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Recently, after a wincingly high credit card bill, my husband and I instituted a "no-spend" month. For 30 days, we avoided non-essential spending: no movies out, latte splurges, or dinner dates with friends. It was easier than I expected—we had people over for a game night, rediscovered free nights at museums, and took advantage of pre-paid gym memberships.
The biggest challenge of the month, however, was dinner... all 30 of them.
More specifically, avoiding the lure of delivery menus—my biggest weakness. I like to cook, but when I work late (or feel tired, uninspired by my kitchen cabinets, or just simply dread the dishes) takeout feels like a justifiable treat. But can I call it a treat if I order in twice a week, every week? That's a habit, really, and not a good one: Not only is takeout pricey, but it's lousy for the environment and makes eating unhealthy food all too easy. (Related: 32 Easy Chicken Recipes for Dinner Tonight)
We made it through the month without ordering takeout, but it wasn't easy—and led to some tragic, unbalanced meals (sweet potatoes, canned baked beans, and celery sticks was a real low point). But it doesn't have to be this way! I spoke to people who successfully–and regularly–avoid the temptation of takeout. Here are their secrets.
Have a plan
Do you know what's for dinner tonight? And do you have all your ingredients? It's not the stove time that's tricky, as I discovered, but all the pre-planning, from brainstorming meals to grocery shopping. (Related: 10 Easy Recipes Tastier Than Takeout Food)
Tech can help. "I love using Plantoeat.com—I'm not perfect about it, but it's an easy place to organize recipes and generates a shopping list based on your plan that can be synced to your phone," says Heather Klein. "There's definitely an investment of time in getting recipes loaded into the system (especially if you use cookbooks), but when I use it, I'm always happy," she says.
John O'Sullivan takes advantage of Trello, a project-management software, for his meal planning. In Trello, every project (or, in this case, dinner idea) is placed on a card, which O'Sullivan describes as "like Post-Its on steroids." His system: "Each main and side is on a card. Each day is a column." As needed, he adds media, like videos of cooking techniques, to the cards. "I even take pictures of my picky eater by the food to remind her that she actually likes the dish that I made," he says. (Related: 7 Tips for Ordering Healthy Takeout Online)
Of course, you don't have to get quite this fancy. Sticky notes, a paper calendar, or a notebook can also work. However, you choose to plan your week's dinners, make it a treat, not a chore. "I've come to seriously enjoy meal planning," says Alida Mooreston. "I think the trick for me is to make the process a pleasant experience. I make some tea and grab a cookie and hide out with my laptop." Her process: Select a mix of new recipes and favorite standbys, then update her grocery app.
Stock your pantry for your favorite dishes
A full pantry reduces the temptation to call in an order for lo mein. "What works for me is always having ingredients on hand for my four or so favorite meals—or at least having all the canned/boxed ingredients along with spices," says Christine Frietchen. Then, before dinner, she only needs to pick up the produce for each meal. That way, she says, "I don't feel 'stuck.'" (Related: 20 Foods You Should Always Have in Your Kitchen)
Collect go-to meals
No need to recreate Julie & Julia at home and cook your way through a foundational cookbook. Instead, add flexible, fast recipes to your arsenal.
"We tend to cook ahead and have three to four small-to-medium dishes we can mix-and-match and supplement through the week," says Maria Renninger. "They're rarely fancy! Curries are so easy when you've got no time. And build-your-own meals are fun—burrito bars, stacks, noodle bowls. You can make lots of fixings ahead."
Grain bowls are a really great go-to formula, says Cathy Erway, author of The Art of Eating In and The Food of Taiwan. Make grains ahead (they'll keep in the fridge for a week), roast some veggies, and mix and match, she suggests. You can also use those already cooked grains for fried rice, Erway says. "Scramble some eggs and plop that leftover rice in that pan, add some frozen peas, which I like to keep on hand all the time. Mix in a good dollop of chili sauce if you'd like, and that can be a great meal." Add in fresh veggies or leftover meat if you have them for an even more delicious dinner, she adds. (Related: This Healthier Sesame Chicken Tastes Just Like Takeout)
Think of the freezer as your friend—if you can, double-up a recipe and stash leftovers in the freezer for handy pre-made meals for when you're most tempted to order in. Best of all: Some food truly tastes better with time to sit. "I find it much easier to commit to cooking in the fall/winter when soups and stews can be prepared on weekends yielding leftovers that improve over time," says Diana Pearl. "Plus, it isn't as painful to have the oven on!"
Get inspiration from the internet
There's no limit to the recipes you can find online. "Throughout the week, I see quite a few recipes online that look delicious, so I bookmark those," says Mooreston. "On Sundays, I sit down with my laptop and start by going over my bookmarks to see what looks tasty."
On Instagram, follow the foodies for inspiration—and also the non-professional home cooks. Even a badly lit photo of dinner can be a reminder that cooking at home is doable, fun, and totally brag-worthy. (Ready to ditch delivery? Sign up for our 30-Day No Takeout Challenge)
Turn to your Instant Pot
Unlike some single-use kitchen devices that exist mainly to gather dust and occupy valuable real estate (I'm looking at you, juicer), the Instant Pot can do many things: sear, sauté, and take over for your slow cooker, pressure cooker, and rice cooker.
However you use it, the Instant Pot makes cooking easy. "The Instant Pot is the first thing in my nutritional life that attempts to compete with Seamless," says Dana Langer. "You can literally just throw food in it and have it come out as a perfect meal." It's fun, too. "It kind of makes you feel like you're doing a science experiment instead of cooking," Langer adds, "which I personally enjoy."
This story originally appeared on Health.com by Madeline Burry.