10 Tips for Maximizing the Value of Eating Out

I have a few close professional acquaintances (other people who work from home and produce online content) that like to meet up for lunch about once a week. I get a lot of social and professional value out of meeting this group for lunch and so I’ve stuck with this group for many years even though many of them weren’t really concerned about being cost-conscious with this lunch.

Originally, we ate at nicer restaurants and the people involved would often have a drink or two with the meal and order a really nice entree. I’d go along but try to dig through the menu for inexpensive options because, as always, I was pretty conscious of the price.

As time went on, I think I slowly started affecting the other people in the group, or else the realities of their lives made them more cost conscious. We gradually started choosing less expensive places to eat, with me often leading the charge and choosing something inexpensive that I thought was a good value. Gradually, the two or three drinks at lunch became one, then dropped to no drinks at all for most of the group.

These days, the group is still largely intact, but we now follow most of the strategies listed below. We often share tips and ideas with each other, zipping coupons back and forth and pointing out good deals for the week.

The truth is that eating out is expensive. When you go to a restaurant, you’re not getting a bargain – you’re always paying for the food preparer’s efforts and the convenience of it or the quality of the food preparation or some other combination thereof. It’s difficult to eat a quality meal at a restaurant for less than $10; even a fast food meal usually jumps above $5 without even ordering a specialty item.

I’m pretty frugal with my dining dollars, which means that I tend to avoid restaurants if I can, except for the occasional family meal or the lunch described above or an occasional lunch with friends. Almost all of my meals are eaten at home or in the form of a sack lunch that I took with me to my destination. If I’m out and about and find myself hungry, I’ll usually stop at a grocery store and get something extremely simple and cheap to tide over my hunger, like a bunch of bananas (the remaining ones go home with me).

On the rare occasion when I do eat out, there’s usually a reason for it that isn’t covered by other options, and that’s really the very first strategy that I’m going to discuss.

Never eat alone. If you’re going to actually eat at a restaurant, do it with someone else and give it a purpose beyond the mere consumption of food. If you’re all alone and eating, eat healthy and at minimal cost, which means that you’re not going to a restaurant (which usually fails at the “healthy” part of that recipe and always fails at the “minimal cost” part of the recipe).

What if you need something quick? Honestly, the produce section at the grocery store is usually just as fast as a fast food restaurant’s drive-thru section. Grab yourself some apples and bananas and a carton of milk if you need some quick protein. You can assemble a passable meal on the fly in the produce section of a grocery store for just a couple of bucks, and it’ll be healthier and tastier to boot.

Basically, unless you’re getting additional social or professional value beyond the meal itself, you shouldn’t be spending the additional cost of eating at a restaurant. Go out and eat with friends. Go out and eat with professional associates. Don’t go out and eat when you’re alone – that’s the time to go minimal.

Stay off the hedonic treadmill. What I mean by this is simply don’t eat out often enough that it becomes routine and normal. Your “routine and normal” meal should be an extremely inexpensive meal prepared at home at minimal cost. If that is not your “routine and normal” meal, your food costs will skyrocket.

Eating out at a restaurant should be an unusual experience. It should be a treat that you don’t typically enjoy, so that it feels like something special and you get a bit of extra value out of the anticipation of it and the enjoyment of a meal that isn’t just the same old thing.

The “hedonic treadmill” refers to the idea that you can start to become accustomed to pricy options if you repeat them all the time. They become the new normal for you and you have to keep repeating them; less expensive options than the new normal begin to seem really suboptimal and you naturally begin to subtly avoid them.

That’s not a place where you want to be if you value your finances. You’re far better off if the default meal for you is extremely cheap and healthy, prepared at home with basic ingredients, and the meals that go above and beyond that are memorable but exceptional occasions, worth anticipating and savoring.

Choose a self-service restaurant unless there’s a clear reason not to. Self-service restaurants include buffets, fast casual restaurants like Chipotle or Noodles and Company where you order at the front and often pick up your order there as well, or quick serve restaurants like Subway or fast food places.

The advantage of going to a self-service restaurant is that there is no table service, thus there is no waiter to tip. You’ve done the minimal service work yourself by ordering at the front, retrieving your food when it’s called, and getting your own drink and silverware (if needed). Naturally, you do lose the convenience of having someone come around to fill your drink throughout the meal and there’s no one taking your order, but you’re generally leaving the restaurant with a higher ratio of food quality for your dollar.

When I’m uncertain as to where a person I’m with might want to eat and I don’t know that person well, I usually suggest a fast casual restaurant with a reasonably broad menu along with other inexpensive local options, and the fast casual restaurant is often chosen. Usually, you can get a decent meal there for under $10.

Know the restaurant. It’s well worth your time to do a little bit of research on the restaurant before you go. Most of what you need to know can be found directly on the restaurant’s website, but you can also do a general coupon search with Google as well.

A few things worth noting:

Does the restaurant have a “happy hour”? In other words, are there times during the day where there are discounted or even free drinks or appetizers or other small bonuses?

Does the restaurant have discounted lunches? Many restaurants have good deals on lunches, offering slightly smaller portions of dishes at a big discount. It’s often cost-effective to go out for lunch and eat dinner at home rather than vice versa.

