Five More Tips For Eating In Restaurants And Sticking To A Budget

by Debbie Dragon on 27 December 2008 20 comments
Photo: istockphoto

Even if you are working hard to keep your discretionary spending to a minimum, you can still enjoy a restaurant meal once in awhile. In Tips for Eating Out Cheaply, Xin Lu shared five ways she and her husband eat in restaurants often without spending a lot. Here are five more tips for eating in restaurants and still sticking to your food budget:

  1. Eat earlier. Almost every restaurant charges more for dinner than they do for breakfast or lunch. Go earlier in the day and pay reduced prices for similar meals. The breakfast and lunch portions may be smaller than the dinner portions, but considering you get far more than you should eat in a single meal at most restaurants anyway, this shouldn't be a problem!
     
  2. Order from the kid's menu. Some restaurants allow adults to order from the kid's menu. The prices are about half of what is charged for the adult version and typically the portion sizes are not much smaller!  Look for the fine print on the menu to see if they specify age limits for the kid's menu and if not, chances are you can order and save both money and extra calories.
     
  3. Appetizers as meals. Often, the appetizer portions are large enough to be a meal in themselves, so why not plan it that way? Find an appetizer you really like, like Boneless Chicken Wings or a sampler platter – and eat it as your main course.
     
  4. Bring your own wine.  There are many restaurants that have a "bring your own wine" policy.  You can buy a bottle of your favorite wine at the beverage center, or bring one you've got at home and save money on the cost of eating in a restaurant.  This is perfect for people who really enjoy a glass of wine with dinner but not the high price tag associated with restaurant wine.
     
  5. Get take out and enjoy a family style meal.  If the point of going to a restaurant is to avoid having to cook once in awhile, you could always order your restaurant meal ahead of time and bring it home with you to share with your family.  Ordering two entrees is more than enough to feed the typical family of four, especially if they are italian pasta dishes!  Grab a chicken parm and a lasagna dinner and you're likely to have enough for your family (and some leftovers), and most restaurants include salad and bread with their dinner even if you get it to go.
     
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Guest's picture
Rambo

Don't forget to get a gift certificate from restaurant.com.

Guest's picture
Michael

go to the local Indian restaurant for buffet take out and make a big pot of rice at home instead of getting rice at the restaurant. Just buy the entrée's and one take-away order becomes a feast!

Debbie Dragon's picture

You could do the same for Chinese and Japanese take-out too! Great idea.  Even if the meals come with rice, adding more will stretch any meal to feed more people.

Guest's picture

Great ideas Debbie. Just be careful that you don't bring your own wine and get hit with a corking fee that costs more than the wine itself. Many corking fees can range from $5-30 depending on the restaurant. Make sure to do some research ahead of time. I find that BYOW is great for large parties, but often not a good deal for myself and a date who usually only drink a glass or two with supper.

Cheers,

Jeremiah

Guest's picture

I haven't tried this but I've heard that if you offer a glass of the wine you brought to the head chef they will usually wave the corking fee.

Guest's picture
Guest

the majority of your tips suggest screwing over the restaurant or your server/bartender. first of all, there is a certain etiquette to bringing your own wine to a restaurant. call ahead. ask what their policies are. some restaurants charge a corkage fee (and if you complain about THAT understand you are paying for a SERVICE and the use of their glasses, dishwasher, setting etc.). secondly, you should ALWAYS tip on take away orders! the people that take the time to put your order in get taxed on what they sell. when you do not tip a server/bartender on a take away you are making THEM pay for you to eat. that is not nice or fair. last, KID MENUS ARE FOR KIDS! do not order from them. not only does it make you look bad...it is often policy of the restaurant that people of a certain age should not order from them. you are causing your server to deal with grief from management when you do this. think about it folks. servers don't walk into your workplaces and ask you to break all of the rules for them. thrifty should not equal rude or inconsiderate.

Debbie Dragon's picture

Eh... I don't 'think I'm suggesting anyone screw over the restaurant or servers.

Yes- it would not be appropriate to bring your wine to every restaurant and that's why I mentioned that "SOME restaurants"... but just call ahead to find out the policy of the particular restaurant you are going to.  My favorite italian restaurant doesn't sell alcohol at all but encourages their guests to bring their own if they want.

