Saving Money Eating Out
Of course, the best way to save money on food is to avoid eating out. But sometimes you just get tired of the being at home, or you want to have a type of food that is unique or would be too much trouble to prepare yourself, like a lamb gyro carved off a rotating spit, or an Indian buffet with 15 different dishes, or you want to get new ideas for dishes you could copy and make for yourself at home. I’m not going to talk about saving money going to fast-food restaurants, like McDonalds or Taco Bell. Obviously you can order items off their “value” menu at these places and get a cheap, not very healthy, low quality bunch of calories. When we go out we are looking for places that serve high quality food at good prices. Those are the places I’m talking about in this post. So here are some suggestions for saving money when you eat out.
Go to Happy Hours
We are fortunate that Portland has a booming Happy Hour scene. Your town may not, but, if it does, you can save a lot of money by eating food from the Happy Hour menu, rather than the dinner menu. Some restaurants offer Happy Hours where the drinks are cheap, but the food isn’t discounted. Some offer Happy Hours where the food is cheap, but the drinks aren’t. You want to choose the Happy Hours where both food and drinks are discounted. Of those places, some will offer a HH menu composed of boring pub food choices that favor cheap ingredients, such as fries or tater tots, chicken wings or chicken strips, burgers or sliders, etc. These HH food items might not even be on the restaurant’s regular dinner menu…the food selections are only there to offer something they can make cheaply for Happy Hour customers. We generally avoid these types of Happy Hour places as well. The best Happy Hours are at restaurants which use the HH menu to entice customers to become regular dinner patrons. These restaurants offer HH choices that are usually just smaller servings of dishes on the main menu, often some of the restaurant’s most popular dishes. These are the kinds of Happy Hours that we regularly frequent. It’s a great way to taste many different kinds of dishes at good prices. Check out the times and days of different Happy Hours and you will find they usually occur in the late afternoon (3-5pm or 3-6pm is common) as well as late in the evening (9 or 10pm to midnight is common). Often they aren’t available on weekends, but something they run longer hours just on Sundays.
Check online for HH locations and reviews. Google “best happy hours <your city name>” and you will most likely find one or more websites dedicated to this topic. There are also phone apps like Happy Hour Finder for IOS and Android which can help you locate happy hours. Zomato and other restaurant review sites have Happy Hour search selections on the sites. For Portland, there is even a published Happy Hour Guidebook that gives information on Happy Hours in different parts of the city and also under different headings such as atmosphere and amenities nearby. We bought the book but ended up going back again and again to our favorite places (Mexican, Thai Fusion, Greek and Cuban). You still have to be cost comparative and make sure that your combination of smaller HH food selections doesn’t work out to more than the cost of two full dinners. At the restaurants that we regularly visit, we figure eating (and drinking) at Happy Hours saves us about 35-50% on average over having a regular dinner, and we get to try more dishes.
Use coupons and Groupons
We get coupon magazines for local businesses every week in the mail. About half the ads are for discounts on pizzas or local restaurants with “buy one meal at regular price and get the other for free or ½ price” offers. We also get offers in our emails from Groupon, Half Price, Living Social, and other companies which usually have offers for “get $24 coupon at <name of restaurant> for $12”. These are a great deal because they are almost always a 50% discount which you can apply to anything at the restaurant. We like the Papa Murphy’s take-and-bake pizzas and I signed up for their special offers and now I get an offer on my iPhone just about every day for some kind of discount on their pizzas and these offers are always better than the Papa Murphy’s coupons in the weekly mailer. If you are a fan of chain restaurants like Red Lobster, Red Robin, Olive Garden, etc. you can often find online deals for those kinds of places.
Be sure to tip based on what total bill would be without the coupon, unless service charge is included in the bill. Getting a good deal doesn’t mean you should stiff the wait staff.
Senior Discounts: Check out theseniorlist.com for a list of restaurant discounts for seniors. Most of the restaurants listed are franchised. Some discounts are for AARP members and many of the age sensitive discounts start as young as 50. Locally, check out your favorite restaurants for senior specials. There may be a special rate for having dinner early and many restaurants offer a treat on your birthday or during your birthday month.
