Nutrition Showdown:
Homemade vs. Restaurant Lunch

We crunched the numbers to learn the real cost of eating out. See what lunches from leftovers can save your waist (and your wallet). By Katherine Brooking, MS, RD

Piggy bank image

What's your lunch really costing you?

Eating out quickly racks up costs and calories. Even seemingly healthful restaurant meals―a salad or a turkey sandwich―can be nutritional pitfalls when supersized portions and mystery ingredients factor in. The calorie counts may shock you.

With a little planning, it's easy to transform leftovers into healthy, affordable lunches. We'll show you several choices for dinner tonight, plus options for tomorrow's lunch, and compare how our lunch portions stack up―nutritionally and money-wise―to their counterparts at popular chain restaurants.

Grilled Lemon-Herb Chicken

Randy Mayor

Dinner Tonight: Grilled Lemon-Herb Chicken

Buying a whole bird is an economical way to purchase chicken, pound for pound. Plus, cooking it whole―whether roasting, baking, or grilling (shown here)―is an effortless way to prepare extra portions that translate into an array of packable lunches.

Make this for dinner tonight, and we'll show you three tasty options for tomorrow's lunch that are healthier than their restaurant counterparts.

View Recipe: Grilled Lemon-Herb Chicken

Chicken Cobb Salad

Lee Harrelson

Lunch Option 1: Cobb Salad

Restaurant Meal: California Pizza Kitchen Cobb Salad with Chicken―$13.49
Homemade Alternative: Chicken Cobb Salad―$5.11

Using leftover chicken from the previous recipe, you can save more than $8 by brown-bagging your own Cobb salad. This way you can control the calories, saturated fat, and sodium that can often go unchecked in restaurant salads with heavy dressings. California Pizza Kitchen's Cobb Salad, without dressing, contains 630 calories, 15 grams of saturated fat, and 1,510mg sodium―not a great start. Add ranch dressing, and the totals jump to 1,150 calories, 24 grams saturated fat, and 1,960mg sodium. Our salad contains almost 77 percent fewer calories, 90 percent less saturated fat, and 60 percent less sodium.

View Recipe: Chicken Cobb Salad

Thai Chicken Roll Ups

Howard Puckett

Lunch Option 2: Thai Chicken Wrap

Restaurant Meal: Au Bon Pain Thai Peanut Chicken Wrap―$5.79
Homemade Alternative: Thai Chicken Rollups―$2.39

Make this simple swap and you’ll cut calories and sodium―and trim your food costs. The restaurant version of the Thai Chicken Wrap is fine when it comes to calories (about 530 calories per wrap), but contains a whopping 1,340mg sodium. That’s more than half of the maximum daily recommended intake of sodium. The homemade alternative saves you more than $3, cuts 200 calories, and reduces sodium by almost half.

View Recipe: Thai Chicken Rollups

Chicken-and-Brie Sandwich with Roasted Cherry Tomatoes recipe

Becky Luigart-Stayner

Lunch Option 3: Chicken Sandwich

Restaurant Meal: Chili's Chicken Ranch Sandwich―$7.99
Homemade Alternative: Chicken-and-Brie Sandwich with Roasted Cherry Tomatoes―$3.76

A chicken sandwich is a go-to lunch for many who assume it's a healthy choice. But not all chicken sandwiches are created equally. Chili's Chicken Ranch Sandwich has a staggering 1,170 calories, 71 grams of fat (11 grams saturated), and 2,910mg sodium. Our version gets its robust flavor from creamy Brie and roasted tomatoes, but contains 730 fewer calories, half the saturated fat, and only one-third of the sodium of the restaurant version. Plus, our sandwich contains calcium, fiber, and iron that your body needs.

View Recipe: Chicken-and-Brie Sandwich with Roasted Cherry Tomatoes

Basic Flank Steak

Becky Luigart-Stayner

Dinner Tonight: Flank Steak

Flank steak is versatile, easy to prepare, and one of the leaner cuts of beef with only 2.6 grams saturated fat per 3-ounce serving. A rich source of protein and iron, it is relatively inexpensive, with great beefy flavor for a lean cut. Cut it cross-grain for tender slices, which are easy to stretch in subsequent recipes. Flank steak soaks up marinades well and works with flavors from around the globe.