Who said you shouldn't tip on take out?  I agree with tipping on take out.  I always leave a tip  when getting take out from a restaurant.  The idea of take out is you can order one or two entrees from the restaurant and bring them home to share with the family since you really don't need the full portion yourself.  Grabbing italian meals from your favorite italian restaurant is a better treat, in my opinion, then hitting a fast food drive thru, and since you are sharing, your family of 4 or 5 can eat for the price of 2 (even with a tip).

Kids menus... again it depends on the restaurant.   We have a number of local mom&pop restaurants and diners that offer kids menus which are really just smaller versions of the adult dinners.  The servers in many of these locations have pointed out the kids menu as a way to keep the portion sizes smaller.  That being said, I HAVE been to restaurants where only children under the age of 12 or something can order from the kids menu - and it says so right on the menu.  So again- depends on where you go!

Appreciate you taking the time to leave your comments.

Julie Rains's picture

I think Debbie did a great job of emphasizing that you ask about or figure out, and then follow restaurant policies, at least that is the way I interpreted the tips. This is also a great guide for day to day and for traveling, as the way restaurants operate in one city may differ from your hometown (and of course they all have their own rules). I like the idea of ordering smaller portions, as a standard offering, or as a kids meal, or as a senior citizens meal -- that was the case at one place I visited where they put smaller meals on the menu for everyone.

Also, I didn't know about the bring your own wine policy available at some restaurants (except for the ones who don't carry their own wine but let guests bring their own), and just recently heard about a corkage fee before reading about it today. I have also found that some restaurants (at a resort, for example) allow you to buy a bottle of wine (rather than individual glasses) and store it during your stay in town. A server gave me that tip.

Guest's picture

Great list Debbie.

Also consider eating mid-week (Tuesday-Thursday). Because of high overhead costs restaurants must keep their seats full. In a down economy many restaurants offer midweek discounts to attract customers.

The freshest food is often served during the week (Tuesday-Thursday). Many restaurants receive their food deliveries on Fridays. This food is used by the restaurant through the weekend and on Monday. Eat on Sunday and Monday and you're likely to be eating food that was delivered two or three days ago. Food delivered during the week, say for instance on Monday and Wednesday is served Tuesday through Friday.

Guest's picture
Barbara

I've worked my fair share of restaurants, and none of the bartenders took a hit on money when take-away orders didn't tip. The tipping system was always set up to deal with this exact issue. As for the time and trouble that the bartender/server/hostess etc has to take to put in the order at all, that's what the base pay is for.

Guest's picture
frugal waitress

If you don't want to leave a tip on a to-go order, you go to a deli, not a restaurant. You don't need to leave 15+%, but a few bucks for the trouble is appropriate. To-go orders take servers/hostesses' time away from tables and other tasks. Not all servers are charged for what they sell (and therefore screwed when you don't tip) but many are and you don't know who is. So play it safe.

Also, as noted above, bringing your own wine is really only appropriate for special occasions. You should expect to pay a corkage fee, and if for some reason you aren't charged one, you should leave a tip of 30% of the wine cost in addition to your regular tip. If you like wine with dinner but don't want to spend as much, consider splitting a glass with your date, or save dessert and wine for after dinner, at home.

Some restaurants charge a little bit more for adults ordering off the kids' menu. It is a kids' menu for a reason.

Guest's picture
Bill M

I do not know of any restaurants in my area that allow me to bring my own wine. I thought they made their money on liquor and not food.

Guest's picture
Guest

Kids meals: hot dog, mac 'n cheese, chicken fingers, burger or corn dog. The adult menu is most often not miniaturized for kids. Hence, the kids meal is not really a great option. Are you going out to treat yourself or feel deprived? You could always hit the dollar menu at Wendy's for salad, baked potato and chili if you just want to get out of the house.

If you can't afford to eat out, learn how to cook a few things and make a special meal at home. It does not have to be Tournedos of Veal in a Caper Merlot reduction with fresh Fines Herbes -- how about a nice piece of grilled fish with some rice? Invite another couple or family, and you might get a return invitation, hence you'll get to "eat out."