Having a picnic is also “eating out”
One episode of Barefoot Contessa shows her in a street market in Paris picking up ham, cheese, grapes, wine and fresh bread straight from the oven. Her husband Jeffrey and she enjoy this by the Seine. You can assemble the perfect ingredients for this kind of meal at a fraction of the restaurant price. Now that I’ve written this I realize that Dennis and I don’t do this option nearly enough. I think I’ll take my own advice and start suggesting it more often.
Again, we are fortunate to be in Portland which is a food cart mecca. If you do a search for various kinds of ethnic foods in Portland on Zomato or Trip Advisor or other other food review sites, you will find that many of the best rated restaurants in Portland are actually food carts. Food carts offer great food with cheap prices and no tip required. In Portland, food carts are organized into “pods” which are full city blocks, or portions of blocks, where many different food carts congregate. This gives everyone in your group the option of having a different kind of food, something you can’t get in a single restaurant. Prices in food carts are always lower than what you’d pay for similar food in a restaurant. Choose a cart pod in a nice location, near a park or someplace nice where you can sit, and make the food cart meal your picnic.
Do lunch instead of dinner
Often the lunch menu items are the same as the dinner items, with lunch portions a bit smaller, but prices a LOT smaller. The nice thing about having no 9-5 job is being able to have a leisurely lunch and then mope for the afternoon or go home and watch movies.
Unfortunately, Portland doesn’t allow you to bring your own liquor into restaurants. In Chicago, where our daughter Megan lives, she can do this, or has to do this in many places, because apparently liquor licenses are very expensive there. Caili, our daughter who live in New York City, tells us that many places they go to have no corkage fees so they frequently bring their own wine. You can bring bottles of wine into restaurants in Portland, but restaurant corkage fees are often high enough that buying the inflated bottle of restaurant wine is cheaper. If you live in a city which doesn’t charge excessive corkage fees, bringing your own wine, or other liquor, may be much cheaper than buying the on-premises alcohol.
Become a reverse wine snob
One of my favorite wine websites is reversewinesnob.com. He espouses what most of us already know, that a $40 bottle of wine isn’t five times better than an $8 bottle of wine. In fact, it may not be much better at all. We are blessed with good wines in Oregon and when we go to the nearby vineyards for wine tastings we are constantly reminded how often the price of the wines we sample does not equate to the quality of the wine. We tend to buy wines on the lower priced end of the wine list when we buy bottles in restaurants. Restaurants usually take great care to select decent lower cost wines for the house wines and we rarely get one that isn’t very drinkable, so if we are buying by the glass we usually get the house wines if they offer them.
Because I knew nothing about wine when I was younger I just purchased the most expensive I could afford for gifts. Once I spent way more than the cost of a good bottle of Scotch or Brandy for wine. When I presented this to my host he looked at it, shrugged and said ‘average’. He purchased twelve superior bottles for the price I paid for one. Now I drink what I like and since I still don’t have a refined palate the price I pay is very reasonable. We check ratings for wine and when we find a wine we like, we buy a case of it. In Oregon, there are regular wine sales where you can get discounts of 40% if you buy by the case at outlets like Cost Plus. Some of the local grocery stores and drug stores, like Winco and Rite-Aid often have really good deals on wines that are lower than other grocery stores in the area. Costco also has good deals on wines, especially if you buy one that is on a special offer.
Avoid Frivolous Expenses
Like expensive cups of coffee. This goes for Starbucks and other chain coffee stores, like Kobos, Dutch Bros, and the rest as well. We drink a fair amount of coffee and like to experiment with different combinations of beans to get blends that we like. The coffee we brew at home, made from beans we buy for $7-8/lb at the local supermarket and grind ourselves, is way better tasting than the coffee we get from Starbucks or other large chain coffee shops. At about ½ oz of ground coffee per 14-16 oz cup, the cost per cup about $.25. Add $.20 per cup for half-and-half or soy milk and $.05 for the coffee filter and you are up to $.50 per cup for fresh drip coffee, instead of the $2.50-3.00 you pay at Starbucks. If you drink coffee every day, that’s a huge savings. If you want your milk frothed, you can buy a cheap Krupps espresso machine to do that, but the easier way is to buy a little gadget called the Aerolatte at Bed Bath and Beyond for $20 which whips milk or half-and-half heated for a few seconds in the microwave into a froth like what you get from an espresso machine. Lots quicker and easier to clean.
