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Cook More, Eat Out Less: 7 Highly Effective Habits

One of my New Year's resolutions has been to cook more at home, and I can proudly say that three weeks in, I'm in far better shape than this time last year.

According to my American Express account, 25% of my charges in 2010 were inexcusably "restaurant" related. Seeing that was a huge wake-up call to get my act together. But so far this month, my restaurant billings have totaled just 1% of all credit card charges. I'm most surprised by the fact that I don't really miss the days of going out every night. Who knew?

Whether I can keep this up will depend on how well I can stick to the habits that have helped me stay committed thus far. Let's review - although please keep in mind that for a New Yorker like me, who lives a 10 minute walk from 20+ restaurants and cafes, it's all about baby steps:

1. Plan Ahead

The weekends are when I usually take time to gather my thoughts and review my agenda for the upcoming week. This year it's also become my time to draft my five-day meal plan and make a list of ingredients and groceries. For example, declaring that next Tuesday will be Taco Tuesday gives me (and my fiancé) something to commit to and plan ahead for.

2. Shop Online

On Saturday, with list in hand, I'll usually hit the grocery store â€" from my laptop. In New York, we have the ability to shop for nearly all our grocery needs via a popular site called Fresh Direct. It's convenient, saves time and allows me to shop with focus, instead of getting distracted or peckish.

3. Keep Ready-Made Meals and Snacks on Hand

Lunch is often the hardest meal for me to preplan, since my weeks are unpredictable. Some days I'm home during my lunch hour, so I'll just make a sandwich or salad. But for the days I'm out in the field on a shoot or in an office, I'll throw a prepared meal and snacks into my tote - maybe a salad from Fresh Direct, a yogurt cup, an apple, etc. Otherwise, I blow it with an $8 sandwich or $10 sushi roll from the deli. Another trick: Carrying a water bottle has been a smart way to stay full and eliminate cravings during the days I'm away from my home office.

4. Dine Early

The later in the day I wait to make and eat dinner, the hungrier I become - and the more likely I'll reach for the phone and order in from my favorite Thai place. I've noticed that I need to start cooking before 6pm to best avoid temptation. If I haven't eaten by the time Modern Family is on TV, I'm in trouble.

5. Find a Cooking Buddy

My fiancé, Tim, has a similar goal to eat out less, and he gets the gold star for best cooking buddy, helping me stay on track. But if you don't have a significant other with similar goals, use a roommate or a friend - or find a new friend on sites like Craigslist. As I write in my book, Psych Yourself Rich, it's important to identify money buddies â€" be it a spouse, roommate or friend â€" who can give you emotional support while reaching for shared financial goals.

6. Limit Happy Hours

A couple drinks in at happy hour, and there's sure to be a group of friends who want to make an entire night of it with dinner and more drinks. And drinks do count as "eating out," at least financially: Two cocktails can sometimes cost more than an entire entrée. To save money, I need to stay in control. Adult beverages mixed with peer pressure can be a costly combination.

7. Reward Thyself

Last Friday, I went out for dinner for the first night in probably five or six evenings and it felt pretty rewarding. What's more, it really put my expenses in perspective. My salad, pasta dish and glass of wine totaled close to $50 with tip and tax - and I kept thinking in my head that it was the equivalent of groceries for at least four dinners at home.

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Photo courtesy: M0les' Photostream on Flickr

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