My phone rings, and I jump off the couch. It’s the moment I’ve been anticipating for at least the past 30 minutes — the food is here.
I hastily throw on a sweatshirt and pull boots onto my sockless feet. I throw open the door to my apartment and leap down the two flights of stairs just in time to catch the delivery guy, my shining star, peering up the stairwell while holding steaming bags of food. I thank him, grab the bags, and head upstairs to feast.
No, it’s not a special occasion — this is just my everyday life. My fiancé, Dan, and I share an apartment in Brooklyn, and we get delivery food about three to four times a week. The rest of the time, he cooks us dinner with whatever we have lying around or we go out. The number of times per week that I cook something? That would be a pure and simple zero.
I never exactly made a conscious choice not to learn how to cook; it just sort of happened. My early twenties came and went, and still I lived on a steady diet of takeout and delivery. I met Dan at 27, and, while his good habit of cooking meals rubbed off on me a little, I’m proud (kind of? I’m a monster) to say that my bad habit of ordering in rubbed off on him even more. And that’s how we got here: spending about $40 on single meals multiple times a week, not to mention $10–12 Monday through Friday on chopped salad lunches at work.
Facts are facts, folks, and here are mine: I’m 31 years old, I’m getting married in the fall, and I live in the most expensive city in the world. None of my income should be considered entirely disposable, yet I dispose of it daily on expensive prepared food. I need to find a way to save some money...and also acquire the basic survival skill of feeding myself.
It's time for a change.
Research easy recipes and plan out meals for two full weeks.
Grocery shop for all the ingredients.
Meal-prep on Sunday.
Bring lunch to work every day.
Eat leftovers for dinner.
Learn to cook and save a whole bunch of dough along the way.
I planned to go grocery shopping on Friday so I'd be all set to start cooking on Sunday, but first I had to figure out what the heck I was going to make. Given that I had no particular skills to work with, and that Dan’s uncle once gifted us a slow cooker, I figured I would start there. I settled on the following menu:
• Slow-cooker turkey chili
• Honey sesame chicken bowls
• Soba noodle soup
• Tofu chickpea stir-fry
• Mason jar zucchini salad
I would make all of this on Sunday, divvy it up into four lunch containers and one mason jar, and then eat the leftovers for dinner over the course of the week.
Grocery shopping itself was surprisingly painless, and paying for it was honestly startling — the total came to $76.57. I was really going to get a full week of lunches AND dinners out of this? Still, I woke up on Sunday feeling nervous about how I'd get all this cooking done. I wondered if I could maybe fake it somehow. I had no idea what order to cook stuff in or if I should cook two things at once or what. “I NEED YOU TO HELP ME MAKE A PLAN,” I yelled at Dan, who calmly agreed to help me get through the day.
In the end, I started the slow-cooker chili and, while that bubbled away, carefully made each subsequent dish. I turned on old episodes of The Office and rode the emotional wave of Jim and Pam’s early courtship while learning the art of chopping broccoli and that rice can burn really fast. I’m not saying there weren’t painful moments (I spilled my first batch of honey sesame glaze on the floor because of course I did), but when it was all over and the fridge was stocked with food, I felt a deep sense of accomplishment. I’d cooked! I’d really cooked!
I was riding high, but I was brought swiftly down to Earth when I had to bring my food to the office for lunch the next day and realized that, while it tasted very good (I swear!), it looked a fair amount — or a lot — like dog food. I had successfully cooked food, but I had not successfully made said food look edible. But give me a break, guys — I’m only 31 years old.
Some notes on my week-one food: Turkey chili is delicious and incredibly easy to make; if you add too many soba noodles to your soup, you will not exactly have soup anymore but rather a noodle dish, which is better; honey-sesame chicken is what it’s really all about; and that salad looks the prettiest but actually tasted the worst (life is so weird).
Going into week two, I felt confident I could up my game. This time, I decided to make food I could reuse in different ways throughout the week — you know, like real meal-preppers do. Here’s the menu I came up with:
• Slow-cooker turkey meatballs and whole-wheat pasta
• Slow-cooker chicken noodle soup (with whole-wheat pasta)
• Turkey meatballs with roasted broccoli and garlic
• Chicken noodle soup with roasted broccoli
• Mason jar broccoli mustard salad
Due to my more mature and advanced meal-prep plan, this Friday’s trip to the grocery store was even easier and cheaper than the last had been — I made it out of there having relinquished only $64.87. I hauled my groceries home feeling more than a little smug and truly ready to run the entire world.
When Sunday morning dawned, I knew what I had to do. I made the turkey meatballs in the slow cooker first while the pasta boiled on the stove. When the meatballs were done, I started the chicken soup. While the soup cooked, I made the broccoli. It was perfect, like a dance — Dan watched in awe. (Just kidding, but he did tell me he was proud of me and give me a tiny forehead kiss after tasting the meatballs.)
I waited until Thursday night to make my mason jar salad, wanting my last day of the challenge to be true perfection. And then, when I was done, I Instagrammed it, joining the ranks of celebrated food bloggers with just a tap. (Again, kidding — it took me forever to get this photo, and it is nowhere near as good as a food blogger’s photo would be. I mean, my nails aren't even painted! But, please, let me have this.)
During my two weeks of meal-prepping, I estimate that between delivered dinners and lunches out I saved about $300. THREE. HUNDO. Can you imagine how rich I might be if past-Jana had decided to do this earlier? Actually, thinking about that is painful. Let's chalk that up to youthful ignorance and look to the future.
This challenge has taught me that cooking isn’t nearly as hard or as painful as I expected it'd be. And it’s reaffirmed the sneaking suspicion I already had — that eating out instead of cooking at home is a great way to throw away my hard-earned money. I can’t promise I’ll never order in again (I can't leave my favorite delivery guys hanging like that!), but I do know I’ll think hard about it before I do. It turns out I'm capable of preparing my own meals and saving my money in the process. What a time to be alive.