Look for “value added”
Dennis and I are both pretty good cooks, so when we eat out our criteria for choosing where we eat is often based on how much it would cost us in either time or money to duplicate the meal we are eating. For example, we never go out for a steak and baked potato dinner, because we can buy good quality steaks and grill them at home for a fraction of the cost of the restaurant meal and get a result which is just as good for very little time expended. We’d rather eat a meal which we would seldom consider making at home due to the time required or difficulty in obtaining or keeping the ingredients around. Often that means we eat out at ethnic restaurants like Indian or Thai. We’ve done Indian and Thai dishes at home quite a few times, and I’ve taken cooking classes where I’ve learned various dishes and where to buy the authentic ingredients to prepare them, but the fact is that to do them properly you need specialty ingredients that I typically don’t keep on hand in the kitchen. To make really good Indian food it’s best to roast the raw spices and grind them fresh for each meal. That’s a lot of extra prep time. Also, a typical Indian meal will have several different dishes as part of the meal, including perhaps bread or chicken that can really only be cooked properly in a Tandoori oven. In other words, the Indian restaurant has a lot of value added that I can’t, or wouldn’t want to, duplicate at home. We don’t want to eat a meal out that we end up thinking we could have cooked at home just as well for one fourth the cost.
Re-evaluating Restaurant Portions
Since Dennis started his pre-travel weight loss program, logging everything he eats in MyFitnessPal, it has become very difficult to eat out. The reason is that just about everything he could order on a restaurant menu has either too many calories or too much salt to fit within his diet. This has caused us both to reevaluate the average calories and portions sizes typical at American restaurants. It is rare to find a dinner meal at a restaurant that is under 1000 calories, not including appetizers, drinks, and desserts. The typical calorie mark at most places is more like 1500-2000 calories for the main meal. If you add an appetizer, a couple glasses of wine or a cocktail, and a dessert, the total is often 3000-4000 calories or more. His current daily calorie budget is 1700 calories. Enough said. Salt is another matter. He’s trying to restrict his salt and most restaurant food (and store bought foods as well) contains excessive amounts of salt in order to make the foods taste better. Fast foods are the worst. For example, a Double Western Bacon Cheeseburger, large fries, and medium Coke from Carl’s Jr. contains 1720 calories and 2915mg of sodium. At Buffalo Wild Wings, a medium order of boneless wings, regular potato wedges, and 20oz Pepsi is 1850 calories and a whopping 6690mg of sodium. These are typical meal orders for lots of people, but they are both over his daily calorie allowance and 2-4x his daily sodium limit.
After realizing that typical American portions have so many calories we have adjusted our ordering habits when we go out now, often sharing an entre and an appetizer, or just having appetizers, or going to Happy Hours where portions are smaller to begin with. We used to end up bringing leftovers home with us from restaurants, and we don’t do this anymore because we only order enough to satisfy us. This has the pleasant side effect of saving us money as well.
Unless dessert is something really special we usually skip it. In many restaurants the dessert menu seems like an afterthought – usually lots of ice cream on its own or with brownies, cookie dough or pie drizzled with a squirt of chocolate, caramel or fruit sauce and covered in cream with a cherry on top. Too often the whipped cream is out of a can. For a rare treat we go to dedicated dessert restaurant like Papa Haydn’s in Portland. I love their Boccone Dolce and their prices for great desserts aren’t much more than the price of a pedestrian offering elsewhere. Alternatively, we wait and have dessert at home. You can make (or buy) a whole pie for the cost of a slice in a restaurant.