You don't have to go broke eating at restaurants.
I get it. Despite the pandemic and any worries you have about money, sometimes you just want to go out to a restaurant, or order take-out. It’s a great treat to have a nice meal cooked by someone else.
It's even better if you can do it on the cheap. You don't have to spend $50 to get a good meal just because you need a break from cooking at home.
Although the restaurant industry is struggling with pandemic-related restrictions, in most areas of the country there are still some dine-in options as well as to-go ordering. Many restaurants are also pivoting to outside dining, doing everything from adding tables on the sidewalk to building elaborate covered porches in their parking lots.
Perhaps you’ve seen the meme that says, “Outdoor Dining in Chicago” and shows a couple sitting on picnic tables in a couple of feet of snow?
All kidding aside, restaurant owners are getting creative. Here in Portland where I live, we are seeing a lot of new outside dining being created on the sidewalk, street, and parking lot areas. These are all covered (it rains here in Portland, all the time) but are open to the air and allow for more ventilation than indoor dining.
If you want to support the restaurant industry and give yourself a break from cooking and cleaning, check out what your favorite eatery is offering. Dine-in or order some take-out food and enjoy yourself.
Eating restaurant food is definitely more expensive than cooking at home, but that doesn’t mean that it has to completely empty your wallet. Here are some tips to help you treat yourself without breaking the bank.
Appetizers are one of the top things you learn to “upsell” when you’re a waitress. With prices ranging from $5–12 for what’s generally a tiny portion, appetizers are a great way for restaurants to increase their profits. Skip the appetizer or if you really want one, share something with the rest of the table.
Don’t order the add-ons
Another way to reduce your bill is to avoid expensive add-ons to your meal. Things like adding cheese to a burger, adding avocado to your salad, or adding bacon to your sandwich can add $2 or more. Enjoy the meal as it is, without the pricy add-ons.
Share a meal with a friend
Most restaurant meals are way bigger than you need, and studies have shown you eat as much as is on your plate. Food researcher Brian Wansink has published several famous studies showing that we tend to stop eating when the plate is empty, regardless of how much food there is. To save money — and calories — pick an entrée you can share with a companion and ask the waitress to bring you an extra plate.
Order an appetizer as your entrée
If you are at a restaurant that serves generously sized appetizers, consider ordering one or two appetizers instead of a more expensive entrée. Add a side salad to make it a complete meal. Ask the wait staff to bring it with everyone else’s entries, and if you would like, put it all on one big plate.
Order a kids’ meal
If you have a smaller appetite or want to save some money, considering ordering off the children’s menu. This is a great option for people who don’t qualify for the senior menus, which are often limited to adults age 65 and older. There won’t be as much variety on the kid’s menu, but if you were just going to order a burger or a grilled cheese anyway, save some cash and go with the kid’s size. You can always add an appetizer to bulk it up.
Think twice before ordering a salad
Have you seen the price of restaurant salads lately? A side salad can be as much as $5 or more, and entrée sized salads are often $15. Some salads may be worth it, but many are not. I recently ordered a side salad without realizing it was $4.50, then when it came it was a bowl of iceberg lettuce, some carrot spirals, and two anemic-looking cherry tomatoes. Pro-tip: if the salad is 80% lettuce, it’s not worth more than a buck or two.
Watch alcohol prices
There is an obscene amount of mark-up on restaurant drinks. A bottle of beer that costs you $2 in the grocery store may set you back $7 or more in a restaurant. Mixed drinks are significantly more expensive than beer or wine, so stick with those if you are going to drink. To save money, limit yourself to one drink, then switch to water.
Skip Dessert — or Share It
It is always so tempting to try a delicious restaurant dessert, even if you are already full from your meal. Restaurant desserts always look delicious. To save money, consider ordering one dessert to share with the table. Another option is to take a walk after dinner to a nearby ice cream parlor or bakery. Or better yet, waiting to get home to have dessert there.
Don’t pay a “trendy” premium
Prices for the same meal can vary widely depending on how trendy the restaurant is. If you have a long wait for a reservation, you will likely be looking at a much more expensive meal. Stick with smaller and more established restaurants.
Watch out for delivery service fees
Restaurant meals ordered through delivery services like Door Dash, Grubhub, and Uber Eats are already marked up $1 or more per entry. But on top of that, you have a delivery fee and a mysterious “service fee”, which could add $10 or more to your order, not counting the tip for the delivery driver. Make sure you are aware of the fees. They tend to fluctuate from restaurant to restaurant and even between services. My favorite burrito place is cheaper depending on which service I use. If you have more than one restaurant or service option, shop around for the lowest fees.
Divide your meal in half
Restaurant portions tend to be large, with more food than you would typically eat at a home meal. To keep yourself from overeating and save some money, as soon as you get your meal, split it in half. Ask for a to-go box or if you are at home, put the other half into a Tupperware container immediately. Save the other half of your meal for lunch tomorrow, and you’ll be able to get two meals for the price of one.
You can still eat out at places that do not offer a “dollar menu” or a “value meal”. Be a savvy consumer and order smart to save money and keep your bill manageable.
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