Better Than Fast Food, Cheaper Than Eating Out


If you find it’s too expensive to eat out but you don’t have time to cook at home, a simple technique might is a fabulous way to combine the best of those two worlds. We call it “semi fast food” combining quick-service food with home cooking. Let me explain …

The take-out pizza store in my neighborhood sells ready-to-roll pizza dough. I can buy a large ball of dough for $2.50, which makes a sixteen-inch pizza. That’s more than it costs me to make my own pizza dough from scratch. But when time is of the essence, this is a fast, cheap, reliable alternative.


Using my own sauce and toppings, I can have really great pizza on the table in no time at all. I do rely on this option quite often, particularly when we have last-minute guests. It is impressive to turn out such a high-quality delicious pizza so quickly. It is my little secret.

Not all pizza stores sell their dough (the national chains in my area look at me as if I have three eyes when I inquire), but independents are typically more than happy for the business—any business. In fact, one store near me even lists this on their menu board.

Hint: You can freeze the dough and use it to make breadsticks and calzones, too.

Just because you don’t have an entree for dinner doesn’t mean you have to replace the entire meal. You can supplement a big bucket of chicken at home with your own salad and bread. Or maybe you have the chicken but no sides. Large cole slaw and corn plus fresh biscuits from the drive-thru will turn that into a complete meal for far less money than buying the entire meal.

As easy as it is to make at home, it pains me to suggest buying rice at a quick-service or other restaurant. But this is a great solution that can reduce an otherwise expensive meal replacement.

All Asian restaurants, even the quick-service variety, offer plain white rice as a menu option—usually dirt cheap. I can pick up a large container of white rice for $2 or $3 in my neighborhood. It’s hot, fluffy and perfectly cooked. At home I can serve it plain or enhance it by adding scrambled eggs, soy sauce, left-over chicken, peas, carrots and so on.

Soup du jour
The fanciest fish restaurant in my community has a pricey menu. I mean take-your-breath-away expensive to the point that getting the check all but ruins an otherwise fabulous meal.

However, their to-die-for New England clam chowder is renown and available for take-out at a reasonable price. I can only imagine they are trying to discourage the annoying customers who come in on a cold winter night, take up space at a lovely linen-covered table, and linger over big steaming bowls of hearty chowder, turning down the complete meals and dessert.

That’s fine with me because picking up a quart of steaming hot chowder and sourdough rolls (also their specialty) is a terrific way to avoid a huge restaurant tab when needing a meal replacement.

Lots of restaurants serve homemade soups that are available for take-out. Check around and then put that on your list of options when you need to fill out or replace a meal inexpensively.

Big Salad
Pizza restaurants are notorious for offering big salads on their take-out menus. It might be called a large antipasto salad. Typically it’s a big bed of lettuce and other greens plus a variety of pizza toppings, such as onions, olives, peppers, tomatoes, pepperoni, and cheese. Fantastico!

Toss it at home with your favorite dressing and you have a large, satisfying, family-sized salad at a side-dish price. In fact, you could make the salad the dinner entree by adding your own ingredients at home, such as hard-cooked eggs, garbanzo beans (chick peas), left-over chicken, beef and so on.

Now is the time to start planning how to replace a regular meal more economically. You’re smart, so I am confident you will come up with ideas and strategies I’ve not considered.

But don’t get too excited. You want meal replacements to be as rare an event as possible. Otherwise, all of the money you are not spending on groceries will get sucked into the big black hole of fast food while the food you buy at the grocery store goes to waste.

Question: Got any of your own “little secrets” that you rely on to get a great meal on the table when life becomes overly hectic?

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13 replies
  1. DianaB says:

    I am dumbstruck by these suggestions in the article. Are you kidding me? Would you honestly pay $2-3 for already made rice when you can make at least 4 cups white rice for 40 cents in the microwave in 20 minutes, brown rice about 40 minutes or so and no watching included and you work on whatever you are serving with it. Store bought dough for pizza when you can buy dry pizza mix in a box (Jiffy) or a bag, use two if you want a really big pizza on a 1/2 sheet pan for next to nothing and keeps forever in the pantry until you desire to make pizza for dinner. I am afraid I don’t get this article AT ALL.

    • Cath says:

      We all save money in different ways, and what one person thinks is a worthwhile way to save, another thinks is a waste of time. One part of the equation is clean up time. I wash my dishes by hand every night and it takes quite a bit of time, and hot water, and dish soap, and a sponge, plus the cost of having the stove on, and the lights in the kitchen (all cost money that we forget to add into the equation). I can see buying ready made rice if I had vegs or stew already cooked, or a frozen heat and serve entree, which only needed a blast in the microwave for a few minutes. I can see your point about the rice being easy to cook, but maybe some days when you’re frantically busy, this would be a welcome respite. Besides, every time I make rice in the microwave, it bubbles up and spills over the sides of the dish. Then I have to clean the glass tray in the microwave. I happen to prefer a yeast-risen pizza dough so I’m not so keen on the Jiffy idea. Actually, pita bread makes a nice Mediterranean-style pizza which only needs a quick heating in the toaster oven. I think the general idea behind this article is a good one. I make most of my food from scratch every day, which tastes good and saves money, but I’ll be the first to tell you, it’s awfully time consuming and I really hate it some days when I have many other chores to do.

  2. BethSh says:

    Sams club sells huge 3 lb+ roasted chickens for 5 dollars. They are very tasty and more than enough for 4 big eaters or a family of 6 with kids. The price is the same as their much smaller ones at wallmart. wonderful as the main course with whatever you wish to serve with it and the leftovers make awesome soup!

  3. Donna says:

    When my local supermarket has a sale on their rotisserie chickens, I like to buy several. We eat one that day when fresh, the rest I freeze. I can freeze whole or take the meat off the bone to freeze in chunks. Easy to pull out to make casseroles or soups or salads- I just add to whatever recipe I choose.

  4. Birgit Nicolaisen says:

    I LOVE my rice cooker. In 30 minutes I can have perfect rice everytime and for a lot less than even buying from the local Chinese place. And it takes that long to pull a meal together and put the dishes on the table, so no time is lost.

  5. Amanda Tag says:

    I don’t know but it sound time consuming. Sometimes I need something quick on the go that is not going to have too much carbs. I like eating protein bars or shakes as meal replacements they keep me fit and are easy to make.

  6. Betty Thomas says:

    The take and bake pizza place in our town sells a large cheese or 1 item pizza for less than 10 bucks. It feeds four people easily and you can dress it up at home with mushrooms, olives or meat for just a little more. Cheap, good and filling!

  7. Beck says:

    I love Olive Garden now you can get the dressing at Sam’s Club or Wal-Mart so you can enjoy salad at home with that dressing. have tried to copy the recipe nothing taste as good as the dressing.
    I make my own pizza dough sometimes but if I am in a rush I pop in a frozen pizza still cheaper than take out. Anything you can make ahead helps the budget. There is an Italian grocery north of us that sells dough but it is frozen so I would have to have the time to unthaw it. I never found any place else that sold their dough in a raw unfrozen state in our area.
    My mom always made extra rice the next day she used the leftovers to make rice pudding with raisins.

  8. Guest says:

    I Disagree.
    Pizza dough is easy to make – and faster than the time it takes for to walk from the car and make the transaction. Water, yeast, flour and salt. Stir. Dough is made.
    Shape and prebake. Sauce and spice. Cheese. Toppings. Bake. Eat. Best meal ofthe week!
    And rice… Minute Rice is perfect, fast and easy. I used it once. Now I cook rice ahead and freeze it -not perfect, but good enough according to family. Some shortcuts mean rice can stick together – and so can family.


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