Thursday, June 2, 2011


Welcome to Frugal Friday at Chew and Chat. Please feel free to share your favorite frugal food ideas in the comments section! Today we're talking about eating out.

Yes, you will likely save money if you cook and eat your own meals at home.  But you are also missing out on some wonderful experiences -- interesting food, ambience, good company, and someone else doing the dishes. The restaurant industry has taken a major hit with the economy.  If we want our favorite dining spots  to survive, we need to give them our business, at least once in awhile.  The trick is keeping it from becoming a budget-buster.
When I eat out, I tend to get that "splurge" mentality.  If it's a special occasion, I want to feel like I can celebrate in style. But I simply can't afford to go "all out" every time I meet someone for lunch, or the family stops somewhere for a quick bite, or my hubby and I do date night.  I don't like that regretful feeling when I've overeaten or overspent. (And my family knows it! They say I'm one frugal foodie!)

Here are some ideas that I've tried, or that friends have passed along, to keep spending in check:   

1. The much-mispronounced "prix fixe" menu is the dining buzzword of today's sluggish economy. Pronounced "pree feeks," or "pree fix," it's a French term for "fixed price," or a  meal of several courses, for a set price. Like the fast food "combo meal," it's usually less expensive than ordering each course separately. When you order an a la carte salad or appetizer for $6, an entree for $15 or $20, and a $5 or $6 dessert, the tab adds up quickly.
Restaurants are using the fixed-price concept to lure in cost-conscious diners. And when you're at a fine-dining restaurants, ordering the "special" has more finesse than handing the wait staff a discount coupon.  
For instance, here in Salt Lake City, Log Haven in Millcreek Canyon has been offering a  $35 "Surf & Turf" steak and lobster combo that comes with a Caesar salad. Even better, it's just $25 if ordered as an "early bird" special before 6:30 p.m. (And you actually get a better view of the canyon while it's still daylight.)  Bambara's chef Nathan Powers offers a weekday "Powers Lunch" special.
If you have a favorite restaurant, check the Web site to see if it's offering some type of fixed-price special, because many are doing so. 
 One caveat: "specials" are only a great buy is you really want (or need) all the courses. You may be satisfied ordering an a la carte entree or just an appetizer, without the extras. Ditto "combo meals" in fast-food restaurants. 
2.  Use your gift certificates soon after getting them. Many have expiration dates. That delicious meal will leave a bad taste in your mouth when you are ready to pay and find out your gift certificates aren't any good. (I know.... it's happened to me!)
3. Use frequent-diners' cards if you visit a restaurant regularly. Some restaurants offer punch cards — if you buy 10 meals, the next one is free. For a family of six, it takes only two visits to earn a free meal.
4. If you'll be picking up the restaurant tab for a number of family members, choose a pay-one-price buffet with a wide enough variety and quality that everyone can find something they like (and so you don't get financially hijacked with orders of drinks, appetizers, expensive entrees and desserts). 
5. Go out to lunch when entree prices are often a few dollars less than dinner. The portions are usually smaller, so you don't feel overstuffed.
6. Guard against the up-sell. When you're asked if you want guacamole on your taco,  refills on the drinks or extra cheese for the fondue, be sure to find out if there's an extra charge.  If so, you might not want it that much.
7. At fast-food restaurants, order a kids' meal for yourself (if there's no age limit). Most of the time, you're getting a more appropriate portion of food (and a toy to boot!).
8. Watch beverage costs.  I guess my husband and I save a lot of money because we don't drink alcoholic beverages. Wine can double your tab. But even soft drinks can add $10 to $15 to the bill for a family of six. Water is a healthier choice anyway, since often children will fill up on a sugary soft drink and then they don't eat their meal.  Just be sure to specify "tap" water, so you don't end up paying for bottled water. (Don't you love it when you say you'll be drinking water and the waiter asks, "Sparkling or still?")
9. Many restaurants serve oversize meals, so guard against portion distortion. As soon as your server brings your entree, ask for a to-go box and package up half of it. It's out of sight so you don't continue to pick at it long after you're full.  And you have tomorrow's lunch ready and waiting. 
10. If you feel you can't afford to tip, choose a fast-food or fast-casual eatery where tipping isn't expected. But don't skimp on the tip! In sit-down restaurants, servers' salaries are less than minimum wage, with the expectation that tips will make up the difference.  

I'd love to hear about other money-saving tips from readers!  

1 comment:

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