13 Overpriced Restaurant Items That Waste Your Money

by Tim Lemke on 28 February 2014 11 comments

My family does a pretty decent job of saving money, but we have one big weakness: dining out. We like to visit restaurants and leave the cooking and dishes to someone else. Of course, we know that we could save money by eating at home, so we follow certain rules to make sure we're getting the best value from our restaurant visit. (See also: Best Credit Cards for Dining Out)

The key is to know what's worth ordering and what's worth avoiding due to a high markup. Here are 13 items we try to avoid when we eat out.

1. Alcoholic Drinks

Unlike other drinks, you'll rarely get unlimited free refills of beer or wine. Alcoholic beverages have a big markup in part due to taxes, but also because the restaurants make them a high-margin item. If you feel the need to splurge on wine, get it by the bottle instead of the glass. It's also easy these days to use your smartphone at the restaurant to check a price of a bottle of wine to see if you'd be overpaying. (See also: Tasty Wines to Get You Through Tax Season)

2. Appetizers

It's tempting to order an app or two right when you arrive, especially if you're really hungry. But take a look at the appetizer menu. Nachos? Fried mozzarella sticks? Onion rings? These are usually things that are inexpensive for a restaurant to make, and you may even be able to make reasonable facsimiles at home. (See also: Restaurant Dishes You Can Make at Home)

3. Dessert

They are usually overpriced, you're probably already full, and you really shouldn't be eating that stuff anyway.

4. Anything With Eggplant

I recently discovered the joys of eggplant at home. A single eggplant is inexpensive, is versatile, and can last a few meals. No need to shell out $10 or more for a dish. Want to make a good eggplant parm? Slice an eggplant, coat the slices in bread crumbs, and sear each side. Put them in a pan and coat with mozzarella and parmesan cheese and tomato sauce, then cook for about 30 minutes. Another idea: chop up some eggplant and put the chunks in a crock pot with cherry tomatoes and some garlic and other seasonings. An awesome, hearty vegetable dish. (See also: Tasty and Frugal Eggplant Dishes)

5. Basic Pasta Dishes

Fettuccini alfredo? Spaghetti with meatballs? These are some of the simplest dishes around, and you're rarely going to be blown away by what restaurants serve.

6. Meatloaf

C'mon… you can make a good meatloaf at home. Just take some ground beef, onion, bread crumbs, diced tomatoes, and an egg, and throw it in a bowl. Mold it, cook it at 375 degrees for an hour, and enjoy. Restaurants will try to tempt you by calling it "homemade," but you know better.

7. Out-of-Season (and Out-of-Market) Seafood

If you do some homework, you should be able to learn what seafood is fresh and local. I'm a Marylander, so I know not to eat blue crab until it's at least May, and I'm not ordering it during a trip to Des Moines. (See also: Affordable, Sustainable Seafood)

8. Potatoes

OK, they are often just a side dish and not the main course. But if you're ordering a meal because you think you'll be blown away by the spuds, think again. A big bag of Russet potatoes is $4 at the store. So why spend $8 for a single baked potato at a restaurant?

9. Soup (Unless It's in Place of a Bigger Meal)

When I was in elementary school, the school lunch ladies always served vegetable soup, and we all knew it was made from the leftovers from the day before. It's not hard or expensive to throw some ingredients in with some broth. You'll rarely get max value when you order a bowl of soup, no matter what Seinfeld says.

10. Salad

There are some salads that could be worth the extra money if they are filled with hearty and unique ingredients. But just keep in mind how much you typically pay for lettuce at the grocery store. (It's probably a buck a head.) Stay away from the "wedge" salad, which is basically just a chunk of iceberg lettuce with some dressing on it.

11. Roasted Chicken

Roasting a whole chicken at home is super easy. Coat it in butter; pour some olive oil on it; and sprinkle on kosher salt, rosemary, thyme, and any other herbs you like. Cook for an hour at 400 degrees. I also like to put some corn in the roasting pan and it comes out delicious.

A whole chicken can serve an entire family, and you may even have leftovers. It's rare that a restaurant that can do anything transformative to a chicken. You'll save money by roasting at home. (See also: Get a Week of Dinners From One Chicken)

12. Steak

It's pure agony for me to say this, because I love a good filet. But the bottom line is that beef is overpriced and often unsatisfactory at many restaurants. You should be able to grill yourself an awesome steak at home as long as you have a good cut of meat, like a tenderloin. Sprinkle some kosher salt and olive oil on your filet. Get your grill super-hot (500 degrees is good), shut the lid, and let the grill do its work. The best part about cooking steak at home is that you don't have to worry about whether the restaurant understands the difference between medium and well-done.

