5 Tips for Making Your Favorite Restaurant Meals at Home

cookingI don't know about you, but when my bank account goes down, or the number on the scale goes up, one of the first areas in my life I target for cutting back is eating out. I love exploring restaurants, trying new foods and indulging in my favorites, but restaurants are a luxury, and sometimes it's time to just stay home.

But just because you want to cut back on dining out, the quality of your meals doesn't have to suffer. You can still enjoy your favorite foods at home and save money while you're at it. I caught up with Jeanette Pavini, a household savings expert from Coupons.com, who provided five tips for replicating delicious restaurant dishes in the comfort of your own home while saving money and cutting calories. You will, however, have to do the dishes.

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1. Use Fresh Spices. The average shelf life of ground spices is about six months; after that they lose their potency. A restaurant goes through spices much quicker than you do, so chances are there spices are always fresh and full of flavor. Get in the habit of taking a permanent marker and writing the date you bought a spice on the bottom of the container. That way you can guarantee you will get that same intense flavor as the restaurant. This also means spices are one thing you may not want to buy in bulk, be realistic about what you will use.

Alternative: For the highest quality and flavor, purchase whole spices and grind them up as you need them.

2. Seek Out a Wholesale Produce Market. See if there is a wholesale produce market in your area. That is where the restaurants shop so you’re going to get the same wholesale prices as them and the freshest fruit and veggies you can buy. The catch -- you have to buy in bulk and you usually have to shop very early in the morning. Team up with a neighbor to go in on a case of tomatoes or a flat of strawberries.

3. Copycat Recipes. There are a lot of very popular cookbooks with copycat recipes for restaurant favorites, but there you will only find recipes for chains and famous restaurants. If you want to replicate a dish from a local restaurant, here’s what you can do:

  • Start with the restaurant’s website. The menu may have detailed information about the dish and if you’re really lucky, some restaurants even post a few of their recipes online.
  • Secondly, it never hurts to put your search engine to work. Search by chef, restaurant and recipe -- the chef may have a cookbook available, there may be a forum where other people are looking for the same thing, or you may find a recipe very similar to what you’re looking for.
  • Finally, the best resource is your server. Tell your server how much you enjoyed a dish and try to get as much information from him about ingredients and cooking methods. You can even ask him or her to pass a specific question along to the chef. They may leave a few secret ingredients out, but every chef likes to be complimented so they are usually happy to talk about the food with you.

4. Make Substitutions.  Restaurant recipes often call for expensive ingredients -- look for substitutions:

  • Instead of truffles, use truffle oil. It is less expensive and a few drops go a long way.  You can also try a pungent mushroom like a dried shitake.
  • If you don’t want to buy a bottle of alcohol just to use a teaspoon in a recipe, search for a substitution. For example, orange juice concentrate instead of Grand Marnier or Triple Sec, ginger ale instead of champagne, or rum extract instead of brandy.
  • When in doubt, use chicken. If a recipe calls for duck, veal, rabbit, or a game bird like quail or pheasant, try substituting it with chicken but use the same flavor profile as the restaurant.

5. Cut Calories. It can be hard to find a restaurant menu item that has less than 1,000 calories -- creamy pasta sauces, oily salad dressings, and burgers with all the toppings quickly add up.

  • Instead of a one-dish pasta dinner like they serve at restaurants, replicate the pasta and serve yourself a small portion with a big side of vegetables.
  • Use spices, garlic, onions and fresh herbs like basil and mint to give lots of flavor to your dishes without a bunch of extra calories.
  • Compare calories between an undressed salad and a salad with dressing -- you will be shocked. Dressings can turn a healthy salad into a high calorie meal so avoid using a lot of sugar and oil when making your own. Search for a low-fat dressing recipe online.

Do you make restaurant-quality meals at home? Any tips to add?


Image via stevendepolo/Flickr

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