• Vidhya S

A Foodie's Dilemma

I absolutely love food. I definitely fall into the 'live-to-eat' category. But being a foodie can be expensive, especially when it involves frequently eating out. There was a time when my husband and I were busy with work and we started to eat out almost every day. We'd try to keep the cost low, mainly by frequenting our local mamak. Even then, since my husband and I are hardcore non-vegetarians, our bill would come up to around RM15++.

And after eating in the mamak for two or three days in a row, we'd get bored and want to go elsewhere. That's when things start to go downhill. We might go for sushi, Thai food or fast food delivery - all of which cost a pretty penny!

Eating out can be pretty expensive nowadays.

We've recently started house-hunting (that's another looooong story that I hope to write about soon) and it's made me realise a couple of things:

  1. The housing market is said to be slowing down and it's a good time for buyers, but house prices are still crazy.

  2. Looking for the right house is a long and tiring process that makes you question everything in life.

  3. With house prices in the Klang Valley well above half a million and loan repayments eating up a large chunk of our salaries these days, it's becoming more and more important to budget and ensure that we can save for our future.

This requires us to take a long, hard look at our finances and think of areas where we can cut back. So that's what I've tried to do over the past few weeks. When I look at where our money is going, there's all the usual stuff like rent, utilities, food, petrol and miscellaneous expenses. Food and entertainment accounted for a rather large portion of our monthly expenses. The frequent eating out and visits to the cinema inclusive of expensive concession stand items were all really adding up.

This seemed like a good place to start. I started thinking about ways in which I can cut down on our food expenses. The first thing that came to mind is cooking and eating at home more. Would this really make much difference though? I would still have to buy the ingredients and spend money on electricity to run my induction cooker. To figure this one out, I turned to the empirical evidence.

Say we eat at the mamak twice a week for RM 15 per visit, order fast food take out once a week for RM 40 per delivery (cause let's face it, these orders are hella expensive!) and eat out at relatively 'fancy' eateries such as Sushi Mentai twice a week for around RM50 per visit. That adds up to around RM 170 per week, and that's just for dinner! This could be considered a conservative estimate since some 'fancy' eateries may be even costlier. Add lunch into the picture at RM 8 per person and that's RM 80 per week.

All in all, that brings us to a total of RM 1,000 per month (excluding breakfast, snacks and weekend food expenses). Yikes, that's a lot of money!

Ok, I guess there's no harm in trying to eat at home more to see how that fares in comparison. In hopes of setting myself up for success, I bought a week's worth of groceries at the beginning of the week. This required me to roughly plan out the meals we would have over the one week and buy ingredients accordingly. The first trip is likely to be the most expensive as we'd need to stock up on pantry essentials such as oil, spices and rice. But once we more or less have all these essentials at home, the weekly shopping trips become cheaper.

I recently discovered an NSK outlet not too far from where we live and it's truly been a godsend. Groceries are pretty cheap here and my weekly grocery run usually costs me about RM100+. Here are a few things I found to be quite useful:

  1.  I used to buy small amounts of chicken as needed from the local grocer and this can be quite costly. Instead, now I buy a whole chicken and ask the staff in charge to cut it up for me. When I reach home, I divide it into several portions: thighs, wings and ribs on one side for curries and breast pieces on one side for stir-fries. Then, I package them accordingly and put them into the freezer.

  2. I used to think that buying groceries on a budget meant that items such as prawns and salmon were a major NO-NO, but this isn't necessarily true. I buy around 20 medium-sized prawns, enough for both of us and keep it in the freezer for a special weekday dinner. Frozen salmon in places like NSK isn't too pricey either. I find that depriving myself of these foods end up making me feel like I lack variety in my home cooking and pushes me to eat out more. So I buy small amounts of these relatively expensive seafood items to change things up once in a while.

  3. Canned items like sardine and mushrooms are useful. Sardine is a very cost-effective protein and one can really goes a long way. When using such items, it's useful to plan your meals ahead accordingly. For example, if you plan to open a can of sardines today for sardine fried rice, maybe dinner the next day could be sardine curry with whatever is leftover in the can.

So once the groceries are sorted, the cooking commences! I find myself in-between jobs again and cooking every day is a real treat for me because I love being in the kitchen. Now that I'm at home quite a bit, I've been trying out these 'no spend' days where I cook all my meals and I don't spend any money on take-out or eating out. So usually on Mondays, I do the grocery shopping and on Fridays, we have date night where we try out new restaurants. I try to keep Tuesdays to Thursdays as 'no spend' days. Initially, this was a real pain, but over time, I started to get used to it. 

Sometimes, I get bored of making curries and I want to try something new instead. So I look up recipes online for Thai, Korean or Western dishes to expand my kitchen repertoire. I must admit that in the past I've had this terrible habit of buying new sauces or pastes for a specific recipe, after which they sit idle in the fridge until they expire. Now, I try my level best to avoid buying things for specific recipes that I may not use much thereafter. For example, I recently tried making chicken meatballs and that recipe called for breadcrumbs. I don't use a lot of breadcrumbs in my cooking and I feared that this would be a wasteful purchase. So instead, I used Hup Seng cracker crumbs and the meatballs weren't too shabby, if I can say so myself! These Hup Seng crackers also came in pretty handy in place of digestive biscuits when my friend and I were making a tart crust. All hail the ever-versatile Hup Seng crackers!

Chicken meatballs in tomato sauce.
Fruit tart.

Alright, now for the comparison. Say our weekly groceries are around RM 100, G's lunch expenses are RM 8 per day (RM 40 per week) and our Friday date night dinner expense is RM 60. Our electricity bill has gone up (on account that we use our air cond more due to the hot weather and I'm using the induction cooker way more). So say the average monthly increase in power usage is around RM 50. That brings us to a total of RM 850 per month. Overall, cooking at home (as compared to eating out) provides savings of around RM 100-150 per month. That's not much, but it's a start.

The journey towards more home cooking will be different for all of us. I currently spend a great deal of time at home and thus, cooking and eating at home is an easier option for me. For those who work full-time, cooking at home daily may not be very practical. Instead, a balance of eating out on some days and preparing simple, quick meals on other days may be preferable. However, home cooking is a matter of trial and error. Some dishes will sing, others may be a miss, but that's ok. Explore recipes online and consult your most valuable resource, in the kitchen and in life, your mom. Take pictures of the good dishes and the bad ones. The good ones you can recreate and the bad ones, well, you can have a good laugh over with your friends. So all in all, here are some key takeaways from this exhaustingly long blog post:

  1. If you haven't guessed it yet, I like lists.

  2. With some planning, cooking at home can be a cheaper alternative to eating out.

  3. Don't get frustrated if you mess up in the kitchen. Look at the bright side, it'll give you a funny story to tell your friends!

Some of the good ones:

Rice, fish curry and snake gourd cooked with lentils.
Tandoori-style chicken with coriander-yogurt sauce.
Rice, dhal, mushroom masala and pan-fried mock fish.

And, some of the bad ones:

My take on palak paneer with neither palak nor paneer. I used bayam and tofu instead. The result was sadly underwhelming.
Steamed pumpkin with 4-mushroom filling. Though visually pleasant to look at, the pumpkin was not steamed completely and the process was too much of a hassle.

Image by RetroSupply

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