13. Kids' Meals

I've lost count of the number of times we've ordered macaroni and cheese off the children's menu for my sons, only to find that it's simply Kraft out of the box. (About $1.25 at most grocery stores.) The good news is that many restaurants will let kids eat free on certain nights of the week. And if you want to get good value from a child's meal, look for restaurants that offer basic dishes that come with a good selection of healthy sides. The Center for Science in the Public Interest has a list of restaurants that offer healthier meals that may make them a better overall value.

What do you skip at the restaurant? Let us know in comments!

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Guest's picture

Drinks, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic can be a rip-off.

For alcoholic drinks, we have started visiting the vinyards around where we live in the South of France. Whereas the vineyard price is around €4-€5, the bottles can cost anywhere up to €30-€40 in the restaurant. One of the worst we saw was one day we visited a vineyard and bought a magnum of rosé for €12.90. That night, we went for a drinks event on the beach, and the same bottle was being served for €120!

As far as non-alcoholic drinks are concerned, I used to work in a café when I was younger. We served lemonade which cost 9p a litre to buy wholesale for £1.30 for a 150ml glass. Just your 9630% mark-up!!

After experiencing both of these, we tend to stick to water now!! :)

Guest's picture
GuestDude

Here's how I would have written this article:

"Going to a restaurant is most definitely more expensive than buying all the food yourself from the grocery store."

This article isn't as helpful as intended. I suggest a post about "maximizing quantity/value for what you pay at a restaurant." Or even just discussing the advantages of dining at local establishments over corporate chains.

Guest's picture
Monica

I was going to comment something like this, but GuestDude said it much better. I was disappointed to read this. I know it's more expensive to eat out, but to not have to do the work of making dinner and cleaning up afterwards is worth it every time. Not that I don't try to save money while we are out.

Guest's picture

I used to feel this way about Mexican food- rice and beans, why is it $12? But then I had GOOD Mexican food, and it blew my mind. I think the same can be said for a pasta or a soup too. Sure, spaghetti with red sauce I can pass on, but a home made sweet potato gnocchi is a sundried tomato pesto or sage butter sauce- yummmm.

Guest's picture
Liisa

My rule of thumb is to try to order something I wouldn't/can't make myself at home. This way eating out is more of a treat, and something special.

Guest's picture
Stephen - nyc

That's a rule I try to follow as well.
Of course, depending on why & where I am going, I may just want a meal outside and not have to cook.

Guest's picture
angiewriter

I would add to this list non-alcoholic beverages. Iced tea and soda can cost $2.00 or more, and if you are ordering food, you can usually have a glass of water for no charge. Even with free refills on these beverages, it's still not worth the extra money. I have also learned to ask for light ice in my drinks because restaurants usually fill glasses 3/4 full with ice before even pouring the beverage in the glass. The restaurant saves money, but you don't get what you paid for, if you do decide to get that $2.00 glass of iced tea or soda.

Guest's picture

I typically skip drinks, appetizers and desserts when dining out. Entrees are my main squeeze since I know I can get an entire bottle of wine for the cost of a glass, and desserts are typically better in appearance than taste. Appetizers are just unnecessary given the portion size of dinner!

Guest's picture
Guest

Add shrimp to the list. Shrimp is not the cheapest thing to buy at the store but it is far from the most expensive. Restaurants serve you five shrimp for the price of a full entrée. I also find myself irritated by the classy restaurants who serve you two asparagus stalks, a spoon of orzo and a slice of beef artfully arranged on the plate for $30 plus. It cost them two or three dollars. IU picture the owners back in the kitchen laughing at the stupid customers who are willing to shell out big buck for little food.

Guest's picture
Carmen

I want to know what's left on the menu after you eliminate steak, chicken, pasta, salads and even appetizers?!

Guest's picture

I was at a steakhouse last week that charged me $85 for a 16 oz. steak that I found in the supermarket the very next day for $14.99. Am I really supposed to pay $70 more for a steak that is aged 30-60 days? Why not buy 5 steaks at $15 a pop and age them myself?! I don't understand it and you are right steak is greatly overpriced by restaurants.