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8 Cheap, Healthy Alternatives to Restaurant Favorites

Dining out budget looking slim?

This post written in collaboration with Kelli McGrane, MS, RD dietitian at Lose It! Lose It! is like YNAB for weight loss. Tackle long-term health goals by making a plan for how you'll "spend" your daily calorie budget and Lose It! makes it easy to track and adjust along the way.

Whether you’re short for time or just don’t like to cook, many of us dine out a few times a week. 

Sure, going out every once in awhile can be a fun way to get out and enjoy not having to cook (or do dishes), dining out several times a week can add up fast for your cash and calories.

For example, if you get a $10 lunch five days a week, that adds up to $50 per week and $2,500 per year. And that’s just for lunch, it’s even more if you dine out for dinner. 

Plus, the price of dining out keeps rising. According to the Consumer Price Index, the cost of meals outside the home rose 3.1% over the past year while groceries increased less than 1%. 

Swap out menus for grocery lists

So, if you’re looking to save some money and stick to your calorie budget, one of the best ways to do it is by dining out less and cooking at home more. 

We’ve got a list of ingredients to keep on hand, plus cheap, healthy ways to make eight popular restaurant dishes at home. 

Staple ingredients to keep on hand

Keep these staples on hand to make restaurant-quality meals at home. While it might seem like a long list, chances are you already have most of them. Plus, since they have long shelf lives and are generally used in small amounts, you’ll only need to re-stock up a few times per year. 

  • Extra-virgin olive oil and canola oil 
  • Canned diced tomatoes and canned tomato sauce
  • A couple types of vinegar: balsamic, red wine, rice, and apple cider 
  • Salt and pepper 
  • A few key spices: red pepper flakes, garlic powder, ground cinnamon, cayenne pepper, ground cumin, ground chili powder, paprika, and curry powder 
  • Dried (or fresh) herbs: try basil, oregano, and bay leaf to start
  • Low sodium soy sauce 
  • Dijon mustard 
  • Salsa
  • Honey and/or maple syrup
  • Worcestershire sauce

Of course, this list may change slightly depending on the types of foods you like best. If you tend to eat more Indian dishes, then your spice list will be a bit longer. Or if you love Thai food, then fish sauce should probably go on your list. Keep a lookout for whenever one of these items is on sale to replenish your stock. 

8 Restaurant Favorites 

Now that your pantry is stocked with the essentials, it’s time to get cooking! Here are some tips for making some of your favorite restaurant dishes cheaper and healthier at home. 

1. Orange Chicken with Broccoli  

Orange chicken is one of the most popular menu items at Panda Express. Here’s my go-to recipe for a cheaper—and much healthier—version at home. 

Money-saving tips:

  • Opt for chicken thighs, which are usually cheaper than breasts.
  • Look for sales or family-packs of chicken. You can either cook it all to use in various recipes throughout the week or freeze any extra chicken for later. 
  • Instead of buying a pre-made sauce, make your own using orange juice and a few pantry staples. 
  • Buy whole heads of broccoli, rather than bags of pre-chopped. 

To make it healthier:

  • Instead of coating and frying, pan-fry cubed chicken pieces in 1-2 tablespoons of canola oil and toss in a homemade orange sauce. 
  • Use a no-sugar-added orange juice in your orange sauce. 
  • Use brown rice instead of white.
  • Opt for low-sodium soy sauce.
  • Pile on the veggies. In addition to broccoli, add in bell peppers, zucchini, cauliflower, or other on-sale vegetables.  

2. Steak Dinner

Usually reserved for a fancy night out, the bill at your favorite steakhouse can add up quickly. Between the steak, sides, and wine, you can easily spend $100 for a dinner for two. 

To save serious cash, spend your next date night at home with homemade steaks, sides of choice, and a bottle of wine. Try this steak recipe, it's delicious!

