13 Overpriced Restaurant Items That Waste Your Money
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)
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)
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.
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)
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.
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)
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!