Whenever I need to reign in my budget—whether that’s to save for the holidays or put aside money for a vacation—the first category of my spending that hits the proverbial chopping block is “dining out.”
According to the most recent consumer expenditure report published by the the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average household spends $3,008 per year dining out, which is up almost 9 percent from the year before.
Also, research shows that only 10 percent of people “love” cooking. With all of the fast-casual restaurants, plus food court and food truck trends booming, it’s easier than ever to eat out not just on special occasions and weekends, but also a random Tuesday night when following a recipe just feels too tedious after a long day at work.
I actually enjoy cooking. So, my enjoyment of eating at a restaurant is probably more centered around the social aspect of getting together with friends and catching up over a long, multi-course bottle of wine or the convenience of grabbing something to eat while I’m out running errands or before a movie.
Admittedly, there are a few guilty pleasure restaurant dishes I have, namely the baked potato soup at Chili’s Bar & Grill.
My solution? I try re-creating restaurant meals, and the experience, at home as a way to save money.
Here’s three of my favorite meals from restaurants, and how I used them as a muse for an in-home dining experience. When I compared my restaurant receipts to my grocery receipts, I found out that I had saved big bucks!
Dinner at BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse
A friend of mine and I were hitting up BJ’s fairly frequently over the summer because a. It was next to a putt-putt course we took his 3-year-old son to and b. His son eats from two food groups: chicken nuggets and pizza. Also, there’s a bunch of beers on tap and they pass out mini pizza slices if there’s a wait to help keep the hungry crowd tame. But, really, pizza and beer—collegiate staples—should be cheap, right? Not so much when I realized the Friday night pizza outings were adding up.
The meal at the restaurant: Spinach stuffed mushrooms to start, a large pizza washed down with two beers, a kid’s drink and, a pizooki (an ice cream and cookie combo) because they do a darn good job upselling you on dessert.
The restaurant receipt including tip: $72.43
The meal I made at home: The grocery store by my house sells pre-made stuffed mushrooms, which can be popped in the oven, for $5. But, they get marked down to $2.50 on their “sell by” date, and I love to pick them up from the produce section when I know they’re going straight home and into my oven. I also usually have cheese and veggies on hand to make my own, and will spice mine up with a little salsa. For the pizza, I confess, I actually love DiGiorno and I can usually score a big pepperoni one for under $7 at the store. As for dessert, I bought pre-packaged cookie dough to bake a big cookie and then a pint of ice cream. I stopped next door and picked up two bottles of an IPA beer (you don’t have to buy an entire six pack!)
How much it cost me to make at home: $23.45
How much I saved: $48.98
Chili’s Bar and Grill
We have so many great locally owned restaurants here in Denver that it’s hard to justify going to chains. But, like BJ’s, this chain restaurant has appeal: It’s next to the gym I play basketball at on Monday nights, and the creamy, calorie-loaded baked potato soup is my weakness. It’s become a popular spot for me and a friend to catch up over chips and salsa.
The meal at the restaurant: My go-to order is a Diet Coke, chips and salsa and the soup and salad combination. The soda alone is $2.69, which is a pretty large markup for what you can get in the grocery store.
The restaurant receipt including tip: $17. Admittedly, I leave a tip that’s larger than 20 percent because it’s a small bill and I’ve worked in restaurants before.
The meal I made at home: I found a baked potato soup recipe from Skinnytaste that tastes indulgent, but is actually only 200 calories per serving because it uses cauliflower to bulk up the soup! Plus, I keep a six-pack of Diet Coke in the fridge and gather up salad ingredients. I avoid buying bagged salad mix because it expires quickly and ends up costing more than if I just buy produce. Admittedly, it’s really hard to find chips and salsa cheaper than the $3 Chili’s charges, but I can order that to go. It’s a huge bag of chips (more than you’d get at the store) and comes with a vat of salsa. Plus, I love Chili’s chips.
How much it cost me to make at home: Factoring in all of the ingredients for soup and salad, plus the Diet Coke and the chips, it actually cost me $18.75. But, I get 5 meals out of this (the serving size of the soup recipe is five) and I’ve got enough salad for all week. So, each meal ends up costing $3.75.
How much I saved: $13.25
Local Italian restaurant
I have a favorite Italian restaurant that I’ve been going to since college. Like a siren, the smell of garlic is definitely a draw. Salads are topped with huge hunks of gorgonzola, the garlic bread is a tad charred and extra buttery and the baked spaghetti comes to the table topped in a gooey layer of cheese. In a word, this place is indulgent. But, I also know that pasta and bread are fairly cheap and that I could save big bucks by making this meal at home.
The meal at the restaurant: Garlic bread here isn’t a free amenity. It’s actually $5 an order and it’s on every single red-and-white checkered table because it’s that darn good. The famed baked spaghetti is $14 and side salads are $6.50.
The restaurant receipt including tip: My portion of the bill after a glass of wine and with the tip is about $39.50
The meal I made at home: I picked up a french baguette and didn’t skimp with the butter. And, I followed this baked spaghetti recipe and didn’t skimp with the cheese. For the cost of one glass of wine, I got an entire bottle of red. And, I also made myself a side salad, but was a bit bummed I couldn’t hit the same garlic notes as the restaurant did with their homemade dressing.
How much it cost me to make at home: It cost me $19.70 to make at home, but I had way more leftovers, too!
How much I saved: $19.80
Need more inspiration? Six Sisters’ Stuff has 100 copycat restaurant recipes to get you started!