Mention food of any kind these days and the first thing that pops in anyone’s mind and out of their mouth is the cost, both in the supermarket and at restaurants. Here’s the thing, though — we still have to eat. I can’t in good conscience recommend that anyone stop dining out at restaurants, especially locally owned ones. And cooking at home used to be the less expensive alternative, but the costs associated with shopping for food continue to skyrocket.
I compiled a few tips to make dining out more affordable, combined with easy-to-fix, economical meals to make at home.
1. Ask for a discount at restaurants. You’ve heard the old saying, “If you don’t ask, you don’t get.” Well, that holds true today, especially when times are tough and every penny counts. Restaurants need paying customers now more than ever and many are willing to make a deal. Children under the age of 12 (ages can vary), seniors and members of the military and law enforcement officers can often get a discount at numerous restaurants. And specials are sometimes offered early in the week when crowds are smaller. But, first you have to ask. Call before you go so you can budget accordingly.
2. Decisions, decisions … Before ordering, it’s perfectly fine to ask about the daily or early bird special, choose a hearty appetizer instead of an entrée and order water with your meal (usually free unless you ask for bottled water). One of my favorite ways to enjoy a favorite restaurant meal is to drop by for lunch, when menu prices are often lower than those offered at dinner.
3. Print or download instant savings. Check restaurant websites to see if they offer coupons. Most times, you’ll be asked to sign up with your email address.
4. Enjoy an app or dessert on the town. If you can’t afford an entire meal but are craving a meal prepared by someone else, dine in to enjoy an appetizer or dessert after eating dinner at home to get the “restaurant experience.”
5. Budget for a night (or lunch) out. It’s simple, but it works. Save up for an occasional treat. The best way to do this is to prepare healthy, cost-efficient meals at home, then splurge on a nice restaurant meal. And of course, don’t forget to tip your waiter.
My favorite way to beat the heat during the summer months is to use one or more of my crockpots so that dinner will be ready when I walk through the door at the end of a long day.
Here are four of my favorite “fix it and forget it” meals:
HAWAIIAN CHICKEN STIR-FRY
2 pounds boneless chicken breasts
1 pound stir fry vegetables (fresh or frozen)
2 cloves garlic minced
¼ cup soy sauce
¼ cup honey
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
■ Add all ingredient to slow cooker. Cook on low setting for 6-8 hours. Shred chicken and mix with sauce in slow cooker. Serve over hot rice or pasta.
1 package frozen fully cooked Italian meatballs (12 ounces), thawed
2 cups uncooked dried cheese tortellini
2 cans (10 3/4 ounces each) condensed cream of mushroom soup, undiluted
2 1/4 cups water
1 teaspoon Creole seasoning
1 package (16 ounces) frozen California-blend vegetables, thawed
■ In a slow cooker, combine meatballs and tortellini. In a large bowl, whisk soup, water and Creole seasoning. Pour over meatball mixture; stir well.
■ Cook, covered, on low 3-4 hours or until tortellini are tender. Add vegetables during last half-hour of cooking.
THE SKINNY ITALIAN’S CHICKEN DINNER
2 pounds skinless chicken breasts
1 package Italian dressing mix
1/4 cup water
8 ounces low fat cream cheese
1 can 98% fat free cream of chicken soup
2 cups cooked brown rice
■ Place chicken in crockpot. Mix Italian dressing mix and 1/4 cup of water together. Pour over chicken. Cover and cook on low for 8 hours.
■ Remove chicken from crockpot. Mix soup and cream cheese in separate bowl. Pour soup mixture into crockpot and mix with dressing on bottom. Shred chicken in soup mixture. Cook on low until heated through. Serve over brown rice.
CROCKPOT PEACH COBBLER
2 pounds ripe peaches (about 4 medium-large sized fruits), peeled, cored, and sliced
1 box of yellow cake mix
1 stick of unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces
Ground cinnamon, optional
■ Add peaches to the bottom of your slow cooker. Top with dry cake mix. Top with butter. Sprinkle with cinnamon if desired. Add lid and cook on “low” setting for 4 hours or until top is golden brown.
■ Serve hot, topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
Kara Kimbrough is a food and travel writer from Mississippi. Email her at [email protected]