Secrets to Eating Out That Won’t Take a Big Bite Out of Your Budget

With rising inflation, many of us struggle to make ends meet. So, when we recently inventoried how we spend (or rather waste) money, we both realized that too much goes toward high-priced restaurant meals. 

We scratched our heads trying to think of clever ways to continue to eat out, though less frequently, and trim the fat, so to speak. 

Yes, we could stop eating out completely. But this is major depravation of a big pleasure for each of us and part of our social lives. We crave this kind of getting together as much as the free fresh-baked bread often brought to the table before a restaurant meal, along with sometimes delicious, sweet butter. 

We came up with concrete ideas how to pare the costs. Here's our menu of ideas: 

Try one month of no meals out. Just test it and see how much you miss eating at restaurants. You may not or it may help you curtail your restaurant eating. Or you could substitute some of the social life by having pals over for a meal at your home. Yes, cooking for others has become more expensive but others might copy and going to their homes will be a good substitute. 

Choose restaurants wisely. Study menus both for what the restaurants serve and their prices. If friends suggest restaurant X where every main course is now $30 plus and maybe even $40 or $50 or higher (Barbara saw halibut on a favorite restaurant menu recently for $54-no thank you), suggest you consider restaurants Y and Z. You can always be honest, "I'm sorry but I'm watching costs and it's just too pricey for me." Maybe, someone will suggest a less expensive choice. 

Pretend you're on a date. Both our mothers taught us never to order the most expensive item on the menu, and we've passed that lesson on to our kids. While you really might want the turbot or sole almandine, a great burger, chicken cutlet or big bowl of matzoh ball soup will fill you up and not put too much of a dent in the budget. 

Save part of what you order for leftovers. Make one meal into two. Pick a place that serves huge portions, which many do. Eat slowly and it will help fill you up. Bring home half as Barbara recently did with her order of chicken flautas. She ate two and brought home the other two for two more meals. What a deal!. 

Margaret does so routinely. Usually when her food is brought to her in any restaurant, the first words out of her mouth are: "This is huge. I'll need a take home carton." She suggests cutting a sandwich in half, leaving the other half and half the fries and pretending they're not available. You can always add to your home meal with a salad or other leftovers you have on hand. 

Split a meal. Some people are loath to do that when restaurants need diners and staff. Many still struggle post pandemic. But you can make up for that by tipping more generously. Add 22 percent rather than 20 percent. If you know you're with a friend who doesn't eat a lot, say: "Want to split the huge cobb salad when we meet our friends for dinner tonight?" Margaret used to do this frequently with a good friend in St. Louis. Be sure to tell the waiter, "Separate checks, please" so you don't end up paying for everyone else's meal, too. 

Ask how dishes are prepared and other key questions. Ask what ingredients and spices are used, how the food is cooked, where the meat or fish came from, what hours staff must work and so on. You'll become such a pain in the neck-or in another body part that before you can order, the staff may even ask you to leave before you order. What a great way to save! 

Eat and drink less. Here are tips on how to do so: 

--Eat something before you go, maybe some cheese and crackers, an apple or a nice big glass of tomato juice which can fill you up. 

--Pick a place that is crowded with wealthy boomers screaming at one another about wine, real estate and second homes, luxury travel and fancy cars. You'll lose your appetite quickly. 

--Drink lots of water. It's good for you and will help fill you up. And it's still free. Some restaurants require you to ask for it. And always ask for tap, you don't need the expensive bottled water. 

--Pregame with a glass of wine at home so you don't order an expensive glass at the table, which can send your bill soaring. If you must order a glass because everyone is pushing you to, go for the house specialty or a glass of club soda with a twist. 

--Sit next to someone who chews with their mouth open and makes smacking sounds. Your appetite vanishes, too.  "Waiter, may I have a take home carton, please." 

--Eat lots of bread that's brought to the table before the meal. It will fill you up. Speaking of bread, and this is completely gauche, when no one is looking, stuff the leftovers into a plastic bag that you have in your purse strictly for this pursuit or at least take home the second roll the waiter plops on your plate after you've consumed the first. 

--Eat slowly. Go for a less vigorous chew. That way you'll get full faster and eat less. More to take home. 

--Talk. In fact, talk so much that you forget to eat and say, "Oh, my, I only had a bite or two. Waiter, may I have a doggie bag?" 

--Eat Asian food that you must prepare at the table. You're so busy pinching, stuffing and folding that you leave behind massive amounts of food. And then you blithely say to the waiter, "I'll take the leftovers home." 

--If you order a salad, make sure the dressing is on the side so when you take half home, it isn't soggy. Ask for extra dressing and sweetly add, "May I have extra napkins and plastic utensils, please?" 

--Repurpose food. Take leftover brisket or chicken and by adding a few ingredients, make a soup that you can freeze and will last for a few meals. If salmon, put it atop a salad the next day or make a salmon burger. Margaret's mother-in-law used to transform left-over mashed potatoes into potato pancakes. 

Tip with cash. That way it doesn't show up on your credit card bill. It's a psychological ploy that will make you think you've saved, even though you may not have. 

Go for happy hour when drinks and hors d'oeuvres are less expensive and sometimes half price. As we get older, our dinner hour gets earlier so it's no big deal to chow down at 5 p.m. with all the other old people. Yes, we're in that cohort now, and we like getting home earlier. 

Order two appetizers and forget the entree. But be sure to price properly. Sometimes nowadays, two appetizers may be more than one entrée. 

Forgo dessert. Do you really need it? Most of us don't unless it's a birthday or anniversary and then often your friends will treat you. Barbara always asks to read the dessert menu and gets a vicarious thrill since she rarely orders it, especially after she's consumed so much bread (see tip above). 

Forget coffee. It's an expensive addition to your dinner, at least $5 at most nice restaurants. Learn to make it at home, even a fancy latte or cappuccino. And maybe you should be curtailing your coffee intake anyway. Same goes for tea. 

Use coupons. Some restaurants accept them. If someone makes a disparaging comment, smile and say, "That was snarky and now I won't share this coupon with you!" 

Ask about discounts. Some restaurants offer one for seniors or Triple A members, no harm in asking. You may be limited in what you can order but so what. There's usually a nice chicken choice. 

Eat where you accrue "frequent flyer points." These can lead to a free meal, glass of wine or dessert. It's always a high to get rewarded for spending money. Who needs wine? 

Switch to takeout. This can be far less expensive because you can tip less. And pick up the food yourself and avoid the  expensive delivery fee. 

Encourage meeting friends for lunch. Lunch is less expensive than dinner and breakfast can be even less than lunch. Lunch leftovers can be as good as dinner-time meals. 

The one big problem we see with all our strategizing is that taking home so many leftovers will result in a plethora of plastic and aluminum containers and silverware. Some we can reuse, but most are like those glass flower vases from florists or hangers from dry cleaners. They take up space in our kitchen cabinets and closets. Tossing them away means they'll end up in a landfill. So, when a waiter asks, "Paper or plastic?" for your leftovers, you know what to say. "Definitely paper, please." 

Do you have any suggestions to add to our list? We'd love to hear what you have to say about saving on restaurant food.


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