chicken with homemade teriyaki sauce

How to Make a Good Meal Great (It’s All About the Sauce!)

Some time ago, I posted an impromptu fan poll on our Facebook page asking, “What is your greatest financial temptation?” (The answer wasn’t sauce, but that’s where we’re going here.)

Answer choices: accepting more credit, vacation, clothes, new car, stuff for the house, eating out, and none-of-the-above

I thought I could easily predict the outcome. Stuff for the house would win. And I was wrong! The runaway winner at 41% was “eating out.” I should not have been surprised.

chicken with homemade teriyaki sauce

How much do you think the average American spends in a year by eating out at restaurants?

In 2019, the average “consumer unit” spent $3,526 when eating food away from home, according to the U.S. Department of Labor—a consumer unit being defined as 2.5 people of whom 1.3 are earners, in a household with 1.9 vehicles. You know, your typical family with half a kid, someone working one-third of the time, and a vehicle that’s so on its last leg it could only be considered nine-tenths of a car.

Regardless of the humorous definition of a typical family, I find that $3,526 figure to be not only startling but worse, seriously understated. In 2019, 81 percent of the money spent at full-service restaurants in America was paid in plastic. That means only 19 percent pay with cash.

Add to this fact roughly half of all credit-card purchases turn into revolving consumer debt for many of those “consumer units.” That means that by the time all of that eating out actually gets paid for, the real number is at least double. Let’s just round it off at $5,000 per consumer unit that pays with a credit card and is revolving their debt.

Add one more thing to the equation: Wasted food at home. I know the routine because I struggle with it as well: You load up with groceries, but then the week gets crazy busy and who’s got the time or the desire to cook dinner seven days in a row?

It’s so much easier to just grab something to bring home or to traipse once again to a marginally satisfying restaurant, drop $40 plus tax and tip (at least another 20 percent pushing that bill to nearly $50) and wonder what on earth you were thinking. And it’s not really easier when you consider all of the time, effort, and money that takes.

Without meaning to let it happen (again), the stuff you bought at the supermarket has begun decomposing and in what seems like no time at all and into the trash it goes. You may as well have just thrown the money into the trash and saved all that time and effort at the grocery store.

Whether eating out is your top temptation or it comes in second or third, you can deal with it more effectively if you can figure out how to make eating at home more convenient and more delicious than going out. Let me offer these suggestions:

Make a plan, stick to it

This doesn’t have to be anything more elaborate than something like, Monday: Spaghetti and Meat Sauce. That’s the easy part. It’s the “stick to it” part that throws us off course so easily because there are so many options.

The secret here is to take control of your mind. Do not allow any room for doubt or alternatives like, “… if I feel like it,” or “…if we get home in time.” Don’t allow a thought like that to have a spot in your frontal lobe—the part of your brain that makes decisions.

Make it special

I’m the last person on earth to suggest we ban eating out altogether. But we all know that eating out too often removes much of the enjoyment. In fact, it becomes a pain to figure out, “Where shall we go this time?”

If you save eating out for special times like birthdays, anniversaries, or other celebrations, it will take on a new kind of joy. 

Make it better

The annoying temptation to eat out all of the time will melt away when you become such a fabulous cook that eating at home is faster, cheaper, and better than eating out. It’s that simple.

Make sauce!

The fastest way to get up to speed with making your own food at home faster and better is just one word: sauce.

A great sauce:  1) makes food look better, which prompts even the pickiest eaters to dive in 2) makes food taste better than restaurant fare, which given my experience is not hard to do, and 3) makes meals cost less.

You’ve already paid for the groceries so no worries about a big surprise on your next credit card statement, either.

Bonus: A quick, delicious sauce is the best way to repurpose or even disguise leftovers.

Here for your culinary enjoyment are six of the best, easiest, and most scrumptious sauce recipes ever. These recipes could make all the difference to help you eat out less, enjoy eating at home more—and pocket the difference.

Teriyaki Sauce

Perfect for chicken, over rice, and for dipping just about anything you can imagine.

  • 1/4 cup soy sauce
  • 1/4 cup mirin
  • 1/4 cup Japanese cooking wine (sake)
  • 1/4 cup water

In a small saucepan over high heat, combine the ingredients and allow to boil until the sauce reduces by half and thickens, about 10 to 15 minutes, stirring frequently. Bring to room temperature before serving.

All-Purpose Dipping Sauce

Walt’s Wharf is a famous seafood restaurant in Seal Beach, Calif., featuring grilled baby artichokes with this dipping sauce as its signature appetizer. Simply amazing. And equally awesome served alongside just about any vegetable—raw or steamed, or drizzled over steak!

