5 Creative Ways to Save: Dinner!

Creative Ways to Save on Christmas! ~ Our Cozy Den

Last week I started a new blog series: 5 Creative Ways to Save, some outside-the-box tips on saving money on common expenses. We kicked off the series by talking about Christmas, and today we’re going to talk about another big expense: dinner!

Creative Strategy #1: Never turn down a free meal

Creative Ways to Save on Dinner! ~ Our Cozy Den

It seems that there are TONS of ways to get dinner for free in today’s world, if you only look for the opportunities. Here are some of the ways we eat for free:

  • My church has a community dinner once a month, where everyone gathers for fellowship and Bible study.
  • There are additional church events, like the church BBQs, where food is provided (3-4 times a year).
  • My husband’s school feeds the staff, students, and their families once a month
  • I see advertisements often for various festivals and fairs (usually hosted by churches or local businesses) that offer free food. We attend one of these at least once a month, sometimes 2 or 3 times.
  • Volunteering at various events usually means we get a free meal from the leftover food when the event is over. Plus, we are serving the community!
  • Since my husband and I have both served in the military, we get breakfast, lunch, and dinner free on Veteran’s Day, and the occasional free meal on other holidays as well.
  • We are often dinner guests in people’s homes. We are often hosts as well, but the cost of adding a little bit more to a dinner I am making is far less than the cost of making an entire additional meal on another day. So even if we host and are guests an equal amount, we are still saving by doing so. And we get the added benefit of making friends and enjoying the company of another family!
  • Birthday parties, weddings, holiday parties, and the like almost always include a meal.

If you add this all up, we are usually eating for free 7-9 times a month! Times 6 people, that’s over 550 free meals per year!!!

Creative Strategy #2: Stretch the meat

Creative Ways to Save on Dinner! ~ Our Cozy Den

I think most people will agree that meat is the most expensive part of any meal. 10 years ago when we first got married, I would fix dinners for us that were extremely expensive because they had a very high proportion of meat.

Over the years, I have adapted my strategy. I no longer fix a chicken breast for each person, or steaks for dinner, or burgers. Here are some ways I stretch the meat:

  • Eat casseroles. They generally use a small amount of meat, and a higher proportion of vegetables and complex carbs. (I try to mostly cook with whole grain flour and exclusively brown rice, so even our carbs are healthier than “white” alternatives.)
  • When a recipe calls for 1 pound of beef, reduce it to 2/3 pounds instead. You won’t be able to tell the difference!
  • When making ground beef, you can cut it in half, and sub in some beans as well. Mash them up and mix with the ground beef. You have the same great protein punch at a fraction of the cost.
  • Instead of eating full steaks, we enjoy the delicious flavor of steak by grilling 1 steak for the whole family, cutting it into strips, and eating them in fajitas.
  • Instead of eating full chicken breasts, we have chicken enchiladas, chicken broccoli alfredo, chicken soup, chicken azteca, and many other delicious recipes that use less meat.
  • Use meats that pack a lot of flavor so you don’t have to use much. You can make tuna noodle casserole with only a 5 oz. can of tuna (about 50¢). You can make ziti or pizza with only a few slices of pepperoni. Or try this pepperoni strata!
  • Have breakfast for dinner. Breakfast foods are cheap (oatmeal, eggs, pancakes, etc.) and use little or no meat.
  • Make meatless dinners once or twice a week. {This one took quite a LONG time to get my husband on board. If your husband is reluctant, start with just the occasional meatless meal, or put a tiny bit of leftover meat just in his serving.} You can have a nice dinner, especially Mexican food and soups, with no meat at all. Some examples include bean & cheese enchiladas, bean burritos, black bean quesadillas, creamy potato soup, vegetable soup in bread bowls, chili, cheesy broccoli soup, enchilada rice bowls (brown rice, enchilada sauce, black beans, corn, & cheese). There are TONS more options — these are only a few that our family likes!

Creative Strategy #3: Use alternative ingredients

Creative Ways to Save on Dinner! ~ Our Cozy Den

Using alternative ingredients for some kitchen staples can save a TON of money in the long run. I’m sure there are many more that I’m not using yet {share with me if you have some ideas!!}, but these are a few of the ones I use regularly.

