If you look in our pantry at any given time, one thing you’ll virtually always find are about a dozen boxes of spaghetti and about a dozen jars of pasta sauce. If we ever run “low,” meaning we get down to less than a half-dozen or so of either one, we make sure to add it to our grocery list for upcoming weeks with a “(if on sale)” note by it. If we actually do run low, which means less than two or three of each, then it gets straight-up added to the grocery list.
Why do we do things this way? Why on earth would we need to have so many boxes of pasta and pasta sauce in the cupboard all the time?
It’s because spaghetti with pasta sauce is one of our go-to default meals at our house, and thus we “overstock” it. By doing so, we save a lot of time and a lot of money.
Let’s move through this in detail.
The Idea of the ‘Default’ Meal
At our house, we have a handful of meals that Sarah and I can easily prepare and that our family all generally likes. That list includes the aforementioned spaghetti with sauce, a few soup mixes (that we often make ourselves), scrambled eggs and pancakes, and chili.
These meals have been made over and over again, probably once every two weeks or so, for years and years. Sarah and I can both prepare any one of them nearly on autopilot with minimal time.
For example, with the spaghetti, I know exactly how much water to put in the pan, exactly how long that it will take to boil (so I can just walk away and do other things and come back when the water’s boiling), and the order in which to do other tasks like set out a strainer and so on. I don’t even have to think about it, which enables me, on a busy evening, to handle other little tasks that need completing around the house.
Another big advantage is that most of these meals require only a few ingredients, which means that they’re easy on our grocery bill, something we’ll get back to in a minute.
Furthermore, most of those ingredients are shelf-stable, meaning we can keep them in our pantry without worry. I can keep all of the ingredients for a spaghetti meal, a soup mix, and chili in the pantry, and the only item needed for the “breakfast” meal is the eggs, which we always have on hand.
This adds up to a repertoire of meals that we can call upon at a moment’s notice, which is extremely helpful for us when plans go awry and eating out looks like an incredibly convenient option.
Overstocking Default Meals
Because those “default” meals are so useful for us in terms of time, ease of preparation, cost, and family enjoyment, over the years we’ve come to naturally “overstock” those meals in our pantry.
So, if you peek in our pantry, as noted earlier, what you’ll find is a bunch of spaghetti and sauce, sometimes up to a dozen boxes and jars. You’ll find a lot of pancake mix. You’ll find a lot of soup mixes – usually ones we’ve made ourselves, but sometimes store soup mixes that are similar to the ones we make. You’ll find ingredients for basic chili many times over.
“Overstocking” like this ensures that we don’t even have to think about whether we have ingredients for that meal or not. We just assume that we do and can jump into action without a second thought and can plan things with that assumption.
Since these meals are quick and can be made on “autopilot” they often serve as emergency substitutions when unexpected situations come up. Someone “forgot” their extra soccer practice? We grab a default meal instead of what we had planned. Sarah’s stuck in traffic? No problem – I can just fire up the spaghetti while helping the kids get ready for their band concert.
I don’t have to wonder whether we have stuff on hand. I don’t have to go to the store. Those meals are always ready to go.
The Financial Benefit
First of all, there’s the obvious benefit that this transforms a meal at a restaurant into a meal eaten at home. For the average American family eaten out versus the average meal eaten at home, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that we’ll save somewhere around $18 for our family of five (their data suggests $9 for a typical family of 2.5 Americans). So, that simple move of eating at home instead of eating out is $18 in savings for our family, roughly, and that matches my own experience more or less.
The nice part? It’s actually even more than that, because knowing this situation in detail enables us to tighten up the frugality and really crank out some savings.
Because we know we’re always going to want to have a lot of those staples on hand – pasta, pasta sauce, canned beans, dry beans, chili powder (and many other spices), pancake mix, soup mixes, and so on – and that all of those items are shelf stable, we know that we can always stock up big time on them.
Whenever there’s a sale on any of those items, as I noted above, we buy a lot of them. Whole wheat pasta’s down to $0.50 a box? Better buy a dozen of them. Our favorite pasta sauce is 50% off? Let’s load up the cart, boys!
Thus, every time we have one of our “default” overstocked meals, we’re almost always eating with ingredients that we bought on sale. No full priced spaghetti for us! No full priced beans for us!
Even if we’re in a situation where we need to restock those core ingredients and just haven’t seen a sale in a long time, we can always buy them in bulk, which is also a discount over the normal price of a single package.
Furthermore, it helps with coupon clipping. If I happen to spy a coupon for one of those default ingredients, I’ll always clip it. I don’t go looking for coupons, but when it’s an obvious “win” like that and I know I’ll be buying that item soon, clipping a coupon is basically cutting a dollar bill out of a newspaper page and putting it in my wallet.
Those things together reduce the cost of one of our overstocked default meals down to far below the average cost of a meal prepared at home, which means that the gap between one of those meals and the cost of a meal eaten out is even bigger. Using a “default” meal on a busy night rather than eating out likely keeps $20 in our family’s pocket, on average.
What Are Your Default Meals? What Can You Overstock?
Now, turn the tables back to your own situation.
What are your default meals? What simple meals that you prepare at home do you often turn to when you’re busy or tired, just because they’re easy to make and you like them? We have around six or seven of them, which seems to be consistent with our friends. Sit down and figure out what your default meals are, particularly the ones that rely on nonperishable and shelf-stable ingredients.
Overstock those meals. Once you’ve figured out a few default meals, “overstock” those ingredients. Wait until you see an ingredient on sale and then buy a ton of that ingredient. Throw a dozen boxes of pasta into your cart. Buy 20 pounds of rice. Whatever the ingredient is, if it’s on sale, stock up big time. Stow it away in your pantry and start slowly using it up!
Keep it overstocked. Then, add a section to your grocery list of items to pick up if they’re on sale. Keep some of those key ingredients for your default meals on there all the time, and only cross them off temporarily if you have a massive sur at home. If you happen to see a coupon for any of those items, paperclip it to your grocery list.
For me, “overstocking” our “default” meals is one of those frugal strategies that saves both time and money. The only time it adds is another moment or two at the grocery store, and at the same time, simply having default meals at home saves us time on many busy evenings. It also saves money because we’re eating at home more and we’re able to take advantage of bulk buying and big buys of on-sale items.
Give this strategy a shot. Stock up big time on the ingredients of your “default” meals. Enjoy them over and over again so that preparation is down to an exact science. You’ll find that it’s often just more convenient to eat at home, and every time you do that, you’ll save money, too.
More by Trent Hamm: