How YOYO Dinners Are Saving Us Money

updated Apr 20, 2020
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Food has always been one of our biggest household expenses, and a place my husband and I splurge more than just about any other category. What can I say? We love to eat. 

But when we suddenly lost a big chunk of our household income after closing our Airbnbs due to the pandemic, it was time for a radical change in spending habits. We went for a total budgetary overhaul. I’m not talking Hey, let’s spend a little less at the grocery store for a few weeks. I mean Throw out the budget altogether and spend as little as humanly possible

Prior to sheltering in place we’d finally gotten pretty good at meal planning. We’d plan out a week’s worth of delicious, sometimes-involved meals, mixing old favorites with new recipes I’d found online, and hit several stores to load up on tons of ingredients. What a silly habit it seems, looking back!

Now? There is no meal plan. Instead, we mix a couple of “proper” meals (as in, a traditional sit-down, both eat the same thing, and enjoy a main dish with a side or two) with what we like to call fend-for-yourself nights, aka You’re On Your Own meals. 

It turns out, we don’t have to be eating the same thing to have a nice dinner together. And I’ve discovered that these YOYO nights are helping us waste less food (which means we’re saving money). In the past, shamefully, a container of leftovers would often linger in the fridge until neither of us wanted it. Now on a YOYO night, though, one of us grabs that container of leftovers and the other one has something else (either a different leftover option or something else made for one).

Not only are we wasting less food, but we’re also spending less on food in general this way. I’m no longer buying a laundry list of groceries on every shop — but rather, just the essentials and a few things I know we’ll eat up. No more buying this or that because a single recipe calls for it.

Credit: Sorbis / Shutterstock

How I Shop for YOYO Dinners During the Pandemic

When I shop for groceries now, I focus on essentials. I always grab produce that looks good and know we’ll use no matter what. We love anything with carrots or cauliflower so those are usually go-tos, along with kale and good salad greens (because you can always throw a bunch of stuff with greens and call it salad for dinner!). Eggs and citrus are must-haves, and I try to get green onions. We’ll get maybe one key protein for the week, like a whole chicken or a hunk of roast, and that’s it. Along with a few tubes of long-lasting herbs in the fridge, and our stock of non-perishables and frozen things, I know there will always be something we can throw together. 

Credit: Photo: Ghazalle Badiozamani; Food Styling: Brett Regot

Our Rules for YOYO Dinners

Honestly, there are no rules! We’ve almost completely stopped meal planning, thinking ahead to only one or two meals a week. The rest of the time, after my husband comes downstairs from where he’s WFH, we just start poking around the fridge. At the beginning of the stay-at-home order, we inventoried what was in the freezer, and had stocked our pantry with a bunch of staples, so it’s sort of like we’re shopping at home. Everything is fair game and we try to mix and match in-stock goods or leftovers with something fresh from a limited store run.

Even though “What is a weekend?” is our de facto motto these days, we try to keep a semblance of normalcy by doing bigger cooking projects on the weekends — the one or two main meals we tend to plan. One of those recently was a Basque simmered whole chicken. After giving some to a friend, we only had enough leftovers for one person, so on our next YOYO night, my husband had that while I had leftovers of another big cook, a Taiwanese style beef noodle soup from the Lucky Peach cookbook that stretched through several meals. Did the reheating smells totally collide? Yep. Did that matter as we sat side by side tucking into our individual meals? Nope. 

Of course it’s not always that fancy. The other night, I had a chunk of bread with a wedge of hard cheese and a jar of leftover soup, while my husband had something totally unmemorable. (We ate on the porch and chatted with socially distanced neighbors who passed by, so it wasn’t that sad. In fact, it was actually perfect.) Another time, one of us had leftover fried rice (just add an egg!) while the other had refried beans topped with cheese, avocado, and green onions. 

A quick note about kids: If you’re reading this and thinking it wouldn’t work for your family, I have a suggestion. We do not have kids, but if you did, you could feed them more planned-out meals and then do YOYO dinners just for the parents.

Tonight I’m looking forward to one of my ultimate comfort foods: a caramelized pear pizza topped with salad greens that we toss in homemade blue cheese dressing. If we’re lucky, there’s usually a slice or two left over that I’m already hoping to have tomorrow. If anything, that’s the biggest challenge of YOYO meals: Deciding who gets dibs on the best leftovers (but I’m going to definitely claim this one). 

Do you have YOYO meals ever? What are you doing to save money during the stay-at-home orders? Answer either (or both!) of these questions in the comments below!