Dr. Gourmet offers some basic tips for cooking tasty, nutritious, and inexpensive meals at home.
I am amazed at how many people wrongly believe that it’s cheaper to eat out at a restaurant than to eat at home. In fact, my patients routinely resort to this myth when I talk with them about the importance of eating better. They’ll say, “Doc, I can get a chicken dinner at KFC or a burger dinner at McDonald’s cheaper than making the same thing at home.”
For the home cook, that same $14 will purchase two pounds of lean ground beef, a pack of eight whole wheat buns, lettuce, tomato, salad ingredients, and enough potatoes to make oven-baked French fries. There will even be a bit left over for some fresh fruit. The best part is that this is twice as much food as the family would have gotten at McDonald’s, so there's plenty left over for later. Better food at half the price. I'll allow that there's no soda included in the home cooked meal, but no one should drink soda with meals anyway, and a full pitcher of iced tea costs just pennies to make.
For the $20 it would cost a family of four to dine at KFC, the home cook can purchase a whole chicken for roasting, four ears of corn on the cob, makings for a side vegetable or a salad, and a few servings of fruit.
Of course, even people who think it’s more expensive to eat at home than to eat out at a fast food joint need little convincing that it’s less expensive to have a gourmet meal at home. After all, pretty much every restaurant looks to charge the consumer about three times the cost of the food used to make a given meal.
But knowing that you can save money by cooking at home isn’t always enough to get people to do so. In these challenging economic times, I thought I could offer some basic tips for cooking tasty, nutritious, and inexpensive meals at home. Even if you don’t know a mandoline from an otoscope, getting started is easier than it seems.
1. The most important way to make a great meal is to keep it simple. The best restaurant dishes you have had are generally quite easy to make because they are simple and elegant. A good rule of thumb is to choose a recipe that contains fewer than ten ingredients, including herbs and spices.
2. If you are not an experienced chef, start off by choosing recipes that have ingredients and techniques that are familiar to you. Then, with each new recipe, add one new ingredient or technique.
3. Cook often. You’ll quickly build up a pantry stocked with great ingredients. Once you have all the basics—herbs and spices, pasta, rice, oil, vinegar—you won't need to go on a major shopping expedition every time you want to cook up some dinner.
5. Don't scrimp on "budget" ingredients. That hunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano may seem expensive, but you'll need a lot less of it than the awful parmesan in the round green shaker. As a result, the genuine article costs just a bit more, but the difference in flavor is more than worth it. Great ingredients make for great dishes; the reason that your favorite chef's food is so wonderful is that he or she starts with fresh, fantastic raw materials including the best cheeses, oils, vinegars, and fresh herbs.
6. Go to the farmer's market. Yes, the ingredients do taste that much better, and you’ll be shocked at how inexpensive they can be.
7. Be flexible and always have a back-up plan. If you go to the market for halibut, and the filets looks less than fresh, choose another white fish. In fact, a better strategy is to go to the store, find the freshest ingredients, and then build your meal around them. This applies especially to ingredients that are in season, which will generally be fresher and less expensive.
8. Make extra and put it away for later. Leftovers help you save even more by keeping you out of the restaurant for days.
9. Read the recipe, assemble your ingredients and equipment, and then read the recipe again. It's important to know what you are doing and to be sure that you have everything you need before you put the first teaspoon of olive oil in the pan.
10. Marinades are great choices. They add tons of flavor and make less expensive cuts of meat elegant by tenderizing them. Best of all, they are super simple.
To illustrate how much you can save by cooking at home, take one of my favorite restaurants here in New Orleans, La Petite Grocery. The chef serves a delicious, but very simple, grilled hanger steak topped with caramelized onions. It will run you $25 and comes with a small side of diced roasted yams.
That hanger steak costs about $12 per pound at my local Whole Foods, and you’ll need about three-quarters of a pound, or $9 worth, to serve two. The onion and the yam are about $1.50 each. And that’s it: the raw ingredients for a great home-cooked meal for two come in at just $12, well under 30% of the cost of the same meal in the restaurant. (Given that most fine dining restaurants run a "food cost" of 30%, the same ratio will apply to almost every other restaurant recipe you might want to replicate at home.)
As an added bonus, the same holds true for the wine. Restaurants traditionally triple and sometimes quadruple the wholesale price of a bottle.
Once you get the hang of things, it's pretty easy to make a three-course gourmet meal at home: salad, main course, and dessert, along with wine, for around the same price of the entree alone in a restaurant.
Here are some recipes to help get you started.
Timothy S. Harlan, MD
Tim Harlan, MD, is currently medical director and assistant professor of medicine at Tulane University School of Medicine. He writes extensively on diet and health on his website DrGourmet.com, an easy-to-use resource to navigate complex nutrition and wellness info translated for the American kitchen. He is the author of Just Tell Me What to Eat!