Pick up a few gourmet groceries (piece of Brie, bunch of grapes, French bread, bottle of wine) and have a picnic -- perhaps in front of your own fireplace, just to be romantic!

Here's another money saver: Leave the kids at home! Swap babysitting with someone if necessary.

PS: How great does box wine taste with a corn dog, anyway?

Guest's picture
Greg

An alternative to corking fees is ask the server if they have a house wine. It is common to have a house wine that is not on the wine list. Often the decanter holds one more glass than half a bottle.

Pass on the kids menu and split an entree or appetizer instead.

Watching your money is one thing. Being cheap is another. If you can only afford the kid's menu, opt for a less pricier place. Or, if you really enjoy the atmosphere, eat at home and have a couple drinks in the bar.

One more thing, if you can not afford to tip decently, choose a cheaper establishment.

Guest's picture
Bettie

Sorry, but eating off of a kids menu is just not appetizing. As far as the wine. I am from Minnesota and if a restaraunt does not sell booze you cannot bring in your own. They need to have liquor licenses to sell liquor. If you sneak wine and get tipsy, say have an accident or DWI the bar would be in trouble if they knew you were drinking there. Just a heads up so no restaraunts get in trouble, they pay exhorbitant insurance premiums as it is.
The idea of making gourmat food at home is nice. I do prime rib, shrimp scampi, etc for the family. But when it comes to special occasions I want someone to make the food and serve it to me. Once a month hubby and I treat ourselves, afterall the hard work we do on a daily basis who better than to treat than ourselves?!!

Guest's picture
Catherine

We've recently started trying to recreate restaurant meals at home. We like to cook, so we're generally fairly stocked in terms of spices and such, probably moreso than many families. But we love recreating thing like Thai curry or tandoori chicken, because it's so much cheaper to make by yourself. Curry ingredients cost <$10 & can feed 5-6!

rstlne's picture
rstlne

If you're not picky about what or where you eat and your city has a Chinatown, take a look at it. My favorite is to go to Flushing Chinatown in Queens, New York City, get a meal for around $5 and some takeout to reheat in the microwave oven for the next day.

Guest's picture
John Ek

Good tips. I work from home and my fiance takes care of our daughters, so dinner is usually the sanity check of getting out of the house for a few minutes. At the cafe at our gym I order their kids chicken nuggets (nothing like that on the adult menu, mostly salads).

I also like the post about Chinese takeout. We have a chinese buffet right up the street, so we will be doing that this weekend.

Also, I grew up in Europe where bringing your own wine is quite common. Especially for more expensive bottles.

Great writing. Keep it up.

Guest's picture
kristin

"Watching your money is one thing. Being cheap is another. If you can only afford the kid's menu, opt for a less pricier place. Or, if you really enjoy the atmosphere, eat at home and have a couple drinks in the bar. One more thing, if you can not afford to tip decently, choose a cheaper establishment."

I just feel like I need to comment. First, I'm 5'2" and very petite. I order off the kid's menu all of the time if I find something that is a half sized portion and the waiter/waitress doesn't mind. It doesn't make me cheap, it makes me health conscious and not wasteful. This is a typical example of American culture making people care so much about the status quo.

Second, my husband is French and I lived in Europe for awhile. Tips in America are so expected without an emphasis of people earning them. I tip, and I tip reasonably. But I do not think people should have to eat at a cheaper establishment simply because they don't want to shell out 20% for someone to bring a plate to the table or pack up take-out. Service just isn't what it once was.

Bettie, I'm a Minnesota lawyer and I've NEVER heard of anyone sneaking alcohol into a restaurant, I just don't think it's realistic. Liability would fall on the driver, as it should. Places like NYC, however, you can save a bundle on byob...especially at little places like Indian and Ethiopian restaurants. Mmmm!

Guest's picture
Cindy

I'm not sure I agree that take out orders should be tipped. (And I used to work in the food industry where I depended on tips.) Do you tip the employees at McDonald's for taking the time to pack your order to go?

Tips are for service. That means checking on your table, filling your drink glass, getting you more salad dressing, etc. Also a lot of places split tips between wait staff, bussers and dish washers. Since there is no service, so bussing needed and no dishes to wash just what are you tipping for?