to the household’s cost of dining out which comes to — hold on to your hats, folks — a whopping $9.05 per person! In other words, on average the cost of dining out is almost exactly five times more expensive than eating at home!

My family dines out an average of about 2.5 times per month. I think that is a reasonable frequency. How many people do you know that bring home dinner from a restaurant three or four times per week? Just think of all the money that a family of four could save, not to mention the health benefits, by simply eating more home-cooked meals!

Those that do the math will see the obvious moral to this story: increasing the number of times you feed your family at home is an easy and extremely effective way to cut your monthly expenses.

Talk about low-hanging fruit!

I have found that the best way to encourage this behavior is to sit down and create a dinner menu approximately twice a month. When I am not playing household CEO I love to cook and so, as the family chef, I am responsible for sitting down and putting together the dinner menu that covers our meals over the following 14 to 21 days. The menu period usually includes a couple of “off” days where we go out to eat, and also a leftovers night as well.

This process has kept us disciplined in eating the great majority of our meals at home and minimizing the temptation to simply go out for pizza or run down to the local fast food joint to avoid cooking. This discipline has resulted in significant savings annually that we put toward other uses.

I always make sure the whole family gets to participate in the menu selection process; I get many menu inputs from the Honeybee (i.e., the household CFO), and my kids are also each allowed to select two meals on the menu. Incidentally, the kids menu inputs are always, um, interesting. For instance, later this week we are going to try spaghetti tacos, courtesy of an input from my nine year-old daughter.

That should make for a fun evening at the dinner table! Let me know if you want the recipe.

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  1. 1

    Michael Dolen says

    Hi Len, I agree it makes sense for your situation, but sometimes it’s actually cheaper to eat out. For example, it’s much different for individuals… the cost per meal is much more expensive. This is especially true if you have special dietary restrictions. For example, I’m vegan and the price for dining out only averages out to be about 30 to 40% more for me (for lower priced restaurants). Plus you have to take into account the time it takes to prepare a meal. If it takes me an hour to cook a meal and I could be making $20 during that same time by working, it actually makes sense to pay for takeout. Just some food for thought ;)

    • 2

      Sam says

      30 to 40% more is a lot. Even for one person. Not to mention, chances are that you do have some down time and are not working constantly. Therefore, you would likely not actually make $20. Plus, the time it takes to go to a restaurant is about the same as it takes to cook many meals. If you like going out to eat, great, but it isn’t cheaper.

    • 3

      TLSF says

      Michael, I assisted my young sister-in-law with her budgeting a little over a year ago, when she first moved out on her own. I had the whole dollar menu VS home cooking debate with her. Average meal for dollar menu eating = 3 bucks. Assuming that she ate only 2 times a day, I had a budget of 6 bucks per day to work with. 6 bucks a day times 7 days a week for a weekly budget of 42 dollars fed her amazingly well on lasagna, nicoise salad, fish, BBQ chicken, etc… She had to get over the whole cooking for one thing. Now, she makes meals that will be three or 4 servings, freezes some, and keeps others in the fridge to be eaten within the next 3-5 days either as lunch, or an effortless dinner.

  2. 4


    Len – Another great article. Obviously, the key to your success, in keeping your food costs low, is planning ahead. It is when we don’t plan ahead that we usually end up on the fast food treadmill. If we stay on the fast food treadmill too long, we eventually have to get on the fatshop treadmill(another cost) or entertain expensive doctor’s appointments and drugs for the treatment of diabetes.

    • 5


      Exactly, Steven and Debra! It takes a discipline – the time spent planning a 2-week menu and then writing the shopping list is well worth the effort. :-)

  3. 6

    Jenny says

    Hello -
    Will you please share your 14 day meal plan? With recipes? When I try new recipes – no one seems to like them. I would like to try recipes that other families eat regularly. Thanks.

  4. 7

    TLSF says

    Hey, Len. Long time reader, first time replier. :-) Spaghetti Tacos have become a family favorite of ours. I cook my taco meat separately, make my spaghetti, and chop a bell pepper into strips. Put on the table with taco shells, some cheese, and some sour cream, and everyone gets to make their own spaghetti taco creations!

    I have been meal planning and shopping once a month for groceries (with $20 set aside in the budget per week for milk, bread and some fresh produce) and am literally amazed at how much I have been able to shave from our grocery bill each month.

    Recently, a friend told me that she was going to do the “Food Stamp Challenge”, and spend only what she would get if her family were on food stamps. She challenged me to do the same, to see if I could do it. I called and found out what our disbursement would be, if we qualified. I am creating healthy, diverse, plentiful meals on just a little over 1/2 of the allowance in our state for a family of 4.

  5. 8

    Little Tex says

    Hey Len,

    For everyone who says eating out is cheaper than cooking, it’s not being done properly. I average $30 a week for a household of 2 taking advantage of fresh fruit, produce, beans and meat when they are at their lowest price. For example, when cabbage is at it’s cheapest I’m making cabbage soup, cabbage rolls, yakisoba, steamed cabbage, etc. Eating healthy, tasty food that does not cost a lot of money just takes a little effort researching prices and coming up meals but it is well worth it for your wallet and your health.

  6. 9

    CD says

    Home cooking is not only much more cost effective but typically yields healthier food. One of the nice benefits is ability to prepare in bulk, freeze leftovers, then use these components for subsequent meals. Having a large well stocked freezer is key to managing one’s food budget.

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