fast food nation

photo by simon shek

Buying takeout food can kill your budget. It's a bad habit that you might rely on when you're busy or too tired to cook, but who can blame you? You can grab a jar of sauce and pasta only so many times before you grow tired of it. Plus, not everyone has time for a freeze-ahead meal marathon. But even busy cooks can curb their takeout spending. Let's face it: This drive-through nonsense isn't very healthy for you, either.

MEAL PLAN: You don't have to cook meals on a schedule, but create a list of meals your family enjoys. This will save you from struggling to decide what to cook. Divide your plan into categories such as beef, poultry, pork, pasta and fish, and list side dishes and vegetable combinations. Write down all your favorite takeout foods, and try to replicate some of them at home. For example, hamburger patties, meatballs and pizza dough can easily be shaped and frozen ahead. Vegetables can be chopped ahead of time, too. On days that you aren't busy, cook enough for a second meal. For example, bake two lasagnas or chickens. Even rice can be frozen. Let it cook, and place into freezer bags. Check Web sites, such as the National Pork Board (www.theotherwhitemeat.com), for additional meal ideas. The Web site has free printable brochures on topics such as quick-and-easy meals and cooking once and eating twice. Or write to the National Pork Board, 1776 NW 114th St., Des Moines, IA 50325 or call (515) 223-2600.

You'll discover there's no shortage of companies willing to help you make quick, easy and healthy meals at home. Two of my favorite meal-planning Web sites are Meijer Meal Box (www.meijermealbox.com) and Aldi Meals (www.aldimeals.com).

TRUSTY SLOW COOKER: Shoot for using your slow cooker once a week. You put all of your ingredients into it at once, and it can cook on low for hours. Go through your meal plan, and see what can be made in your slow cooker. You'll discover many of your family favorites don't have to be cooked in the oven. Sauce, soups, stews, chicken, ribs, chili, roasts -- you can even have baked potatoes ready. Simply wash, dry, prick with a fork and wrap in foil. Place them into your slow cooker on low for six to eight hours or on high for three to four hours. It tastes better than a microwaved potato.

BE FLEXIBLE: Instead of takeout, you can have breakfast for dinner. Buy tortillas so you can easily have breakfast burritos, quesadillas, fajitas, sandwich wraps or tacos. Even frozen prepared meals are cheaper and better for you than fast food. For example, frozen ravioli is quick to make and not terribly expensive. Instead of the drive-through, stop for a loaf of crusty bread. Very basic and cheap meals are made better with bread and a salad. Think: Soup and sandwich or salad, shepherd's pie and bread, or goulash and bread.

DELEGATE: On days you know you're going to be busy, have everyone chip in to help. It will cut down on the amount of work you do and can be fun family time spent together.