The Cheapest Way to Shop for Dinner

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Buying pre-made meals may be easier for those who want quick dinner options, and in some cases they can be cheaper than making the same dish yourself.

Here are some dishes that may actually be cheaper to buy at your local grocery store or at a restaurant, followed by some basic dinnertime favorites and treats that are cheaper when homemade.

Cheaper Prepared Foods

Pasta in a box and sauce in a jar can be fairly cheap, but when you factor in good meat and cheese, making a tray of creamy chicken Alfredo pasta big enough to feed four can get expensive. Taking advantage of economies of scale, by buying already-prepared, heat-and-eat meals from large grocery chains can be cheaper and easier than making the same dish at home, and they’re pretty good, too.

Pre-made price: We recently bought a tray big enough to feed four for $13 at Costco (Stock Quote: COST).

Cost to make it at home: About $17 considering $6 for skinless, boneless chicken breasts, $2 for pasta, $5 for plenty of cheese and $4 for heavy cream based on pricing at Safeway (Stock Quote: SWY).

Rotisserie Chicken

A whole chicken fresh off the rotisserie can be the highlight of a healthy meal since only a bit of seasoning and perhaps a tiny rub of olive oil is needed. But grocery stores make these juicy birds in bulk, so it can easily cost you less to buy one ready to eat.

Pre-made price: Costco fans say you can get a whole rotisserie chicken for as little as $5 at their favorite store.

Cost to make it at home: $6 or so for the chicken alone, plus extra seasonings.

chickens

Diet Foods

If you’re looking to eat well to lose weight, being in charge of your own diet could mean buying fresh and healthy breakfasts, lunches, dinners and maybe some snacks, which can often be more expensive than healthy, pre-made foods.

Pre-made price: Three meals and a snack from Nutrisystem costs about $10 a day based on about $300 a month.

Cost on your own: In addition to the extensive fat and calorie calculations you might need to make with a self-directed diet for weight loss, preparing the same variety of food including egg dishes, cereal, oatmeal, pasta dishes, stews, cookies and chocolate could cost significantly more than that, especially if you dine out frequently instead of eating at home. The Nutrisystem Web site even has a tool to help you calculate how much you might save on groceries by signing up.

Asian Dishes

Ethnic foods can be tricky to make if you are following an authentic recipe, especially when certain ingredients aren’t readily available at your local supermarket. And fresh ingredients like lemongrass, thai basil and ginger-like galangal are vital ingredients that can come at a premium.

Pre-made price: A packaged, heat-and-eat Indian meal from Tasty Bite generally costs about $3.

Cost to make it at home: It could cost you a small fortune to get just the right ingredients, that may not be available in your area, and if they are, they probably come at a premium for being fairly rare there. For instance, fresh galangal, a root similar to ginger, can cost you about $10 a pound.

galangal

When Home-Made Meals Are Cheaper

One of the most obvious dinners that’s cheaper to make at home than eat out is a basic steak.

Cost to make it at home: Even filet mignon can cost just $9.99 a pound, according to Safeway pricing.

Pre-made price: At a steakhouse, needless to say, a good steak can easily cost upwards of $20. For instance, a 10-ounce filet mignon might cost you about $36 at Smith & Wollensky (Stock Quote: SWRG).

Pizza

We’re not talking about cheap chain pizzas like those from Pizza Hut (Stock Quote: YUM). We mean fresh pizzas made exactly to your liking with natural ingredients.

Cost to make it at home: Pizza from your very own kitchen can cost just $2 per person or less, as MainStreet previously noted. If you make the dough yourself, you might spend about $3 on flour and yeast, $1 for sauce, and $4 on cheese for pizza for four.

Pre-made price: For a single slice, you could easily pay more than $2, and if you order a BBQ chicken pizza at California Pizza Kitchen (Stock Quote: CPKI) for example, you’ll generally pay $12.99.

Real Burgers

Here, we’re talking about burgers made with freshly ground beef, as opposed to the patties you might find at fast food chains like McDonald’s (Stock Quote: MCD) or Burger King (Stock Quote: BKC).

burger

Cost to make it at home: You may be able to make burgers for two or more with the amount you’d spend on one at a restaurant. Four pounds of ground beef for $8, hamburger buns for $2, tomatoes for $1, lettuce for $2 and cheese for about $2, you can make 8 basic burgers for $15, which might not even get you two at a restaurant.

Pre-made price: You can only get two cheeseburgers for that much at Ruby Tuesday, for example.

Mojitos

Alcoholic beverages can be incredibly cheap to make at home, as MainStreet found last summer.

Cost to make it at home: Less than $1.

Pre-made price: Some bars get away with charging upwards of $10 for this fairly easy to make drink.

Smoothies

Instead of paying $5 for a smoothie at Jamba Juice (Stock Quote: JMBA) or another fruit shake seller, making them at home can be much cheaper if you have a blender.

Cost to make it at home: About $2 considering $1.50 per serving of frozen berries packaged in your grocer’s freezer, 50 cents for a dollop of yogurt and ice.

Pre-made price: About $5.

A Wash: Tacos

Simple tacos can be fairly cheap to make, but even when you’re talking about more authentically-prepared tacos, the price difference could be negligible depending on where you live, regardless of your preference for delicious cuts of meat you’ll never find at your nearest Taco Bell.

Pre-made price: As little as $2 at some authentic Mexican restaurants in some areas.

Cost to make it at home: About the same, even for a tripe or tongue taco. For instance, one taco could cost a little less than that even if you use a generous amount of tripe, say a quarter-pound, at $2.25 a pound plus 10 cents for a tortilla, 10 cents for cilantro, 5 cents for onion, and 50 cents for guacamole, assuming that these grocery items are available in your area. If some ingredients are difficult for you to find, it could cost you more.

tacos

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