Eat Out on the Cheap

Can't cook tonight? Here's how to eat out cheaply without going to a fast-food restaurant.

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

When the going gets tough and the budget gets tighter, do the tough keep going out to eat? You can stay on budget and still eat out, making every 5 or 10 dollar bill count by keeping the following rules in mind.

Order "Take Out" to Save Money

When you order your food "to go" instead of eating in the restaurant, you save the cost of drinks, the tip, and maybe even dessert. Say you are going to a moderately priced popular restaurant chain. Not ordering drinks will save you about $2.50 a person and not ordering an alcohol-type drink will save you about $5 or more per drink. Not ordering one dessert will save you $5 to $7. And by avoiding paying a tip, you save an average of 15%.

For example, if you order four dinner entrees as "take out" totaling $40 instead of eating in the restaurant, you could potentially save the:

Tip = $6 on the $40 tab
Drinks = $10 for nonalcoholic drinks for four (would be more with alcohol)
Dessert = $10 for two desserts that the table shares

For a total potential savings of $26.

Check Your Sunday Newspaper for Extra Savings

Sometimes local restaurant chains offer special coupons in the Sunday paper. The Sizzler restaurant chain, for example, recently offered a few coupons in Northern California:

  • A $9.99 "Create You own Combo" that includes your choice of two entree items and a baked potato
  • A $8.99 "Complete Burger Lunch" includes salad bar and a drink
  • A $9.99 "Complete Steak Lunch" includes salad bar and a drink

Join Restaurant Email Clubs

Most of the restaurant chains with web sites offer an email club. Each club has a slightly different name and list of benefits, but each usually offers some sort of sign-up incentive (a coupon or two) plus a little surprise when your birthday rolls around (a coupon). It's a "win-win" situation: The restaurant wins because the coupon brings you into the restaurant, and you win because you are getting a discount.

2 Meals for the Price of 1

Get two meals for the price of one by taking home half of your big restaurant meal. You can even ask your server to only serve you half on the plate and package the other half in a take-out container. This technique works especially well for restaurants that are notorious for serving mammoth-sized meals. The meal may cost you $13.95 or $16.95, but since it's serving as two meals, it's really costing $6.98 or $8.48 per meal.

"Do" Lunch or Make It an Early Dinner to Catch the Lunch Prices

Beat the long dinner lines and catch the lower lunch prices by eating an early dinner. You can also enjoy the lower prices by visiting your favorite restaurants around the lunch hour. Most restaurants stop serving the lunch entrees or offering the lower lunch prices around 5 p.m. You can get there around 4:30 or 4:45 and still order off of the lunch menu. Until 5 p.m., The Cheesecake Factory restaurants offer lunch specials ranging from $7.95 to $12.95 that generally include smaller portions of some of their favorite menu items like factory meatloaf, beer battered fish & chips, orange chicken, or chicken piccata.

Make Every Side Count

If your meal comes with a side dish and you really don't want it at that moment, choose something that you know you can take home and use later. This might be a baked potato (use it for a breakfast skillet meal the next morning or as a baked potato lunch -- add some cheese and shredded chicken, beans, or broccoli). At a Chinese restaurant, you might go home with an entire container of steamed rice. You can use this to make soup or vegetarian fried rice the next day. If your lunch comes with a green salad that you don't have room for, take it home and make a nice entree salad later that day.

Today's Meat Is Tomorrow's Sandwich

Have you ever ordered a steak or a roasted chicken dinner and were amazed at the amount of meat staring at you when they slid the plate in front of you? Often meat entrees total 10 ounces or more when most of us only want or need to eat around 4 ounces. Look at the size of your hand, not including the fingers. That's a sensible serving of meat for most adults. Anything more than that can be taken home and shredded or sliced to make a sandwich or entrée salad the next day. Add your leftover meat to enhance pasta or pizza dishes, baked potatoes, stews, or casseroles.

Order From the Kids Menu

Ordering from the kids menu (as a grown-up) can be a great way to get the most from your $5 bill if you are a modest eater or want to be a modest eater. The kid meals end up giving you, in my opinion, just the right amount of food. They usually come with a small drink, and if you've been extra nice to your waiter/waitress, they may even come with a mini dessert. What could be more perfect! Some restaurants charge a dollar more if you are ordering from the "kids" menu and you are clearly not a kid. That's fine with me because it's usually still a great deal.

Senior Savings Add Up

If you are at least 60 years young, many restaurants offer you a discount on your food purchase. It's usually about 15%, and this can save you $3 on a $20 food bill. Look around your town and find out which restaurants offer senior discounts. Every little bit helps.

A Few Bites of Dessert Is All You Need

If people at your table or at home would all love to try a new dessert, you can order one dessert to share instead of ordering one dessert per person. Have you noticed that even at reasonably priced restaurants the desserts seem to be shockingly expensive? A few desserts and your tab just went up about $18 ($6 each for three desserts) not including the increase in tip. The Molten Chocolate Cake or the Chocolate Chip Paradise Pie at Chili's restaurants each add about $5.99. One slice of cheesecake from a Cheesecake Factory restaurant costs about $7, so buying one slice instead of three will save you about $14 (not to mention an obscene amount of calories.)

Published June 13, 2008.

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