How much do Americans love dining out? So much that we're letting restaurant meals take a bigger and bigger bite out of our food budgets.
During 2016, the average U.S. household spent $3,154 on meals away from home -- 44% of our total food spending. That's up from the 40% of our food dollars that were spent at restaurants in 2013, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
All the pizzas, carryout sandwiches and date nights add up! But if going out to eat is a staple in your lifestyle, here are some great ways to make it more cost-effective.
1. Order meals to share
While restaurants don't love it when customers ask to split an entree, your wallet will definitely appreciate it.
You know when you go to certain places where the portions are just too large, and where you always end up taking leftovers home or leaving half the food on your plate? Well, why not share a main course with a friend or partner instead?
You won't be tempted to overeat or waste food, and you should save money. But be warned that some restaurants will charge a plate-sharing fee of $5 or more.
2. Take advantage of kids' specials
If you are a parent or some lucky rugrat's aunt or uncle, and you're looking for ways to spend time with the little ones in your life without breaking the bank, why not take a look around for a "kids eat free" special?
It’s not uncommon for restaurants to offer these deals once or twice a week. Dining out as a family will be MUCH more affordable, and the kids won't know the difference — they'll just think you're awesome for taking them out for dinner.
Don't have kids and still want to save? You might try to order a smaller and cheaper meal for yourself, off the kids' menu. But many sit-down restaurants frown upon this practice.
3. Don't waste money on sugary drinks
When you go out to eat, you probably like to order a cocktail or soft drink with your meal. But do you know about the high profit margins on those beverages?
A serving of soda can cost the restaurant anywhere from 5 cents to 25 cents, yet they will sell it to you for $2.50 or more.
Meanwhile, alcohol markups often can exceed the 500% mark! Ordering water is not only healthier, but it's also free.
4. Slow down!
This relates back to No. 1 on this list, and the fact that you'll often be served a much larger plate of food at a restaurant than you actually need.
But if you make the conscious decision to slow down while you eat, you will not only be able to enjoy your meal more, but you also will be more likely to listen to your body and stop when you've had enough.
You'll be able to take part of your serving home and enjoy it later on — giving you two meals out of one.
5. Do some restaurant research
Pretty much every restaurant has a website, and the majority of them offer versions of their menus. Take a few minutes to look over the menu online when choosing where to eat.
That way you already will know — or will at least have a general idea about — what you're likely to order. This will help you avoid becoming overwhelmed by a lengthy menu.
Humongous menus often cause people to make hasty, expensive decisions. So, take time to scan the menu and prices beforehand so you'll know what you are getting yourself into, and can go in with a spending plan.
6. Say no to appetizers and dessert
Appetizers can be sooooo good! But they're bad for your wallet and your waistline. If you're so hungry that you'll need extra food before your meal, you probably should just have a snack before leaving the house.
And as for dessert: Given today's portion sizes, it's doubtful you'll really be hungry at the end of your meal. But if you are, then why not just stop for a box of cookies on the way home?
Dining out can be one of the greatest pleasures in life — but also one of the most expensive, wasteful and unhealthy habits to have. You don't have to eat every meal at home, but you do need to be smart about how you spend at restaurants.
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