A major pitfall for the home cook is trying to make food look like it does in restaurants. While ingredients should be fresh and high quality and while great taste should always be a top priority, the average home cook simply doesn’t have the time, tools or money needed to produce professional meals.
Like most people cooking for themselves and their families on a regular basis, I always strive to save money and time without compromising the deliciousness of my food or the sustainability of my ingredients. In a world, though, where most people eat out more than they cook at home and where food media floods the airwaves and cyberspace, it’s a challenge not to compare the meals made in our kitchens to those we pay for at restaurants.
As a result, many home cooks try to raise their food to the level of a professional eatery. They buy extra and often exotic ingredients, they make complex dipping sauces and vinaigrettes and they garnish dishes or plate them with an eye to presentation. While there is certainly nothing wrong with doing this – especially for those who have the energy and time to spare – it has one serious caveat: cost.
In order to achieve restaurant inspired food perfection, it requires serious investment. For some, this means building the dream kitchen, buying out Williams-Sonoma or devouring cookbooks and food magazines to learn the latest and greatest cooking trends. For others, it means paying exorbitant prices for services like Blue Apron or running up the weekly grocery bill.
To keep cost down without sacrificing taste or quality, it’s important to realize that the home cook isn’t the restaurant chef. Below, I will examine some money-saving cooking tips that can help anyone move away from restaurant professionalism towards down-home deliciousness. By cutting out unnecessary items and focusing on foods that are filling, inexpensive and sustainable, anyone can reduce their grocery budget and cook excellent meals without the pressure of trying to be perfect.
It’s a common idiom that people eat with their eyes, and this leads restaurants to focus heavily on plating. In addition to placing items in a particular way or drizzling sauce like it’s paint for a work of modern art, chefs love to garnish dishes. For the most part, garnishes – such as fresh and aromatic herbs, bright and crunchy microgreens or creamy and nutty grated cheese – add a subtle flavor or texture element to a dish. Nevertheless, garnishes are more decorative than not, and they can be costly items for the home cook.
Since restaurants use these products in high volumes, they can keep costs relatively low. For the average person, buying a whole cabbage to garnish a few fish tacos or purchasing bacon only to crumble it over a soup or a baked potato wastes money and leads to unused items going in the trash. When planning a meal, skip the restaurant garnishes and include flavorful and bright ingredients within your dish. If you want fresh herbs, add them to the pot rather than putting a sprig on top of the finished product. Or, if you want to add a particular garnish to a dish, think of ways you can reuse the ingredient for other meals.
Similar to garnishes, toppings are often taken to extremes at restaurants. When you pay for a meal out, you want something dramatic, unique and decadent, and creative or copious toppings are a great way to add flare to even the most humble of dishes. For those making burgers, hot dogs, pizzas, tacos or sandwiches at home, however, attempting to include restaurant toppings comes at a steep price.
Instead of topping your next hamburger or deli sandwich with iceberg lettuce – which has little flavor and nutrients and can only be purchased in a large quantity – give spinach a try. It’s better for you and has a bolder taste, and its versatility means you can add it to other dishes as well. Moreover, if you want to use a few leaves of fresh basil as a topping for pizza, consider cooking Pad Thai or making Vietnamese spring rolls as a way to use the herbs you have left.
At most restaurants, meal portions are much larger than what people eat at home. I enjoy digging into a succulent lamb shank or crunchy fried chicken quarter at a restaurant as much as the next person, but when I cook these meats at home, I always eat smaller quantities. If I go out to eat a couple of times a week, I also never expect to order the same dish twice, but I don’t hesitate to eat leftovers at home. Since the home kitchen isn’t a restaurant turning out the same dishes day after day to customers paying enough to make such portions cost effective, home cooks shouldn’t attempt to make large portioned individual dishes on a regular basis.
Salmon often falls victim to this mentality. Most people love to buy a couple of large salmon steaks, a handful of asparagus and a soy-ginger glaze and make a relatively quick and easy restaurant-style meal at home. However, doing this costs a pretty penny. Instead, if you want to have salmon for dinner, consider cutting each filet in two and buying ingredients for a more filling side dish. This way, you can turn one meal into two, and you can portion your fish and vegetables more economically.
Perhaps the most costly pitfall of trying to make home-cooked meals mimic restaurant dishes is using similar cuts of meat. Coming back to my previous example, grilled salmon is a staple on many restaurant menus, and as a result, people often gravitate towards purchasing salmon when they want to make a nice home-cooked dinner of fish. However, there are some excellent alternatives out there to the common salmon filet. My wife and I love arctic char and sea trout, both of which taste very similar to salmon, are almost always more sustainably caught and cost a fraction of the price.
Especially when it comes to meat, opting for alternatives can save a substantial amount of money at the grocery store. Buying lesser-used cuts – particularly for beef and lamb – can often slash the price of a protein in half. Although you won’t be able to brag that you’ve recreated the same steak or pasta dish that you had at a certain restaurant, your wallet will certainly thank you, and more often than not you can rest easier knowing your decision helped the environment as well.
A final way to save money by avoiding the trap of turning your kitchen into a restaurant is to use less meat and more vegetables and grains. Since restaurants want to sell you prime ingredients, their dishes accentuate meat and seafood more than anything else. As a result, the amount of protein on one’s plate often overshadows the side dishes, leading many home cooks to think their own meals should be similarly proportioned. Not only is such thinking highly unhealthy, it is also highly expensive.
Proteins aren’t cheap – and they’re also unsustainable when mass consumed and aren’t very healthy for your body – and yet most home cooks try to make meat the star of every meal. Instead, it’s much more cost effective to opt for the rule of thirds: one third protein, two thirds other. Whether the majority of your meal consists of vegetables, rice or any dish made without meat, I can almost guarantee you that it will be less expensive than having protein comprise one half or two thirds of your plate.
Therefore, if you love enchiladas, substitute half of your ground beef for black beans; for pasta, opt for a lesser quantity of Italian sausage or ground beef for Bolognese instead of making meatballs; and add sides of roasted root vegetables, braised cabbage or seasoned rice to give any meal a hearty meatless element. Just remember that whereas meat exudes deliciousness on its own, to make non-meat dishes tastier or to boost the flavor of dishes that use less meat, it is important that you season them well.
While this isn’t an exhaustive guide to saving money in the kitchen, I hope it inspires people to rethink the standards to which they hold their home-cooked meals. Unless you’re an aspiring professional chef or have plenty of extra time and money to spare, it’s important to remember that the food we create in our home kitchens doesn’t and shouldn’t be the kind of dishes we want to buy at a restaurant. Instead, they should be flavorful, simple, healthy and filling, all without breaking the bank.