Spending Too Much On Food At Work?
Between training, calls, meetings, and all the other things you have to do during the day, meal planning and food prep can be hard. Even with the best of intentions, plans tend to go out the window when the tones go off. It then becomes all too easy to grab a quick bite from a restaurant.
The Restaurant Trap
The problem with restaurants is that you usually can’t get a good meal for less than $10. Yes, you can eat cheaper if you buy fast food, but then you’re sacrificing your health. Our job already stresses our bodies enough. Adding fast food and soda doesn’t help.
There was a time not too long ago when my crew was eating the majority of our meals in restaurants. We would spend between $10 and $15 per meal, which added up quickly. In a month, eating out was costing us each over $400! We had numerous excuses for not cooking, from being too tired or busy to not having a grocery store nearby. The main reason was actually poor planning. By resolving to dedicate a little time to meal planning and shopping every week, we now eat well and save money in the process.
Cooking food for yourself, whether at home or at work, is the best way to save money on eating. Restaurants get to mark up their ingredients a lot and charge you a premium just for the convenience factor. Sure, it’s easier to have someone else cook and clean up for you, but it will save you a lot of money in the long run if you do it yourself. With a crew, you can spread the workload around. You also get to decide exactly which ingredients go into the meal, so it’s easy to customize something that everyone likes.
What Do We Eat?
To save money and eat well, my engine company tries to cook breakfast and dinner every shift. Everyone usually brings their own lunch. Our breakfast standby is tacos with chorizo, eggs, cheese, and avocado. We top them with habanero hot sauce from Torchy’s in Austin, TX, and they’re heaven. For dinner, we’ll plan our menu around whatever protein happens to be on sale at the time. We add vegetables, potatoes or sweet potatoes, and bread (every once in while) to round it out. Any leftovers become free lunch on our next shift.
We each rotate cooking duties so no one gets burnt out. My crew has a good rotation of recipes, and we’re all pretty good cooks. Cleanup is done by everyone except the cook.
Our House Cat
At my station, we keep a shift fund, or “kitty,” that buys our meals. There are a hundred ways to organize a kitty, but ours works this way: We use money from the kitty the buy the ingredients for a meal. Each crew member then pays into the kitty for his meal. We each pay a standard $3 for breakfast and $6 for dinner.
We have 5 guys stationed at my firehouse per shift, so the kitty is paid $15 for breakfast and $30 for dinner. If the dinner ingredients cost $25, then the kitty “makes” $5. If the dinner ingredients cost $35, then the kitty absorbs the cost. Most of the time, the kitty makes money. Every once in a while, the kitty covers the cost of some of the meal so that nobody has to pay more than $3 or $6. When we’ve saved up a hundred bucks or so, we’ll go out to eat at a restaurant and let the kitty pay.
Our kitty also allows us to take advantage of sales and bulk buys. Our last trip to the store, we happened to find 93% lean ground beef on sale for really cheap. We scooped up several pounds to freeze for later, and also bought a few large bags of frozen vegetables. We filled our freezer, and none of us had to pay out of pocket.
Having the ingredients already on hand makes it more convenient to cook, too. We simply take some meat out of the refrigerator to thaw the shift before. By the next shift, it’s thawed and ready to cook, and we don’t have to make a trip across town to the store.
Cooking vs. Calls
Most of you have had an evening where you get a call right in the middle of cooking dinner. If you are in a multi-company house, it doesn’t have to be a big deal. The company that doesn’t go on the run stays behind and keeps cooking. If you are a single company house or all of the station’s companies are toned out, it can ruin a meal. You have to turn off the stove and oven and hope that the noodles don’t get soggy or that the meatloaf cooks quickly when you get back. This happens to us, too (sometimes several times per meal), but we often have a backup plan.
We are lucky to have a fire marshal who is housed at our station. He works 24 hour shifts, just like us, but doesn’t go on nearly as many calls as we do. If we get a call during dinner prep, we can usually have him keep an eye on the food until we get back. This isn’t always foolproof, however.
We’ve recently come back from runs to find “smoke showing” at the firehouse. Twice. Once, the chicken on the grill outside caught fire while our fire marshal was on the treadmill. We arrived back at the station to find a plume of smoke and three foot flame lengths. We pulled off the blackened skin, shredded the meat, and doused it in barbecue sauce. It was edible, but smoky. The second time, he was distracted while cleaning his vehicle, and let three pans of roasted veggies burn. The smoke in the kitchen was banked down to eye level. We salvaged some of them, but had to resort to breaking out the tortillas and mixing the veggies with rice and beans for burritos. It was my fault, because I never specifically asked him to check on the veggies. Like I said – it works most of the time.
What If You Can’t Cook At Work?
It’s easy for us because we have a kitchen in our firehouse. The paramedics in our area are mostly stationed at firehouses, so they can figure in to mealtime, too. It’s not so simple for the police, though. Most officers I know are either on patrol or in the office throughout their shift. Most don’t have access to a kitchen either.
If you can’t cook at work but still want to save money on food by not eating out all the time, there are a couple options. At my volunteer department, the town’s police officers will show up to eat with the firefighters when they happen to cook. Everyone gets fed, and the more people that eat, the cheaper the meal becomes for each person. I know this won’t work in every jurisdiction, but my crew would be happy to have a few cops show up to eat with us.
If eating with a bunch of firefighters doesn’t appeal to you, you can always cook at home and bring it to work. Making extra food when you cook a meal at home will enable you to eat cheaply and healthy for very little extra effort. Microwaves are everywhere, and all it will cost you is the price of investing in a few food storage containers.
What do you do to save money on food at work? Have any killer recipes or tips you’d like to share? Let me know!