  • Powdered milk: we go through plenty of regular milk, but we only use it for straight-up drinking. Every time I need milk for mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, pancakes, waffles, biscuits, cakes, breads, soups — pretty much anything else, I use powdered milk instead. It costs less than 1/4th the cost of regular milk. It’s also shelf stable, and it lasts a long time, so I always have some in a pinch! No running out of milk in the middle of cooking!
  • Powdered eggs: the same as milk, we only use regular eggs for eating. We go through at TON — usually 6-8 dozen a month! For all things cooking related, we use powdered eggs instead: cookies, breads, pancakes, waffles, etc. A box of powdered egg substitute cost me about $6 for 113 servings, which comes out to about 5¢ an egg. Eggs in the store are 12-25¢ per egg, depending on where you live and what kind you buy. And just like the milk, it’s always in your pantry so you don’t need to worry about having enough fresh eggs in the fridge for your baking!
  • We all drink Greens to give us a super serving of fruits and veggies. Each serving of Greens costs 88¢ and includes 8 servings of fruits and vegetables, so that’s 11¢ a serving. You can’t buy a serving of fresh, frozen, or canned vegetables at that cost! Plus, it’s yummy and the kids gobble it up. So it saves money AND makes us all healthier. We do eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables too, but it’s really hard to get in as many as are recommended without the Greens.
  • Ground turkey is cheaper than ground beef most of the time. There are often coupons for it too, so combine with sales and you can get it for $1/lb! If you substitute ground turkey with seasoned meat, you won’t notice the difference (like in tacos or other Mexican dishes especially).

Creative Strategy #4: Implement 1 new thing a week

Creative Ways to Save on Dinner! ~ Our Cozy Den

I have shared here on the blog dozens of money-saving tips. It can seem completely overwhelming to think about doing them all! But I challenge you to do just ONE thing. Then one more, then one more. If you put one new thing on your to-do list each week, then in 5 years you will have 260 new money-saving habits! In 20 years you’ll have 1,040 new habits! That will add up to HUGE savings.

So maybe this week you’ll start making your own laundry detergent. Next week you buy some powdered milk. The week after that, homemade bisquick mix. Then you buy some stuff in bulk. Make dishwasher soap. Then you start recycling. Then you change your cell phone plan. These incremental changes will help you save money all over your budget, not just in your dinner plans. But if you really need to focus on dinner, you can work on implementing only grocery-related tips in the beginning!

You have to keep growing, learning, and expanding your arsenal of money-saving strategies! There are tons of things that I still haven’t tried, but plan to, and my budget keeps going down-down-DOWN! I posted several months ago that we live on $650 a month, and it’s even lower than that now!

Creative Strategy #5: Let others bless you

Creative Ways to Save on Dinner! ~ Our Cozy Den

This has been the hardest one for me. For a long time, I was too proud to accept anything “free” from anyone else. I felt like I didn’t deserve it. I felt like they were pitying me. I felt ashamed that I wanted it. But then a very wise friend told me, “If you refuse their offers, you could be stopping them from doing something God told them to do.”

That hit home. God told them to bless us. I had no right to argue with what He wanted! And on the flip side, I love to bless people as well. I love to take a meal to a new mother or an ailing friend. I love to make or purchase gifts for people who need a little brightness in their lives. I love to pay the check for another family in a restaurant or the person behind me in line at the drive-thru. How much would it hurt my feelings if these gifts were refused? So I have learned to gracefully be on the receiving end as well.

Some of the ways we have been blessed that help our dinner budget:

  • beef from a friend who bought a 1/2 cow and didn’t need it all
  • venison from a friend who hunts
  • tons of tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers, zucchini, and more from friends’ gardens
  • a huge bag of apples from my aunt’s apple trees
  • bread & cookies from a friend who loves to bake
  • my dad likes to bring over snacks for the kids
  • my mom gave us a bunch of homemade applesauce
  • people moving give us groceries from their pantry that they didn’t use up
  • countless times people have taken us out to eat
  • and others I’m sure that I just don’t remember right now!

What are your ideas?

I’d love to hear some of the ways your family saves on dinner!

Creative Ways to Save on Dinner! ~ Our Cozy Den
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9 thoughts on “5 Creative Ways to Save: Dinner!

    • ourcozyden says:

      It’s a drink mix that has 8 servings of fruits and veggies, but the actual list of ingredients is SUPER long: barley, spinach, rosemary, dandelion leaf, lemongrass, apple, tomato, blueberry, kale, carrot, beet, ginger, cauliflower, broccoli, grape… I’m tired of typing, lol. You get the picture. You can buy it here. It seems a little high at first, but when you divide it out by how much per serving, it’s cheaper than actual veggies (and my kids actually LIKE it). There’s a number on that link page you can text too if you have questions. (No, it’s not me, I don’t sell it! Just a happy customer.)

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