Money-saving tips: 

  • Chuck steaks are a cheaper yet flavorful alternative to a New York strip or ribeye steak—just be careful not to overcook them! 
  • If you plan on slicing your steak thin, you can also look for flank or hanger cuts. 
  • Roasted fingerling potatoes are an inexpensive side that only requires olive oil, salt, and pepper.
  • For wine, Costco and Trader Joe’s are both great places to find inexpensive options.

To make it healthier: 

  • Include a salad or sauteed spinach as one of your sides.
  • Limit portions to 4-ounces of steak and save the rest for leftovers.  
  • Go easy on the butter when searing.

3. Pasta Bolognese 

Bolognese is a fancy-sounding name for a meat-based pasta sauce that originated in Bologna, Italy. 

Made from a combination of ground meat (usually beef or veal), celery, carrot, onion, tomato paste, and white wine, what costs $18-25 at many restaurants can be made much cheaper at home. Especially when you consider that you can get an entire box of pasta noodles for $1 at most grocery stores. 

Money-saving tips: 

  • Ground meat freezes well, so the next time it’s on sale grab a few packages to keep in the freezer.
  • While it won’t work at every grocery store, if you notice that roast is on sale at the meat counter, ask the butcher to grind up a pound for you. Chances are it’ll be cheaper than buying pre-ground beef.
  • Use half ground beef and half mushrooms. Sounds odd, but mushrooms have a meaty texture and are an easy way to save money (and get extra nutrition).
  • Use an inexpensive bottle of white wine or even boxed wine.
  • If you don’t care about having a 100% authentic bolognese you can also skip the wine and just add a splash of white wine vinegar cut with water or beef broth.

To make it healthier: 

  • Use mushrooms (see the mushroom tip above).
  • Use 85% or 90% lean ground beef. 
  • Swap ground turkey for beef. 
  • Opt for whole wheat noodles. 
  • Serve with a leafy green salad or roasted broccoli. 

Eating Well’s Quick Pasta Bolognese is a flavor-packed, healthier option. 

4. Chicken Marsala 

Another restaurant classic, chicken marsala consists of browned chicken cutlets that are smothered in a deliciously complex marsala wine sauce. However, at $20 for one order at The Cheesecake Factory, you can make a much cheaper version at home. 

While you will need to buy a bottle of marsala cooking wine, you can find bottles for under $10 on Amazon and at Costco. Plus, that one bottle will last you a few chicken marsala dinner nights. 

Money-saving tips: 

  • Buy family-pack sizes of chicken breasts if possible.
  • Be open to other cuts of chicken. While traditional recipes use chicken breasts, marsala sauce is good over any cut so go ahead and buy what’s on sale or cheaper per pound.

To make it healthier: 

  • Instead of mashed potatoes or pasta, lighten up the meal by serving your chicken with mixed greens or roasted vegetables that are on sale.
  • Skip the heavy cream. Not only will this save you from buying another ingredient, but it’ll also help reduce the amount of calories and fat.

I like this healthier Chicken Marsala Recipe from Cooking Light.

5. Butter Chicken 

While cooking Indian food can sound intimidating, butter chicken is an easy place to start and the only non-pantry staple spice you’ll need is garam masala.  

Simply marinate the chicken overnight, then simmer the chicken in the marinade  and stir in Greek yogurt. Served with rice and vegetables, you can make this $13-$18 dish much cheaper at home. 

Money-saving tips: 

  • Use chicken thighs instead of breasts.
  • Buy your spices in bulk from natural-foods retailers or see if you have an Indian grocery store nearby as you can often find spices for cheaper. 
  • Buy whole versions of vegetables, rather than bags of pre-cut ones. 
  • Look for jasmine rice, which is usually cheaper than basmati but just as flavorful.

To make it healthier: 

  • Add in plenty of vegetables.
  • Use Greek yogurt instead of heavy cream in the sauce. 
  • Cut back on the amount of oil and butter you use.

Here’s an easy healthy butter chicken recipe to try. 

6. Burrito Bowl 

While $6-$10 for a burrito bowl may not sound like much, when you take a look at what's in them you’ll realize how much you’re overpaying for inexpensive ingredients. Especially if you add guac, which is usually an extra $1.50-$2.00. 

