Better than a Restaurant

How (and why) to dine in on better, cheaper, healthier versions of your favorite dishes.
Better than a Restaurant
Whether you're watching your waistline or watching your bottom line, you might want to think twice before grabbing your favorite fast food or sitting down to a big plate of comfort food at your favorite restaurant. With a little planning and a few minutes in your kitchen, you can make your favorite foods taste better, cost less and be a lot healthier.

Restaurant resolution
Many Americans are cutting down on restaurant visits, especially to expensive places. When we do dine out these days, a lot of us look for deals — of which there are plenty. Some happen to be great (think prix-fixe menus and early-bird specials) while others may seem very tempting but have hidden costs (think big portions of fattening, inexpensive comfort food). They're sure to pack on the pounds and, in the long run, there is nothing cheap — or comforting — about being overweight and in poor health.

One great strategy: Make your favorite comfort foods in your own kitchen. Here are some simple, delicious and economical recipes and ideas to help you get the job done.

Favorite foods

Fried chicken
Besides these wonderful recipes for Oven-Fried Paprika Chicken and Chicken Fingers with Ranch Dressing , here's how to make my favorite fried chicken: Starting with chicken cutlets, paint on honey mustard and dip them in egg white, then fresh bread crumbs (make your own with toasted bread — it's cheaper). Spray a skillet generously with olive-oil cooking spray, add about 2 teaspoons olive oil, heat to medium-high (pan must be hot) and add chicken. "Fry" about 5 minutes per side. There's just enough oil to make a crust.

Here's how to make your own with a whole lot less fat: Mix lean ground beef with lean ground turkey or chicken breast to get luscious beefy flavor for fewer PointsPlus™ values. Grill or broil your patties on a preheated rack or slotted broiler pan so the fat drips away from the meat. And top with reduced-fat bacon and lower-fat cheeses such as Jarlsberg, shaved Parmesan or queso blanco. Check out these recipes for Italian Turkey Burgers, Greek Style Cheeseburgers and Juicy Hamburgers to get you thinking.

Using everything from carrots to zucchini, we created a batch of veggie fries recipes that are so good and so good for you.

If your heart's set on spuds, this recipe for smashed potatoes is not to be missed.
Parboil small, unpeeled potatoes until fork tender. Place dots of olive oil on a cookie sheet. Smash each potato on a spot of oil. Drizzle with a little more oil on each potato and add salt (a little crushed rosemary on top is great, too). Then roast the potatoes in the oven for about 45 minutes. Heat leftovers in the oven the next day for extra-crispy goodness.

Keep a large selection of whole-wheat pasta and canned tomatoes in your pantry and you'll never be without the makings of a delicious meal. You can pay top dollar for spaghetti with tomato sauce at a restaurant or buy two boxes of dried pasta and a jar of sauce for the same price or less.

If you can spare 15 minutes, you can create wonderful dishes like Italian Sausage and Pepper Pasta, Pasta with Butternut Squash and Sage, Spaghetti with Creamy Spinach Sauce, Penne with Vodka Sauce, and Spaghetti with Turkey Meatballs to name a few.

Don't think slices or pies — think tortillas or raw pizza dough or crust, available at your grocery store or your local pizza shop. Roll it out (or just push it into a rimmed cookie sheet) and top with your favorites: chopped fresh mozzarella, fresh tomato and basil, or maybe low-fat pesto and crumbled goat cheese. Bake in a hot oven for 10 or 15 minutes. For inspiration, have a look at our Pizza Quattro Stagioni and Grilled Pizza with Crispy Mushrooms and Shallots.

You only need a few kitchen basics to start: low-sodium soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, mirin or honey, garlic, ginger, peanut oil and sesame seeds. It also helps to know the technique of stir-frying. "A Cut Above" columnists Mark Scarbrough and Bruce Weinstein devoted a recent column to this topic. In the meantime, if you're looking for a simple vegetable stir-fry, Scarbrough and Weinstein can help:

"If you really want to get basic, you can make a stir-fry from 2 cups each of 2 different vegetables (broccoli florets, diced zucchini, snow peas, chopped bok choy or thinly sliced cabbage) and 1/4 cup bottled Asian black bean sauce," they advise. "Spray the wok with nonstick spray, heat it up over high heat, toss and stir the veggies for a few minutes until crisp tender and pour in the bottled sauce, stirring to coat (2 servings, each with a PointsPlus value of 3)."

Here are a few of our favorite Asian-influenced recipes:
Chicken Fried Rice, Citrus Beef Stir-Fry with Carrots, Miso-Glazed Cod, Chicken Pad Thai, Vegetable Dumplings, Thai Coconut-Pineapple Rice, Pork Lo Mein

Not only will you get more raw ingredients for your money, they'll also be higher quality than what you'd get at a fast-food restaurant. And although you may need to buy a few packaged and bottled items like soy sauce, spices and pasta for your recipes, these goods will keep in your pantry or fridge for a long time and be good for several meals.

Shop wisely: Take advantage of sales and stock up on staples even though you might not need them for today. You'd be surprised what you can whip up with dried pasta, canned tomatoes and beans, and a few fresh items like lemons or limes, onions, milk, eggs and bread. The more you cook, the better your selection of staples will be, making it easier to cook a variety of recipes without going out to the store.

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