If I had to guess, I think that eating out is probably the singlemost way to sabotage a food budget--any budget really. The reason is that most families don't factor this cost into their spending, so it's often a hidden cost. You're tired, you don't want to cook, and even though you weren't planning on it, you hit the drive-thru. Even when you do set aside a certain amount monthly for eating out (or ordering in), when you are at a point where you need to trim costs, this is one of the first--and sometimes the hardest--places to cut.
Thing is, who doesn't love the occasional Big Mac or BK Big Fish. There are ways to eat fast-food on the cheap. Of course, most chains have a $1 menu, and if you are smart, you can eat-out without breaking the bank. There are some other good tips in this article we featured on Lotsofkids a few years back.
Still, sometimes you really want a certain dish, but you can't justify the cost. Instead of breaking the bank, try copy-catting. Simply put, it's the art of making your favorite dishes at home for a fraction of the cost. Honestly, I have found that making my favorite take-out dishes at home has been a very important tool in helping my family weather this hard economic downturn. It allows my kids to still enjoy their favorites and not feel so deprived. Granted, even though we didn't eat out that often, we tried to get take-out at least once a week. It was both a little treat, as well as a way to support our local economy and restaurants. Unfortunately we can't do that now...but the desire chili-cheese dogs and greasy fries is still there.
I don't know if any of your remember the Eddie Murphy routine where he talked about growing up poor and being jealous of his friends who had McDonald's hamburgers. His grandmother told him he didn't need a Big Mac, but insisted she could make a homemade one just as good or even better that Micky Ds. Eddie ended up with a greasy patty with green peppers sticking out on a couple of pieces of square bread. Hardly an equivalent to the golden arches. All joking aside, looks can be just as important when copy-catting. You want to get close to the original both in taste and appearance.
There is another benefit to copy-catting aside from the initial cost savings. If you love Olive Garden's Fettucini Alfredo, but it costs you over $100 a pop for your large family to eat there, chances are you will only be going a couple times a year. If you can replicate that dish, you can enjoy it at home much more often. One of our favorite take-out dishes was from a local mexican restaurant. I managed to copy it, and now we have it 1-2 times a month rather than a few times a year.
Sometimes copycat recipes aren't for specific dishes, but rather generalities. My family loves submarine sandwiches. The toasted ones like Quiznos are even better. However, it was just too expensive to them very often. So, instead, we started doing them at home. We simply bought french rolls, deli-meat, and the fixings. We baked them in the oven, and viola! My family actually likes these better since we can make the sandwiches just the way we want, instead of having to pick the combinations offered at the shops.
If you are looking for copycat recipes, there are many good cookbooks available. Or, hit the internet. Google "copycat recipes" and dozens of sites come up. One I particularly like is Robbie's Recipes.
Most of my personal copy-cat recipes are for dishes that can be found at local joints, not really the big chains. I have to admit to really enjoying the challenge of replicating our favorites, and sometimes even making a version my family likes better! Below, I am sharing one of my first attempts to copycat a dish. It's done a bit different than the original--and is a healthier version (even though the dish is far from healthy). My family loves this.
Cheese Fries -- Just like the ones from that greasy little sub shop down the street from us.
This place has the best cheese fries. They come in one of those small paper bags, and they drip with cheese sauce. You can eat them with your fingers, but they are much better eaten with a fork. My family loved these so much, I had to replicate the recipe. You can make these with a homemade cheddar sauce, but quite honestly, we love the gooey jarred/canned cheese in this dish! Feeds 8-10 people.
2 pkgs (4 lb) of thin frozen french fries
1/2 cup of oil
1 jar of cheddar cheese sauce*
1 cups of milk
Place fries in casserole dish. Pour oil over fries and toss with hands until coated. Cook at recommended temperature until cooked through and starting to crisp. I suggest stirring them 2-3 times during the cooking. When done, pour cheese sauce over fries. Place milk in jar and swish to get the rest of the sauce out, and pour it over the fries as well. Mix well with a spoon. Return to the oven for 10-15 minutes longer, or until hot and bubbly.
* You can substitute 1 jar of cheese whiz mixed with 1/2 cup of milk until it is smooth.