Make two restaurant meals from one

Restaurant Magic

by Melissa Koosmann

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Occasionally, restaurant meals are a fun break from cooking and cleaning up at home, but only if the prices don't take away your appetite. And they don't have to, even if you're on a tight budget. If you want restaurant meals from time to time, try cutting costs the same way you would at home by stretching the food.

Asian and Indian restaurants offer some of the best options for people who need to make their restaurant dollars go as far as possible. These restaurants usually offer many dishes that are packed with flavor, dripping with sauce, and meant to be eaten over rice. Try ordering a single entree for every two or three people in your group, along with extra rice. If you eat alone, order the extra rice for yourself and keep half of the main dish for leftovers.

Those Asian and Indian restaurant meals sometimes get even less expensive if you order them as take-out. Ask for your food without rice (if this is cheaper) and then bring it home and make the rice yourself. You'll still get the great restaurant food and skip out on most of the work, but you'll pay grocery store prices for the staple element of the meal. If you want to mimic the exact flavors and textures of the restaurant food, you'll need to buy the right variety of rice to match the cuisine you're eating. Thai food is typically served with jasmine rice. Indian is served with basmati rice, and Chinese is generally served with the long-grain rice that most Americans already use. If you live in a large urban area, these rice varieties may be available at your local grocery store. Otherwise, you'll need to explore specialty markets when you can get to them. Beware that buying special rice is a good option only for enthusiastic cooks who will use the rest later. If that doesn't sound like you, stick with the rice you already have in the house. It'll taste a little different, but you won't end up wasting money.

If you're craving a different variety of food, find out which restaurants near your home offer freebies. Mexican restaurants are an excellent choice, as they typically start you off with free chips and salsa. Take the edge off your hunger with those, and then order a small meal such as a single taco or side salad. Similarly, some Italian restaurants serve free bread. If you eat quite a bit of that, it's no problem to share or save half of your main course.

No matter where you eat, it's important to be savvy about how you order and what you consume. Most restaurants serve far more than a person can eat at a single meal, but not every dish is worth taking home. Make a point of finishing the foods that need to be eaten right away, such as greasy French fries or pre-dressed salads, and just eating a few bites of the foods that will taste best the next day. This often means going easy on your meat dish, but it will ensure that you really get at least two meals out of your single restaurant bill.

Restaurant meals will never be as cheap as cooking from scratch, but most budgets have room for a dinner out at least once in a while. It's a nice feeling. You can get out of the house, eat great food, and avoid washing dishes for once. If you're smart about how you order, you might even enjoy yourself.

Melissa Koosmann is an American freelance writer who lives in Cape Town, South Africa. She is the author of three books: Meet Our New Student from South Africa, Going to School Around the World, and The Fall of Apartheid in South Africa (Monumental Milestones: Great Events of Modern Times).

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