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Save money and calories with lightened up fried chicken and mac and cheese

Joy Bauer whips up lightened up comfort food recipes for mac and cheese, fried chicken and barbecue that will save you calories and cash.
/ Source: TODAY

You might think most of your money is going towards clothing and vacations, but food can actually eat up a surprisingly large portion of your budget. Whether dining out or buying groceries, Americans spend a ton of money on meals. But there's good news: cooking these delicious dishes at home is the way to go if you want save cash and calories.

The first step towards making low-calorie, budget-friendly meals is just that — make your meals versus ordering in or dining out. Restaurants not only hike up the price, but they often overdo it on the butter, oil, salt, starch and fatty toppings (typically resulting in calorific cuisine). By cooking the majority of your meals at home, you'll have much more control over specific ingredients, and their amounts, plus you'll slash both calories and cost substantially.

To help get you get started, I've slimmed down three decadent dinners that are trending on food takeout service Grubhub: Lobster Mac and Cheese, Fried Chicken and Mashed Potatoes and Barbecue Brisket. Each of my made-over dishes clocks in at less than 500 calories — and each costs less than $5 per person to cook. Plus, my taste testers will vouch that these lightened-up renditions are insanely satisfying. Add 'em to your dinner rotation and you'll be slimming down your waistline and fattening up your wallet in no time. Double win!

Lobster Mac and Cheese


It's pretty hard to improve on classic macaroni and cheese, but the addition of frozen lobster helps fancy it up and boost protein. One hearty serving provides a whopping 36 grams of satiating protein for only 480 calories. I also elevate the deliciousness and nutrition by adding a little extra goodness on top with my broccoli-parm "breadcrumbs." And, thanks to Jean Chatzky's math skills, we now know that it costs about $3.60 per serving to make — on average, that's 80 percent less than what it would cost at a restaurant!

Get the recipe

Not-So-Fried Chicken and Mashed "Potatoes"


Between the crispy coating and deliciously juicy meat, this beloved dish is an irresistible comfort food. But let's face it, we could all benefit from a little less fried fare. Satisfy the urge instead with this baked version — it provides the same tasty satisfaction without any guilty aftermath. It's finger-licking good...and good for you, too. And instead of butter and cream-laden mashed potatoes, I serve this chicken with a savory side of lower carb mashed cauliflower. While the average restaurant charges about $15 for a fried chicken entree, my version costs approximately $2.66 per person. Cook it up, dig in and think about all the extra cash you just saved.

Get the Baked Chicken recipe and the Cauliflower Mashed "Potatoes" recipe

Slow-Cooker Barbecue Brisket


Where's the beef? In the slow cooker! This cut of red meat is delicious when it's cooked low and slow. That way, all the yummy flavors from the veggies and sauces seep in and the meat becomes really tender. Simply dump all the ingredients into your slow cooker in the morning and enjoy a home cooked meal when you get home in the evening. It's like having your own personal (and affordable) chef. Compared to ordering barbecue brisket at a restaurant, you'll end up with an extra $13 (per serving) in your pocket. This dish is truly a one-pot wonder and a triple threat — it will save you time, calories and cash.

Get the recipe

For more delicious recipes, check out Joy's cookbook From Junk Food to Joy Food and follow her via Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.