Trimming the Average Budget: Eating Out

Food – food away from home – $2,668/year

The average American family spends $225 a month eating away from home – dinners eaten out, quick snacks grabbed, and coffees ordered and consumed on the run.

Much of this spending comes about simply because it’s convenient. Rather than investing the time to get my coffee machine set up, I’ll just stop at Starbucks and get me a cup of some sweet mixture resembling coffee. I don’t have time to make lunch, so I’ll just stop at Mickey D’s and pick up a sandwich to go. It’s been a long day, honey – let’s go out to eat.

In each of those cases, though, you’re often paying for surprisingly inefficient, low quality food. Setting up the coffee pot before you go to bed takes just a moment or two – and you can basically have a cup waiting for you when you’re ready to go in the morning. It’s easy to make convenient lunches for yourself in advance that are much cheaper, tastier, healthier, and just as quick as anything you can get at the drive-thru. The same holds true for going out for dinner – if you know what you’re doing in the kitchen, you can have a great meal on the table in fifteen minutes, giving you a full evening to relax at home.

That’s not to say that one should completely eschew eating outside the home if they enjoy it, but these tips can help trim the costs a bit.

Cutting Down Your Eating Out Budget

Keep eating out squarely in the “treat” department as opposed to a tired habit

Given the huge cost difference between eating out and dining in – and given the special experience that dining out can be – you’re much better off if you save dining out for special occasions and eat at home the rest of the time. If you do this, not only will your food budget thank you, but the occasions when you do eat out will become that much more enjoyable.

Have materials on hand for very impromptu meals

Many people choose to eat out (or order food) because they can’t think of anything simple to make after a hard day of work. Don’t ever allow that to be an excuse. Always keep materials on hand for several simple meals. For example, we always have the materials we need on hand for chicken-broccoli-rice stir fry, spaghetti, homemade pizza, and chili, each of which can be cooked in about half an hour or so. We make sure to always have the things on hand for these meals, even if we don’t make them right away.

Learn how to cook at home

Hand-in-hand with that is the fear many people today have of their kitchen (besides the microwave). It’s really not hard to cook for yourself – it just takes practice. Teach yourself how to cook so that the thought of preparing a meal for yourself in the evening doesn’t feel like an overwhelming potential disaster.

Prepare full meals in advance and freeze them

On a weekend, make three batches of a casserole and freeze two of them as close to finished as you can possibly get away with – or do the same with any other complete meal, like a roasted chicken. This way, you can just stick the meal in the fridge the night before you want to eat it, come home the next day, preheat the oven, toss in the meal, and an hour later, you’re eating.

Prepare convenient breakfasts and lunches in advance and freeze them

Similarly, spend some time on a lazy weekend afternoon making an enormous batch of frozen convenient breakfasts and lunches, such as breakfast sandwiches or delicious lunch burritos. When you’ve made and frozen a big batch of these, making a quick, tasty, healthy breakfast is as easy as yanking the items out of the freezer, wrapping them in a paper towel, and microwaving them for three or four minutes. That’s it – you’re ready to go, and it’s a lot cheaper, faster, and tastier than the old drive-thru.

Brown bag it whenever you can

If you have any sort of a chance to prepare food in advance before you leave for the day, do so. A quick sandwich, vegetable, fruit, and beverage tossed into a bag can serve as lunch for anyone – and that’s just the start of it. There are many, many possibilities for the humble brown bag – and virtually all of them are less expensive than eating out or ordering food into the office.

If you eat for social reasons, host a potluck dinner

Perhaps you eat out regularly with friends. Instead of doing that, why not take turns hosting dinner? You can either handle the entire dinner yourself or you can ask the others to bring side dishes. Do it on a rotating basis so the work is shared and you’ll find that everyone is saving some money and still having all of the social fun.

If you eat lunch out for social reasons at work, suggest a regular brown-bag day

Many people eat out with coworkers and use the opportunity to touch base about work issues – which is certainly a strong career element. However, why do you always have to eat out to do this? To start changing that culture, suggest a regular brown-bag day once a week for the group. Alternately, you could have one person in your group handle all of the brown bag lunches for everyone once every few weeks. Over the long run, this saves all of you some serious change without disrupting the social flow.

I want your help! In the comments, please let me know which of the tips you find most useful for trimming these costs. I’ll include the top choices in a comprehensive budget trimming guide at the conclusion of the series.

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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