How to Reduce the Urge to Eat Out

Jennifer writes in with a bit of a twist on a topic I’ve addressed in the past:

How did you and Sarah break out of the routine of eating out all the time? You mentioned that the two of you used to eat out several times a week and now eat out once a month or less. How did you do it? It always feels like it’s just way easier to eat out.

I’ll be fully honest – a big part of the equation was having children. Children present a certain set of difficulties when going out to eat at a restaurant. Children can be noisy and impatient and picky eaters; though that’s not true of all children all the time, it’s definitely true of most children at least some of the time, and such a situation is very hard to deal with in a restaurant setting. Family restaurants tend to succeed when they cater to this by having a children’s menu and some sort of activity to keep children distracted for a short period, but even then, it’s often not worth the added expense and the additional effort to take a child to a restaurant as compared to one or two adults without children.

Having children wasn’t the whole solution, however. During our financial turnaround, Sarah and I made a lot of conscious decisions about our spending and tried out numerous approaches. Our goal was simple: we wanted to get our food spending in check. It was unnecessary for us to be spending a thousand dollars a month for Sarah and I and our infant child simply to eat. We should be eating on a third of that, or less.

The thing is, as Jennifer mentioned, eating out has a lot of advantages, most particularly the convenience of it. It’s easy to just go to a restaurant, sit in a chair, have someone bring you food, and then have someone clean up after you. The convenience of that, especially at a quick glance, is pretty compelling when you have a busy life without a whole lot of downtime. Eating out is an expensive routine, but it’s a routine with a lot of perks.

How did we break this habit? Here are some of the strategies we employed.

Consider the Full Cost of Eating Out

Eating out at a restaurant isn’t just the financial cost of the entrees you order. You have to add in the cost of the drinks. You’ll add in the cost of the tax on your meal, which can be as much as 10%. You’ll be adding in the cost of the tip, which is somewhere around 20% of the bill. You’ll be adding in the cost of transporting yourself there and then transporting yourself home – that’s gas and miles on your car. All of that really adds up.

Let’s say, for example, that Sarah and I decided to go out for dinner at Red Robin. I’m just pulling a restaurant out of the air, an established one that many people might recognize that isn’t overly expensive but has a pretty decent reputation.

I order the veggie burger for $9.99 and Sarah orders the grilled turkey burger for $9.69. We skip the appetizers. We each order an iced tea for $2.99 to go with it and skip any alcoholic drinks. It’s a pretty cheap meal, as meals go, right?

Our bill comes to $25.66, but we’re not done there. There’s $2.05 tacked on for sales tax. We decide to give a 20% before-tax tip, so we leave $5.14 as a tip. We’re at $32.85, just for two burgers and an iced tea for each of us at Red Robin.

We’re not done there. We had to drive to the nearest area where there are restaurants in amongst our normal activities – let’s figure it’s 5 miles out of our way, on average. That’s 10 miles. The current federal government reimbursement rate, which is a pretty good average of the cost of gas and maintenance and auto depreciation, is $0.53 per mile. So that’s an extra $5.30 to get there and get home. Our new total? $38.15.

It costs us almost $40 in total to each have a burger and fries and an iced tea at Red Robin. Ouch.

I’m not picking on Red Robin here. It’s a good restaurant – it’s just the one I decided to use as an example of a well-regarded chain restaurant many might be familiar with. Your mileage may vary when you eat out – you may eat at a cheaper place. Still, the point is that when I simply look at the cost of a burger on the Red Robin menu, I see $9.99, but the cost is actually much more when I sit down and look at the full picture.

What if you go super cheap? At that point, you start getting into some pretty substandard quality with your food – it just isn’t good food. It’s often pretty poor quality food with some flavorings slapped on it.

The point is this: restaurant eating is expensive. Whenever you eat at a restaurant, the cost is usually more than you think it is.

Doubt it? Go through your credit card statement and bank statement and look at all of the entries associated with a restaurant meal over the course of a month. Each one of those covered one meal for you – maybe with some leftovers it covered two, but that doesn’t always happen – and maybe meals for dining companions. See how much that all adds up to over a month. I bet it’ll shock you. What’s the average cost per meal, too? I bet that’s a painful number as well.

