Restaurant dining is big business in the U.S. This year, commercial restaurant sales are expected to top $736 billion according to the National Restaurant Association, while data from the USDA shows the average American family will spend more money eating out than on food at home.
That’s fine and dandy if your budget allows it. But what if you’re trying to save money for an emergency fund, pay down your credit card balance or put a down payment on a home? Do you have to give up your favorite indulgence and subsist on packaged ramen and PB&Js alone? Stephanie Manley, the founder of CopyKat Recipes, says you don’t.
From Simple Dishes to Complex Creations
Manley grew up in a small country town where enjoying a restaurant meal entailed at least an hour drive each way. As her family didn’t have a lot of money, they reserved eating out for special occasions. But Manley loved places like the Olive Garden and enjoyed the wonderful memories with family and friends that were often made at restaurants.
Fortunately, she also loved cooking. “I started cooking when I was about four,” Manley told RewardExpert. “My mom was very liberal with that. She said I could cook whatever I wanted, but I’d have to eat it.”
Her childhood in the kitchen led to several restaurant jobs during her college years. Then, in 1995, she created CopyKat Recipes and began putting the blueprints for her culinary concoctions online as a way to preserve them for the future while sharing happiness and joy with others.
Today, visitors will find over 2,000 recipes and 600 videos on Manley’s blog. While a few have been submitted as guest posts, she’s developed most of them on her own as copycat restaurant dishes or recreations of beloved family mainstays.
“You’ll find recipes from easy difficulty to something that’s a little bit more complicated,” she said. “I often take suggestions from readers. I’ll go out to the restaurant and try the dish a few times. Then I’ll go back home and try to deconstruct and recreate it. That might mean making the dish at home nine or 10 times before I get to where I think it’s close enough.”
Reader favorites include Applebee’s Grilled Chicken Oriental Salad, Bonefish Grill’s Bang Bang Shrimp, Carrabba’s Sausage and Lentil Soup, Cracker Barrel’s Grilled Chicken Tenders, Little Caesar’s Crazy Bread, Olive Garden’s Alfredo Sauce and Outback Steakhouse’s Bloomin Onion.
Cook at Home and Cut Costs by 75 Percent
According to Manley, cooking any restaurant dish at home will shave about 75 percent off the cost of the meal because you’re not paying for the restaurant’s staffing, administration and property costs on top of the ingredients.
“Let’s say, for example, the Olive Garden alfredo sauce per plate costs $14,” she said. “You can probably make it at home for $6, and that will be enough for a couple of servings.”
If you want to save even more, she suggests choosing dishes that require inexpensive ingredients—think pasta or chicken, rather than lobster or filet mignon, for example.
“Pasta dishes are very inexpensive to create at home,” she added. “Roasts are also very inexpensive because you can buy a large roast and cost per serving will go down quite a bit.”
Finally, she suggests doing the prep work yourself rather than buying pre-chopped, pre-cooked, or pre-portioned ingredients. This will keep your expenses for any dish lower. You can make small substitutions that lead to savings as well.
“If your recipe calls for boneless chicken breast, you can use a bone in chicken breast instead,” she said. “Or you can buy bone in chicken breasts and cut out the breast bone yourself. You can save a lot of money this way.”