  • 1/4 cup sesame oil
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons honey
  • 2 tablespoons season salt
  • 4 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 cup mayonnaise

Combine with a whisk then keep chilled until use. Makes 2 cups. Serves 16 – 24. Or 2. It all depends.

Cilantro Cream Sauce

This delicious sauce can be used as a dip or as a sauce for artichokes, fish or chicken. In fact, you could smear it on just about anything and experience a delicious bite of heaven.

  • 1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, softened
  • 1 tablespoon sour cream
  • 1 (7-ounce) can tomatillo salsa
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon celery salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 2 teaspoons garlic powder
  • 1 bunch fresh cilantro, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice

Place everything in a blender or food processor. Blend until smooth and creamy. Place in a serving bowl. Done.

Alfredo Sauce

Why spend $10 for a plate of pasta with Alfredo sauce at that restaurant down the street when you can make it yourself for about 50-cents per serving at home? This is the recipe you want to do it.

  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese
  • 2 teaspoons garlic powder
  • 2 cups milk
  • 6 ounces grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper

Melt butter in a medium-size, nonstick saucepan over medium heat. Add cream cheese and garlic powder, stirring with wire whisk until smooth. Add milk, a little at a time, whisking to smooth out lumps. Stir in Parmesan and pepper. Remove from heat when sauce reaches desired consistency. Sauce will thicken rapidly, thin with milk as necessary. Toss with hot pasta to serve. Serves 4-6

Marinara Sauce

This is it—the marinara sauce everyone loves, even the kiddos.

  • 2 (14.5-ounce) cans stewed tomatoes
  • 1 (6-ounce) can tomato paste
  • 4 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 6 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/3 cup finely chopped onion
  • 1/2 cup white wine

In a food processor place Italian stewed tomatoes, tomato paste, chopped parsley, minced garlic, oregano, salt, sugar, and pepper. Blend until smooth.

In a large skillet over medium heat, sauté the finely chopped onion in olive oil for 2 minutes. Add the blended tomato sauce and white wine. Simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Enchilada Sauce

This is the enchilada sauce that’s so delicious you’ll be tempted to take a bath in it. And yes it contains chocolate. Make it ahead as it stores well in the fridge.

  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 cup diced onion
  • 3 tablespoons chopped garlic
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 5 tablespoons chili powder (mild or hot)
  • 4 1/2 cups chicken broth
  • 1/2 square (1 ounce) semisweet chocolate

Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Saute onion until tender. Stir in garlic, oregano, cumin, and cinnamon; saute for a few minutes.

Stir in flour and chili powder, stirring until sauce thickens. Slowly whisk in chicken broth; reduce until sauce reaches desired consistency. Stir in chocolate until melted and well blended. Use with your favorite enchilada recipe. Or mine


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7 replies
  1. Sheri says:

    Hi Mary,
    First, thank you so much for the awesome sauce recipes!!!
    Second, In your “Teriyaki Sauce” you have 1/4 cup of mirin?
    Is that the same thing as kikkoman Manjo Aji-Mirin sweet cooking rice wine?
    Or what brand do you use?

  2. peggy says:

    mary, thanx for the sauce recipes. i am on Keto, but everyone i have looked at, so far. appear to b convertible to keto way. you’re so right, the sauce is the thing. thanx again. i would like to print these recipes, there used to b a print symbol. i cannot see it. is it still available?

  3. Lija Wills says:

    “…your typical family with half a kid, someone working one-third of the time, and a vehicle that’s so on its last leg it could only be considered nine-tenths of a car.”

    Thank you for that laugh out loud comment!

    And yes, I never go to any store without a list.

  4. Julie McManus says:

    Ah, Walt’s Wharf, I grew up in Seal Beach. Back in the mid seventies, when they first opened we would get crab Louie, with real crab, and I think it was $6.99….Also, Mary I lived in Cypress too…..I’ve been a fan of yours for decades.

  5. Gina Stevens says:

    This is a great article. All sorts of sauce ideas come to mind. I’ve cooked more since the pandemic and I doubt I’ll go back to eating out as much.

  6. Richard Rorex says:

    To start, before you go to the grocery, make a list. When you go, stick to it. That way you will not have so much food that it spoils before you use it. Next, do not worry about ‘use by dates’ as these are not set in stone. Most food products are good well beyond these dates. Now that I am a widower and no longer cooking for two it took me a few months to cut back on my purchases and my refrigerator has been purged of those unnoticed containers .

    • Cheryl Miller says:

      Even with doing Curbside Pick-up now, I make a list before I sit down at the computer to order. That makes it easier to not order too much. Even before the pandemic I always made a list.


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