As food prices and work pressures rise together, many of us are finding it harder to put healthy meals on the table that we feel truly good about: good nutrition, good value, good flavor. That challenge can make the bounty of prepackaged meals feel like a solution, but the convenience of those heat-and-serve “saviors” comes with some serious trade-offs in terms of high calories, unwanted additives, and, yes, added cost.
If you want to reclaim control and start bringing a bit of “from scratch” back into your life, why not look to the professionals who’ve made a science out of balancing the competing demands of time, cost, health and taste? The fresh food restaurant industry has chugged ahead under tight margins through every economic twist in history — and as a longtime chef, menu development expert and restaurant operations consultant, I am well-versed in the professional strategies that make it all possible. And, as a mom, I also know how to make those same strategies work at home. Here are just a few ways to make them work for you, too.
Restaurants Plan Around Their Budgets
You can’t make good spending decisions if you don’t have a plan. And just like a skilled restaurant manager won’t order a single radish before they know how much they need and how much they’re willing to spend on it, you shouldn’t be deciding what to buy when you’re already at the grocery store or pushing that button on your favorite delivery app. A standard restaurant biz tool is the “profit and loss” statement, which compares total monthly revenues with total costs. To do this for your household, gather up your bank records from the last three months and categorize your food spending. How much goes to restaurants, vs. delivery, vs. groceries and farmer’s markets? Do any spending behaviors surprise you? How often do you end up buying things you don’t need or even use? Are those “I’m too tired” last-minute food deliveries blowing up your budget? Uncovering your patterns and seeing the big picture will help you gain awareness over what is really delivering value and where you want your dollars to go.
Restaurants Schedule Their Weeks
Once you’ve tracked your money, do the same for your time. We don’t talk about “our time” enough, but it’s just as important as money. Spend a couple of weeks recording your activity and be honest with yourself about what you truly need to thrive. Do you regularly come home from work with mere minutes to prepare dinner? If so, planning can help: at the start of the week, decide on all your meals, get your shopping done, clean and prep your veg, marinate some tofu or meats, and make it way easier to get hot, delicious meals on the table for the week ahead. If you have a family, get everyone in the kitchen to participate with that prep to make it go even faster.
Restaurants Capitalize on Economies of Scale
This is just a fancy way to say you can reduce your costs by going big. Restaurants can get food cheaper because they buy tons of it. You may not be serving 200 folks a night, but you likely have a stock pot and a freezer. (If you don’t have a stock pot, get thee to a thrift store and buy one.) Making casseroles, chilies, soups, sauces, mashed potatoes, and other big-pot foods and portioning them out (ideally into oven-safe storage containers to save a later step) can earn you lots of future stress-free meals, plus it gives you the opportunity to save money by buying in larger quantities. (People like Costco for a reason.) I have an awesome, freezer-friendly Bolognese recipe that has saved my family dinner — and my mental health — more times than I can count (you can get it and a bunch more at atasteofopportunity.com).
Restaurants Balance “the Usual” with the Special
We may thrive on routine as humans, but we also like to be surprised — that’s why restaurants present you with both their regular menu and daily specials. If you deliberately plan a regular “eat out or order in” day, you can be more thoughtful about what will bring the best experience within your budget. Perhaps it’s the weekend lunch special at your local, or a regular night out where you work your way through your neighborhood’s best spots. The trick is to be deliberate about your splurges, rather than dumping cash on something overpriced and “meh” out of in-the-moment exhaustion or when there is zero time to cook from scratch.
Restaurants Turn Waste into Wonderful
Legend has it that the Cobb salad, one of the most famous LA recipes, originated from a late-night fridge raid when Mr. Cobb had an after-hours craving at his Hollywood restaurant, The Brown Derby. Getting creative with leftovers can be just as fun and successful for you. Have a rotisserie chicken? A restaurant would never throw those bones away: just place them in a freezer bag along with any extra vegetable trimmings and you have a “free” base for a soup that is bursting with flavor. So much yum, and so much nutrition, too. What kind of magic is waiting in your fridge right now?
Restaurants Know There Is Power in Simplicity
Here’s a last industry secret for when you really feel stuck: eggs are a food professional’s best friend — generally affordable, nutritious, and usually on hand. And they’re adaptable too. Go “French” and think omelets for dinner with a fresh, bright salad and good toasty bread, or try scrambled with beans and guac, or pull an odds-and-ends salad together (a la Mr. Cobb) with some sliced boiled eggs. That’s the thing about great meals. They don’t need to be complicated to satisfy and delight. Oftentimes, it’s the simplest things that bring the most eating pleasure.
Renee Guilbault is a veteran food-industry consultant and the author of A Taste of Opportunity: An Insider’s Guide to Boosting Your Career, Making Your Mark, and Changing the Food Industry from Within. You can find more resources and recipes at her website. She has held a role on the Los Angeles Food Policy Council Leadership Board and its Coordinating Committee.
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