View Recipe: Basic Grilled Flank Steak

Grilled Vidalia Onion and Steak Sandwiches recipe

Becky Luigart-Stayner

Lunch Option 1: Steak Sandwich

Restaurant Meal: T.G.I. Friday's Chipotle Grilled Steak Sandwich―$11.39
Homemade Alternative: Grilled Vidalia Onion and Steak Sandwiches―$3.78

A delicious steak sandwich for less than $4? You bet! But the real savings here is for your waistline. T.G.I. Friday's Chipotle Grilled Steak Sandwich (with cheese) is a heavyweight, packed with 900 calories. Our chipotle-seasoned steak sandwich has 72 percent fewer calories and just 3.3 grams of saturated fat. With 30.5 grams of protein, plus iron and calcium your body needs, this meal is plenty substantial.

View Recipe: Grilled Vidalia Onion and Steak Sandwiches

Southwestern Steak, Corn and Black Bean Wraps recipe

Becky Luigart-Stayner

Lunch Option 2: Steak Fajita Wraps

Restaurant Meal: Moe's "Fat Sam" Fajitas―$8.99
Homemade Alternative: Southwestern Steak, Corn, and Black Bean Wraps―$1.87

Our delicious spin on steak fajitas will work for nearly every budget. Plus, they've got just 327 calories and 10.4 grams of fat (4.7 grams saturated) per serving. Compare that to the aptly named "Fat Sam" steak fajitas at Moe's: 1,591 calories, 86 grams of fat (31.3 saturated), and 4,306mg sodium if you opt for rice, black beans, queso, sour cream, chipotle ranch, guacamole, pico de gallo, and veggies.

View Recipe: Southwestern Steak, Corn, and Black Bean Wraps

Steak, Sun-Dried Tomato, and Mozzarella Salad recipe

Becky Luigart-Stayner

Lunch Option 3: Steak Salad with Cheese

Restaurant Meal: Outback Classic Roasted Filet Salad―$11.95
Homemade Alternative: Steak, Sun-Dried Tomato, and Mozzarella Couscous Salad―$3.45

It's tough to find a restaurant-style steak salad with so much good nutrition in so few calories. But this couscous-based salad, which could be served over greens, delivers fresh veggies, fiber, calcium, protein, and healthy carbs―all for about $3.50 and just 332 calories. Compare that to the restaurant version: 562.5 calories, 29.7 grams of fat (10.2 grams saturated), and you'll feel great about this recipe.

View Recipe: Steak, Sun-Dried Tomato, and Mozzarella Salad

Simple Baked Ham recipe

Randy Mayor

Dinner Tonight: Baked Ham

Having a ham on hand is always smart because it provides so many options. Typically less expensive per pound than beef and lamb, ham is sold in large pre-packaged portions, so you can't ask the butcher to cut it down. That's OK, because it freezes beautifully―just cube or chop it first. Then add it to quesadillas, stir it into mac and cheese, and use it to add substance to soups, salads, fried rice, and more.

View Recipe: Simple Baked Ham

Lunch Option: Ham and Cheese Toasted Sandwich recipe

Randy Mayor

Lunch Option 1: Ham and Cheese Sandwich

Restaurant Meal: Panera Smoked Ham and Swiss―$6
Homemade Alternative: Ham and Cheese Toasted Sandwich―$1.49

A good ham and Swiss sandwich is a comfort-food classic. By making your own, you'll benefit your budget as well as your taste buds. Our homemade version comes in at 246 calories, 4.3 grams saturated fat, and 859mg sodium. The restaurant alternative featured here is a bit harder on your wallet and your waistline at 690 calories, 10 grams saturated fat, and 2,320mg sodium.

