On those superbusy days when you don't have time to cook at home but it's too expensive to eat out, semi-fast food, combining quick-service food with home cooking, is a great way to get the best of both worlds.
The takeout pizza store in my neighborhood sells premade pizza dough. I can buy a large ball of dough for $2.50, which makes a 16-inch pizza. That's more than it costs to make 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's impressive to turn out a high-quality, delicious pizza so quickly. It's 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 independent stores are typically more than happy for the business — or any business for that matter. In fact, one store near me even advertises the dough on the 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 change the entire meal.
You can supplement a big bucket of chicken with your own salad and bread. Or maybe you have the chicken but no sides. In that case, a large order of coleslaw. corn and fresh biscuits from the drive-thru will complete the meal for far less money than buying everything.
As easy as it is to make at home, it pains me to suggest buying rice at a fast-food place 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 for 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, leftover chicken, peas, carrots and so on.
SOUP DU JOUR
The fanciest fish restaurant in my community is pricey. I mean take-your-breath-away pricey, to the point where getting the check all but ruins a fabulous meal.
However, this restaurant's New England clam chowder is to-die-for and available for takeout 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, only to turn down an entree and dessert.
That's fine with me because picking up a quart of steaming hot chowder and sourdough rolls (also a specialty) is a terrific way to avoid a huge restaurant tab when you need a meal replacement.
Lots of restaurants serve homemade soups that are available for takeout. Check around, and then put that on your list of options.
Pizza restaurants are notorious for offering big salads on their takeout menus. It might be called a large "antipasto salad." Typically it's a big bed of lettuce and other greens with a variety of pizza toppings, such as onions, olives, peppers, tomatoes, pepperoni and cheese. Fantastico!
At home, toss it with your favorite dressing, and you have a large, satisfying, family-sized salad for a side-dish price. In fact, you could make the salad an entree by adding your own ingredients at home, such as hard-boiled eggs, garbanzo beans (chickpeas), leftover chicken, beef, etc.
Now is the time to start planning how to put a meal together more economically. You're smart, so I am confident you will come up with ideas and strategies I haven't considered.
But don't get too excited. You want meal replacements to be as rare an event as possible. Otherwise, all the money you aren't spending on groceries will get sucked into the big, black hole of fast food, and the food you buy at the grocery store will go to waste.
Mary invites questions, comments and tips at [email protected], or c/o Everyday Cheapskate, 12340 Seal Beach Blvd., Suite B-416, Seal Beach, CA 90740. This column will answer questions of general interest, but letters cannot be answered individually. Mary Hunt is the founder of www.DebtProofLiving.com, a personal finance member website and the author of "Debt-Proof Living," released in 2014. To find out more about Mary and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.