Eat Dessert, Save!


You know the drill. The waiter comes around when most of your table has finished eating and asks about dessert. Most of us demure, saying that we're so full we couldn't eat another bite. Sometimes, that's true. I know I've said "No" for other reasons, though, and I think that's true of most of us. The thought of spending $5-$15 on a slab of cake that we could just as easily make ourselves if we put our  minds to it can be enough to turn anyone off. On the other hand, most of us never get around to putting our minds to it at home--there's so much to do and, besides, baking can take so long. Add in thoughts about the number of calories you'll take in and eating dessert, be it homemade or purchased in a restaurant, seems like the biggest mistake in the world.

And yet we crave the taste. There's something about sweetness that most human beings enjoy. So how can we get what we want without spending to much, either in time, money, or the expanding waistline?

It Doesn't Take That Long

The only way we can control what goes into our desserts (and therefore the calories we consume when we eat them) and how much we spend on them is to make them ourselves. That's a daunting prospect for some, who have either not had much success in the past or who do not feel like they have the time. But here's a secret: it doesn't take that long. Sure, it takes a while to make a gourmet cake with all the trimmings, but we don't need to make something fit for Princess Di's wedding to enjoy a little sweetness now and then. In fact, baking takes a surprisingly short amount of time. If you're especially pressed for time, make something (like a cake or a pan of brownies) where everything goes in one pan. Mixing takes 5-10 minutes, and then you simply do what you need to do until your timer goes off and your yummy dessert is done.

It's Not That Hard

Baking can be intimidating, particularly when you've had some spectacular failures. Instead of dwelling on those, try again! Jump in with something easy, like a basic pan of brownies or blondies. Nothing has to rise, your timing can be a little off, your oven temp can fluctuate, and you'll still get a spectaculer, yummy dessert that everyone around you will love.

If you want to try something harder and you're still nervous, calm yourself by reading all the directions several times before you start mixing anything. Make sure you have the ingredients, pans, and other equipment that you'll need. Figure out ahead of time how you'll time it--maybe you can whip the cream just after the timer goes off so it's still fluffy when you put it on the cake, or mix the dry ingredients ahead of time so it won't take as long in one sitting. Get comfortable with everything and give it a go.

Control Your Ingredients

If it's health or money you're worried about, this is where you can get creative. Some of my favorite health-related baking substitutions are below:

  • Substitute oil with unsweetened applesauce (some people recommend ony substituting half the oil with applesauce, but I've found that you can almost always substitute it all without any problems)
  • Replace up to half the regular flour with wheat flour (this one is a bit controversial, but I haven't had any tasters complain about either taste or texture when I've done this)
  • Use twice as many eggwhites as the recipe calls for eggs (if the recipe is particularly eggy, be careful with this one. If the eggs are just part of the game, substitute away)
  • Use margarine instead of butter (this can change the consistency of your final product but I've never had it ruin a recipe)
  • Use soy or rice milk instead of regular milk
  • Add quick-cooking (not instant or regular) oats (this works particularly well with cookies, brownies, and scones. Be careful adding oats to anything smooth, like a cake)

These aren't the only health-related substitutions out there, but they're some of the better-known ones and they'll make your desserts as healthy as desserts can possibly be.

When it comes to money, you can save in several ways:

  • Buy in bulk. Is there a favorite dessert that you make once or more each month? Buy as many of the ingredients as possible in bulk. Make sure you store them in a cool, dry place in airtight containers and you're set.
  • Shop the sales. It sounds obvious, but you would be surprised how many baking purchases are of the last-minute, I'm-craving-chocolate-so-I'm-making-cookies-NOW! sort. If you get into a regular baking habit, you'll be able to buy your ingredients when they're on sale, just like you buy so many other food items.
  • Stop buying store-bought items or restaurant-cooked desserts. When you know you have sweet food at home, it's that much easier to skip when you're out. And many desserts (or batters) freeze well, so you can pop in a tray of cookies when your kid tells you he needs them for the party tomorrow or you'd like to take something to the staff at work.

Don't give up dessert! Instead, give up worrying about it and get your fix easy-peasy!

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Guest's picture

Are you kidding? You do know that all "margarine is better than butter" research is decades old, and all new research shows just the opposite?

Besides, Margarine produces an inferior flavour in baked goods than butter does.

Guest's picture

I have to agree. All that trans-fat in margarine is really bad for your health. I either use butter or olive oil (or a mix of butter, olive oil, and applesauce).

Myscha Theriault's picture

Oh, I do so love the foody posts. We use the apple sauce trick a fair amount, and often substitute other items for eggs altogether.

Regarding the comment about margarine, I believe there are some healthy alternatives out there. (In fact, a product rep for a brand new one just contacted me the other day.) Either way, it certainly works for reducing the cost overall.

Thanks Sarah, for putting this together.

Guest's picture

I enjoy this post because restaurant desserts are one of those luxuries that we take advantage of too often and sacrifice dollars over. If you're too lazy to bake a cake, you don't deserve to eat it. It may be just a cake, but it should follow the same logic as anything else. If you're too lazy to work, you don't deserve the pay/reward.

Plus, baking is fun. And if you do it with a bunch of people, it's a great frugal way to entertain yourselves.

Guest's picture
Debbie M

My substitutions are:

* whole wheat pastry flour instead of flour (it tastes the same to me and has more fiber)
* skim milk instead of regular
* walnut oil for vegetable oil
* 1/3 to 1/2 less sugar than called for
* refuse to use recipes with too many calories
* applesauce, mashed banana, or babyfood fruit for some of the fat (sometimes).

