Cart Smarts: Cook restaurant meals at home

Eating out with a two-year-old is a big challenge and usually results in more stress than it's worth. So, for my birthday meal this week, I chose to skip the restaurant scene and plan a restaurant-quality meal at home instead.

I love Italian restaurants and I especially love ordering chicken and/or eggplant parmesan. So, when my mother-in-law offered to cook me a birthday dinner, it was an easy decision. I requested both parmesan dishes (had to consider my vegetarian sister-in-law!) served over whole-wheat angel hair pasta, a big lettuce salad topped with Olive Garden's signature salad dressing, plus fresh-cut fruit. It was a perfectly-balanced MyPlate meal, with all five food groups represented.

Beyond the stress reduction, home-cooked meals offer several other benefits.

Saves money. It's easy to rack up a $50 tab for a family meal out. When you aren't paying someone else to cook the food for you, you can save a lot of money.

Portion control. Restaurant-sized portions aren't typically in line with recommended serving sizes. When you dish up the food yourself, you have better control over the amount you eat. It's much harder to resist when it's already on your plate.


Better nutritional value. Home-cooked meals tend to be higher in fruits and veggies and lower in sodium. Again, you are the one in control.

More family time. Spending time together in the kitchen is really valuable. You can teach your children about the importance of good nutrition at the same time that you catch up with your spouse about the day's events.

Plus, it's fun to come up with recipes that replicate your favorite restaurant meals. I have included a copy of the chicken parmesan recipe that my mother-in-law prepared for my birthday celebration. She found it in the Food Network magazine and it was a big hit with our family.

Just remember, dinner at home doesn't have to be repetitive and boring. And eating out isn't the only way to create excitement. You can create those very same meals at home for less money and with more nutritional value.

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