View Recipe: Ham and Cheese Toasted Sandwich

Ham and Pineapple Pizza

Lunch Option 2: Pizza

Restaurant Meal: Pizza Hut Ham & Pineapple 6-inch Personal Pan Pizza―$4.06
Homemade Alternative: Ham and Pineapple Pizza―$1.90

Premade pizza crust and commercial pasta sauce make this pizza a cinch to assemble, and chipped leftover ham makes it tasty. With just 298 calories and 7.9 grams of fat (3.7 grams saturated) for 2 slices, it's a more nutritious choice than the slices you'll find at most pizza parlors. As one example, Pizza Hut's Ham & Pineapple 6-inch Personal Pan Pizza has 550 calories and 20 grams of fat (8 grams saturated).

View Recipe: Ham and Pineapple Pizza

Dinner Tonight: Whole Roasted Turkey recipe

Randy Mayor

Dinner Tonight: Whole Roasted Turkey

Turkey is not just for the holidays. When you cook a big bird, it can be surprisingly economical because of the large volume of leftovers. Plus, turkey offers endless options. Use it any place you'd use chicken. If you're not feeding a huge group, consider buying a breast (not a boneless cut; look for bone-in breasts, which typically have the leg removed).

View Recipe: Cooking Light's Ultimate Roasted Turkey

Turkey Reuben Sandwiches recipe

Randy Mayor

Lunch Option 1: Turkey Sandwich

Restaurant Meal: Cheesecake Factory's "The Club"―$11.95
Homemade Alternative: Turkey Reuben Sandwich―$2.33

Bacon aside, a club sandwich sounds like a fairly good choice, right? Don't assume so. The Cheesecake Factory's sandwich "The Club" weighs in at 1,432 calories, 20 grams of saturated fat, and 3,196mg sodium. Our Turkey Reuben Sandwich is a better choice for your belly and budget, with just 255 calories, 4.8 grams of saturated fat, and 865mg sodium. Here's what you save: $9.62 in your pocket, plus 82 percent fewer calories, 75 percent less saturated fat, and 73 percent less sodium.

View Recipe: Turkey Reuben Sandwiches

Romaine and Turkey Slalad with Creamy Avocado Dressing recipe

Lee Harrelson

Lunch Option 2: Turkey Salad

Restaurant Meal: Applebee's Santa Fe Chicken Salad―$8.99
Homemade Alternative: Romaine and Turkey Salad with Creamy Avocado Dressing―$3.69

This is another example of a seemingly healthy option―grilled chicken salad―that can be deceiving. Guacamole, sour cream, and Mexi-ranch dressing pack Applebee's Santa Fe Chicken Salad with 1,270 calories, 24 grams saturated fat, and 3,460mg sodium. Our homemade version uses avocados in a creamy dressing and subs your leftover turkey meat for 80 percent fewer calories, 82 percent less saturated fat, and 69 percent less sodium.

View Recipe: Romaine and Turkey Salad with Creamy Avocado Dressing

Image: budgeting and counting coins

Laura Doss

About Our Methodology

Restaurant nutrition data was culled from publicly available information provided by each restaurant. Some chains do not disclose nutrition data in most states, but are required by law to do so in Washington state. In those cases, we verified the nutrition content with a Washington branch.

Recipe costs were calculated using supermarket prices (from in the Milwaukee area. Recipe ingredient costs were calculated by dividing the full cost of the grocery item by the amount of the ingredient required for the recipe. Total recipe cost was divided by the number of servings per recipe to arrive at the cost on a "single serving" basis. Grocery items selected were generally mid-to-lower-priced brands. For example, we used olive oil that was $10.49 per 17-ounce bottle. Some brands were a few dollars less, others substantially more expensive for the same amount. Restaurant prices were taken from the St. Louis and Milwaukee areas. We used single serve entrée, sandwich, salad etc. costs for comparison with the single serving cost of our recipes. For both groceries and restaurants, we used medium-sized cities with moderate pricing/cost of living. Restaurant prices do not include tax or tip.

About the author: Cooking Light contributor Katherine Brooking is a registered dietitian with a master’s degree in nutrition education from Columbia University. Additional reporting by Kirsten Soelling.

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