Does the restaurant offer a customer rewards program? If so, it’s probably worth signing up using an alternate email address. Many customer rewards programs offer an easy online signup on the website and will send you a coupon immediately.

Are there other coupons available? Do a Google search for the name of the restaurant plus the word “coupons” and see what you find. You should also check the restaurant’s social media accounts, as they’ll sometimes offer coupons there.

Use your birthday. Many restaurants offer a nice discount on or around your birthday (typically within two or three days of it), usually requiring a photo ID to prove it. This might include something like a discount on a lunch or a free appetizer or dessert.

If you have a few “lunch dates” or “dinner dates” that you need to schedule, scheduling them in proximity to your birthday can net you several free items. I often try to visit restaurants with birthday support near my birthday and will even intentionally schedule such events to accommodate this. This has a real financial benefit, which is better explained below in a different tip.

Drink water as your beverage. One of the biggest additional expenses at restaurants is the cost of the beverage. A typical fountain drink often costs $2 or more, which is an awful lot to add to your ticket for fizzy water with corn syrup in it, especially when you can get ordinary water for free.

If you really want a sweet drink for lunch, one trick is to order water and visit the self-serve vending machine. Put a little bit of sugar in your cup (there are usually sugar packets nearby), then add a slice of lemon, then add water on top. I usually go with the “slice of lemon, then ice, then slice of lemon, then carbonated water” route to make a perfectly refreshing beverage to accompany my lunch. Most fast casual restaurants with self-serve beverage areas have the options to allow you to amp up your water in such a way.

Even if you don’t have such options, the advantage of drinking water is that it’s free and it’s usually bottomless, so you can drink a glass of it before your meal arrives and another with your meal, leaving you less hungry and thus sated by a smaller amount of food.

Aim for a dish you couldn’t prepare at home. There are a number of dishes that we often prepare at home. Pasta is one. Simple homemade pizza is another. Simple grilled foods is another one.

Like any family, if we have similar meals on a frequent basis, they become tiresome and routine and we end up excluding it from our meal routine for a while, which means that we have fewer regular options and have to be more creative. It’s much better to spread out our regular homemade staples.

Eating those regular meals when we’re out at a restaurant disrupts that home meal preparation cycle. If we go out and someone in our family orders a pasta meal that’s just like something we often eat at home, they’re going to enjoy it much less if we have it three days later in our own home dining room.

Thus, one great strategy for keeping your food spending low and maximizing the value of eating out is to order something that ordinarily wouldn’t be prepared at home. Order something with ingredients that you like that wouldn’t normally be in your home kitchen because someone else in your family doesn’t like it. Order something that you actually don’t quite know how to prepare. Order something that would be pretty time-intensive for you to prepare at home.

That way, you don’t run the risk of getting tired of one of your favorite low-cost staple meals at home.

Split a larger meal rather than ordering two smaller ones. If you’re dining with a close friend or your partner, consider ordering one large entree rather than two smaller ones. The large entree is likely to be quite a bit cheaper than the two smaller ones combined, but the portion sizes are very likely to be large enough to sate both of you.

For example, my wife and I will often order a single large pasta bowl when we go to Noodles and Company and just simply share it between us rather than ordering two meals. It’s substantially cheaper this way and we both leave comfortably full.

If you don’t like the thought of sharing the same bowl or plate with someone, ask for a second plate or a takeout box right when you order, then split up the meal at the table.

Eat sensibly and take home leftovers. When you have a big plate of food in front of you at a restaurant, it can be really tempting to just eat all of it and not leave a bit behind. After all, you paid for it – won’t it just go to waste. Sometimes, even being aware that you can get a leftover box isn’t enough to stop this.

My strategy? I usually ask for a leftover box (or grab one if they’re available, as they often are at a fast casual restaurant) as soon as the meal is delivered, then I put part of my meal in the leftover box well before I’ve finished what’s on my plate. This lets me feel the “empty plate” feeling while still having a box of leftovers to take home for me.

That box of leftovers often becomes lunch the next day, which essentially means that my one meal at the restaurant has actually covered two meals.

Combine the strategies. Yesterday, I went out to lunch with two friends at Noodles and Company. I ordered a regular sized entree for $8.99 along with a cup of water, applied a $3 off coupon to the meal, added lemon to the water, and snagged a take out container before I went to my table. I drank a full cup of water, then refilled it just before my food was ready. As soon as my meal arrived at the table, I put half of the entree into the leftover box. In the end, I paid less than $6 for a good-sized lunch and a leftover container that held lunch for the next day, and it gave me a great opportunity to see some friends and have some great lunch conversation and planning for an upcoming event.

To me, that’s frugality at work. I simply stacked together several simple strategies, reducing the cost of what could have easily been a $12 lunch by myself into $5.50 spent on two lunches, one of which was a really nice social opportunity. To me, that’s how you maximize the value of eating out. Stack these little strategies together and you’ll end up getting real value.

Remember, the goal here isn’t to have a “cheap” meal, but to get the maximum value out of your dollar. I find much more value in a good meal for $4 or $5 than I do out of a great meal for $20 when the good meal is 80% as good as the great meal. These frugal strategies often stack up on those good meals so that their price is easily palatable.

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.