It’s well worth your time to look at the reality of the costs of your own restaurant dining. It almost always adds up to a lot more than you expect that it will, and knowing that there are a lot of hidden costs in eating out can nudge you away from the concept.

Add Up the Full Cost of Eating at Home, and Compare

One great way to put that cost of eating out in perspective is to simply sit down with your grocery bill, subtract out the household items (the things that aren’t directly food related) and the taxes, and then divide that remaining total by the number of meals that the receipt represents.

So, for example, let’s say I spent $180 at the grocery store for actual food items (this was a recent receipt for us) and those items represented breakfast for all five of us for seven days, lunch for me and Sarah for five days, lunch for all five of us for two days, and dinner for all five of us for six days. That’s 35 breakfasts, 20 lunches, and 30 dinners, or a total of 85 meals. $180 divided by 85 is a cost of about $2.12 per meal. This was actually an above average receipt for us, as we stocked up on some items that we’ll use in the future when we have much lower food bills. (Another thing to note: that also includes things like after school snacks and having fresh fruits on hand.)

Now, a person could in theory eat off of the dollar menu at fast food restaurants and get by on about 1500 junk calories a day if you spend $2.12 per meal. You’d order something like a double cheeseburger or an egg sandwich with water to drink and that’s all you’d have for every single meal if you’re figuring in the extra transportation cost, taxes, and so forth.

The thing is, if you start using that $2 per meal baseline to compare all of your restaurant meals, which is what I do, they all start looking overpriced really fast.

I encourage you to do this yourself. Sit down with a grocery store receipt, figure out much all of the food actually cost by subtracting out the household supplies, and figure out how much that represents per meal. You’ll be stunned how low it is.

Step Up Your Cooking Game

Once it’s clear to you how much eating out is really costing you, the next step is to start clearing out the challenges to cooking at home, and those challenges really boil down to one thing: experience in the kitchen. The more familiar you are with your home kitchen and how to prepare a variety of meals, the easier it becomes to just eat at home instead of eating out.

For me, the most effective way of getting started cooking at home is to cook really really simple meals I knew I liked on weeknights and then learn how to cook more complicated things on weekends.

On weeknights, at the start of all of this, we had a lot of spaghetti nights. We had a lot of scrambled eggs and bacon and toast nights. We had a lot of grilling nights. We had a lot of taco nights. Those were all things that I knew I could prepare at home and that I knew that I liked. The thing was, even though I felt okay tackling those kinds of simple meals at the start, practicing them over and over made me more efficient at them. With practice, I learned how to crank out those meals quite quickly with good results and really efficient cleanup.

On weekends, I started cooking more complex meals. I made lasagna. I learned how to cook roasts. I learned how to make a small rotisserie-style chicken in the oven. Sometimes, these experiments took way longer than necessary. Sometimes, they turned into a disaster. Each time, though, I learned quite a few things, and I usually ended up with a pretty good meal for my family. Over time, my cooking skills grew and grew, to the point where I started preparing things like this even on weeknights, when I needed things done quickly with minimal fuss.

I started learning nice shortcuts, like how to use a slow cooker and making meals in advance starting with just making things the night before and eventually progressing to making several batches of meals and freezing them.

Basically, I just cooked and cooked and cooked some more until it felt really easy and natural, and I got started by making really really simple meals at first until I had those down to an exact science.

Splurge a Little on Home Cooking

To me, this is one of the advantages of cooking at home: you can splurge on the ingredients and the cost is still way cheaper than eating anything comparable at a restaurant. So, splurge on ingredients when there’s reason to!

That doesn’t mean that every meal should be made solely of gourmet ingredients. That would be silly and wasteful, honestly. Many meals that you eat at home are going to be quickly assembled and eaten, so there’s no need to go beyond the basics.

However, when you’re looking at a meal where you might otherwise obviously go out for a nice meal instead, consider making something amazing at home instead. It’s really okay to splurge a little.

I really like pasta, so for me splurging means eating fresh pasta. It takes time more than anything to make fresh pasta, so it’s a splurge for me. I also love fresh mushrooms and good craft beer, and if I’m going to have a good meal, I’m willing to splurge on those things.