In fact, you likely have most of the ingredients needed to make them at home right now: beans, rice, salsa, and cheese. Even if you want to add fajita vegetables, onions and peppers are usually inexpensive. For guacamole, you can usually find a whole avocado for $2 or cheaper. 

Money-saving swaps:

  • Cook a batch of dried beans overnight in your slow cooker or instant pot. 
  • Buy rice in bulk. 
  • Stock up on peppers when they’re on sale, slice, and freeze for making bowls like these.
  • Use leftover chicken, steak, or shrimp from dinner the night before. 

To make it healthier:

  • Add fresh avocado for extra healthy fats.
  • Go easy on the cheese and sour cream.
  • Sub Greek yogurt for sour cream. 
  • Use brown rice instead of white. 

Not sure how to start? Try this recipe for Easy Burrito Bowls

7. Shrimp Fajitas 

Served steaming hot, shrimp fajitas are a popular option at Mexican restaurants. In addition to the presentation and fun of building your own, they’re often also a healthier choice. However, they often cost around $20 for an order. 

Similar to burrito bowls, most of the ingredients that you need to make fajitas are either pantry staples or inexpensive: corn tortillas, onions, peppers, oil, ground cumin, chili powder and lime. 

Money-saving swaps: 

  • Frozen shrimp is often cheaper than what you’ll find at the seafood counter and can sometimes be fresher. 
  • Unless there’s a sale on another type of shrimp, go with uncooked shrimp that still has its tails on as it’ll usually be cheaper.
  • Use in-season vegetables as they’ll likely be on sale and cheaper. 
  • Buy spices and tortillas from a local Mexican grocery store as they’ll likely be less expensive. 
  • Add some heat with whole jalapenos, which are usually less than 20 cents apiece. 

To make it healthier: 

  • Use either corn or whole wheat instead of white flour tortillas.
  • Go easy on the amount of oil used, or even roast instead of stir-frying your veggies. 
  • Add fresh guacamole or avocado slices for healthy fats.
  • Use Greek yogurt instead of sour cream. 

This recipe for Shrimp Fajitas shows just how quick, easy, and flavorful they are to make yourself. 

8. Pizza 

For many of us, pizza is a go-to when there’s nothing to eat at home. But unless you have a coupon, pizza can be sneakily pricey—especially when considering how cheap the ingredients are by themselves. 

Instead of ordering delivery, make your own at home. You can get even more frugal by getting creative and only using ingredients you already have in your fridge for toppings. 

Money-saving swaps: 

  • Many stores, including Trader Joe’s, sell pre-made pizza dough for $2 or less—and that’s enough dough to make one large pizza. 
  • However, homemade pizza dough is even cheaper as all you need are a few pantry staples: flour, yeast, sugar, water, and oil. 
  • Use leftover meats, cheese, and/or vegetables in your fridge for some or all of your toppings.
  • Blocks of cheese are often cheaper per ounce than bags of pre-shredded. 

To make it healthier: 

  • Go with whole wheat pizza dough.
  • Add baked chicken or ground turkey for protein instead of pepperoni or sausage. 
  • Pile on the veggies. 
  • Serve with a side salad to help keep portions in check. 
  • Look for pizza sauces that are low in added sugars—or make your own sauce.

Try this Easy Healthy Pizza recipe that’s ready in just 20 minutes. 

Cooking at home more often can save you serious cash and can help you make healthier decisions. Improving your cooking skills can also be an impressive way to show off to family and friends.   

Whether you give one of the above recipes a try or apply the money-saving tips to another one of your favorite meals, you’ll see it's easy to make restaurant-worthy dishes at home for less. 

Time to get cooking!

Lose It! turns your daily calories into a budget. Want to ‘spend’ some extra calories on a midday latte? Just cut down on your post-dinner dessert, and you’ll remain on track to your wellness goals. Learn more about Lose It!

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8 Cheap, Healthy Alternatives to Restaurant Favorites