Fat substitutions don't work well in chocolate chip cookies (except maybe oatmeal cookies with chocolate chips), but at least they can have some whole grains and nuts in them.

I'll sometimes add ground flax seed or wheat germ or wheat bran. I'll sometimes add shredded carrots or zucchini or chopped walnuts.

I can't bring myself to throw out egg yolks, so I don't do that one, but you can substitute 1 heaping tablespoon of soy flour and 1-2 tablespoons water for each egg.

It's true that margarine with hydrogenated fats are (probably?) worse than butter, but there are some margarines without hydrogenation that might be better. I go with butter and/or walnut oil.

Otherwise, I also keep a lookout for low-fat recipes that are yummy. My favorite one so far is Banana chocolate chip oatmeal cookies although I substitute walnuts for chocolate chips (even though I love chocolate chips).

Guest's picture

Don't forget though, cooking is art - baking is science. As much as your grandma's soup is a pinch of this and a handful of that your grandma's brownies are exact measurements so that you get the right chemical combinations for fluffy cake and dense brownies. :)

Guest's picture

I find that most commercially prepared desserts are waaaaay too sweet. So sweet that they make my head spin and my pancreas go into overdrive. And, lest you think I'm some kind of health nut, I LOVE desserts - I just find many of them too sweet.

If you gradually reduce the amount of sugar you use, you will adjust to the lower sugar content and not feel deprived at all, and at the same time, your desserts will be much less 'junky' and won't be as likely to throw you into the sugar high/crash cycle. And, because sugar dissolves completely in liquid, the recipe doesn't care how much you use. I find I can cut the sugar by 1/2 to 2/3 and still like the taste. Start by cutting it by 1/4, adjust to that, then keep ramping it down until you don't like the taste any more. You have nothing to lose.

And ... you can use whole wheat pastry flour in place of regular white flour with no ill effects in things like cookies and brownies. I'm not sure about cakes - the flour might be too heavy, but I have taken 100% whole wheat brownies and cookies to parties and had nothing but raves over them. No one even knows that they are kind of good for you :)

Butter gets a bad rap. It's not that bad for you. It is expensive, but margarine is gross!

Guest's picture

I have done this quite a few times with good results. The only thing to be aware of is that the soy flour has a noticeable taste that will cook off, but it takes a while. So, it might be noticeable in something like cookies, that bake for 8 minutes, but won't be noticeable in brownies, that bake for 30 minutes.

Haven't tried it in cakes. Cakes to me are more complicated and probably less forgiving of food science experiments :)

Guest's picture

A good price on something you don't need is still not a good deal. A sale simply sweetens the deal and perhaps makes the purchase come sooner rather than later.

Buy big containers, serve from small containers. Portions served from a large container are often larger and more frequent than they appear. Conversely, serving from a small container can help you use the product more frugally. So be sure to think as rationally as possible about what is a reasonable portion size (perhaps setting it on a small plate to avoid the relative size illusion) and divide up your bulk goods into small packages accordingly.

Guest's picture

I didn't realize that people think baking is difficult. Especially with boxed mixes and canned frosting, making a cake, brownies or cookies is incredibly easy. Yeah, the results may not look exactly like what's available in restaurants, but most of the time, the taste will be just as good.

And, once you master baking with mixes, you can start branching out. Add some chocolate chips (or better yet, decrease the oil and add some chocolate syrup and chocolate chips) to your brownies. Swirl a chocolate and vanilla cake mix in the pan and get a marble cake, or add sprinkles for "funfetti". Add extra cinnamon to those oatmeal butterscotch chip cookies, or substitute white chocolate chips for half of the regular chocolate ones.

From there, it's an easy step to finding recipes online and making things from scratch. And then, only another half step and you're combining bits and pieces of recipes and coming up with your own. Yeah, every once in a while, you'll fail. But it will still probably taste pretty good. If not, you toss it out, make a note not to try that combination again and give it another go.

My biggest problem is what to do with the rest of the cake after I've had my slice or three. But, most of the time, the high school kids at church or the guys at work are more than happy to finish up any leftovers.

Guest's picture

I've had to eliminate dairy from cooking, because I have an allergy. But, when baking or made frosting without dairy lately, I've been using "earth balance" margarine and it has been a big hit with people who can even eat dairy :) I'll have to try the applesauce.

Guest's picture

I have been a big baking fan since my mom started me at like age 5. I have to concur that if a recipe calls for butter, use butter. You will never get the same taste or consistancy using margerine (ick). Also the apple sauce trick. That is able to be done in say breads, cakes, but never in cookies.

Once you have had something baked with butter and try to change it trust me you will notice the difference. If I am going to spend an afternoon in the kitchen baking (which I love to do), then I will only use what the recipe calls for to ensure everything is to perfection.

Guest's picture

For those who really want to rock out on whole-wheat baking, I highly reccomend the : King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking book. I've been using it for a year and the breads, cookies, cakes (even whole wheat genoise!) have all worked for me and are fantastic.

I now bake all of our bread (100% whole wheat,) biscuits, (also 100% ww,) cakes, crackers and cookies to avoid trans-fats, HFCS, and to cut the white sugar and white flour, out or down.

Guest's picture

I have also tried graham crackers with miracle whip and then drizzle sugar free chocolate sauce on the miracle whip. Add another cracker and freeze. Also, you can add a little drop of vanilla extract to flavor the miracle whip!

Myscha Theriault's picture

Hi Victoria. I think I've seen those, but are you sure you don't mean Cool Whip?  Miracle Whip is a mayonaise type of spread, where as Cool Whip is a whipped topping type of product. If it's the sweet treat I'm thinking of, I've also seen it with the chocolate graham crackers. It really does taste like mini ice cream sandwiches.

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