Even with the splurging, though, I’m still making a less expensive meal than I would if I were going out to a restaurant, and it’s likely a tastier meal, too. We tend to splurge on one or two meals a week at home in this fashion.

Do Some Meal Prep in the Morning

Before you go to work, spend a little bit of time doing some meal prep for the meal you intend to eat in the evening. Chop some vegetables, put something in the slow cooker, put something out to thaw, whatever it is that is appropriate for a meal you’re considering having that evening.

The reason this trick is so effective is that it really nips the “spontaneous meal” in the bud. You might be tempted to just get takeout after work or just meet at a restaurant, but knowing that you’ve already invested time in getting a meal going at home will often motivate you to just go home and make that instead.

What you’re doing is taking advantage of the sunk cost to nudge you in the right direction. The time invested in that stuff is already lost, but the output of it just goes completely to waste if you don’t go home for dinner, and that feeling of having wasted your time and energy that morning is not a good one. It can push you to simply go home and make dinner.

Another advantage is that the meal prep steps you took earlier in the day will make the actual meal preparation in the evening that much quicker. If you made a slow cooker meal, then you probably don’t have to do anything much at all when you get home. If you chopped the vegetables, you probably just have to go home, turn on the skillet, and throw those vegetables in there. The time and energy you’ll need in the evening to get dinner on the table is less if you have some elements of the meal already finished.

I do this all the time, even now. I’ll put a meal in the slow cooker, or I’ll put some rice in the rice cooker and set the timer, or I’ll chop up a bunch of vegetables. I just try to take care of some portion of the meal prep earlier in the day so that I’m motivated to finish it that evening.

Issue Yourself a Challenge

One great way to initiate this kind of habit in your own life is to issue yourself a thirty day challenge. Simply pledge for the coming month that you’ll cook every evening meal at home for thirty days. That’s it. The purpose is to show yourself that it’s actually easier than you think to pull it off, but such a challenge doesn’t seem impossible.

Then, simply spend the next thirty days doing just that. Cook every meal at home and don’t go out once during those thirty days. Try making lots of different simple meals, but also don’t be afraid to repeat them, either, if you find that you like them, because repetition leads to mastery.

Thirty day challenges are really effective for things like this because they push you to really try something new in your life, but don’t push you hard enough that it becomes miserable. It’s long enough to really enjoy the “honeymoon” phase of a new initiative and to assess whether it can become a permanent thing for you, but it’s not long enough that it becomes dull and oppressive. I use thirty day challenges all the time to try out new routines and life patterns, and I stick with the ones that really work well and discard the ones that do not.

Don’t Break the Chain

One of my favorite strategies when trying to establish a new daily habit in my life is to use the “calendar chain” strategy popularized by comedian Jerry Seinfeld, which I’ve discussed before.

The “calendar chain” is simple, really. Just put up a wall calendar somewhere where you’ll see it all the time; a full year calendar like this one is perfect. Each day you live out the habit you’re trying to encourage, cover up that date with a big fat X. After a week or two, you’ll start to notice that you have this long chain of Xs starting to build up, and what you’ll find is that you really don’t want to break that chain of Xs. You don’t want to finish your day without adding an X to that chain.

The motivation to keep the chain going is often plenty of motivation to keep doing something. You can most certainly apply it to cut into the urge to eat out. Simply make an X on any day where you chose not to eat out. You can make exceptions for professional-related meals, but any time you’re choosing what to eat on your personal time, if you didn’t eat out, put an X on that calendar.

Soon a chain will form, and you’ll feel proud of that chain, and you won’t want to break it. That’s a pretty big nudge in a positive direction.

Final Thoughts

There is no “magic key” for breaking the urge to eat out. For us, it was a confluence of many of the above factors all at once, but it’s really hard to say which one really caused us to switch from eating out several times a week to eating out once a month or so. It just happened, thanks to a mix of children, becoming more adept at home cooking, and making a conscious choice not to eat out.

The main goal of all of these tactics is to reset your mind so that you view eating at home as the absolute normal thing to do, while eating out is an expensive splurge to be done when it’s a treat and when there’s a social benefit to it. Once you start to view eating out with that mindset, eating at home almost all of the time becomes natural.

Good luck!

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.