8 Terrible Restaurant Values You Should Avoid

If you're like millions of Americans, you probably dine out at least once a week. For many, it's a favorite pastime — a time to relax with friends or family and experiment with different cuisines. So, it probably comes as no surprise that restaurant meals can cost significantly more than preparing meals at home (there's no shortage of articles underscoring this on Wise Bread).

But if you're trying to save money when eating out, there are a few restaurant items you should consider skipping. These items feature unnecessarily high mark-ups that make them a poor choice for folks on a budget. Here's a breakdown of some of these worst restaurant values. (See also: Are You Eating the 10 Most Over-Priced Menu Items?)

1. Salads

Whether you're trying to eat clean or simply reduce your calorie intake, you might choose a salad over a less-healthy menu item. This may be good for your physical health, but usually not your financial health. I've very stupidly paid up to $22 for a nothing-special salad, and according to Restaurant.com, it only costs a restaurant an average of $1.60 to make one. You're better off going to the grocery store and buying your own lettuce and vegetables.

"Salads can be prepared with minimal time at home and with ease," says Natasha M. Campbell, founder and CEO of Lifestyle Success Unlimited. "Take the time to prep the night before and pay yourself for your time and effort versus the restaurant."

2. Tea, Soda, and Alcohol

Many patrons prefer flavored drinks, such as alcohol, soda, or tea over a glass of free, filtered tap water. The cost of beverages might seem like a small price to pay, especially since you can order soda or tea for under $3 and receive free refills. But when you take into account that restaurants only pay about $0.35 per teabag and how fountain drinks are mostly tap water, chances are you're not getting your money's worth. Alcoholic beverages aren't any better.

"Bottles of wine are usually marked up 100%, and a glass of wine can be as much as five times over what the restaurant paid," says Kate Krader, restaurant editor at Food & Wine magazine. Ouch.

3. Appetizers

Appetizers are one of the biggest mind tricks in the restaurant game. These items are purposely priced slightly cheaper than entrees to make it look like you're getting a bargain. But if you examine appetizers and entrees with similar ingredients and compare prices for each, you might find that appetizers — although a smaller portion — are the victim of price inflation.

According to Jody Pennette, the founder of CB5 Restaurant Group, "Restaurants have been raising the prices of appetizers disproportionately to the increase in food costs over the past 15 years."

4. Kid's Meals

Even though many restaurants have a kid's menu, children can be picky eaters. If you go to a restaurant and order two or three kid's meals, you could end up spending money on food your kid doesn't finish. The portions are smaller and the prices cheaper, so you assume you're getting a deal, even if your kid doesn't clean their plate. But why waste money if you don't have to? There are plenty of restaurants that offer a free kid's meal for each paying adult — and that's where you should be eating.

5. Desserts

Many people can't wait to finish off their meal with a decadent dessert (myself included), but it'll cost you — and I'm talking more than calories. Restaurant desserts are notoriously overpriced. On average, we might pay $6 or $7 for a single slice of cake or pie, yet we can buy a whole cake at a grocery store or bakery for about the same price. Or, we can prepare the dessert ourselves for much less at home. A good trick to avoid this trap is to put a piece of candy or two in your pocket or purse before dinner. A couple Hershey's kisses at the end of the meal will quell those chocolate cravings and save you some dough.

6. Restaurant Specials

Don't fall for the daily or nightly specials. It may sound like a mouth-watering treat, but it can also be the chef's way of getting rid of leftovers in the kitchen, and charging customers a premium for no reason.

"Specials are just an expensive way for the chef to clean out his or her kitchen of leftovers," says Sarah Zorn, editorial director of the blog Restaurant Girl.

7. Pasta

A box of dried pasta at the grocery store costs pennies per serving, and tomato and other pasta sauces are also cheap to prepare. On average, it doesn't take too much time or a lot of ingredients for a restaurant to prepare a basic pasta dish, yet many dishes have a markup between six and 10 times the cost. It's easier for us to justify higher pricing for dishes that take longer to prepare, but if you can whip up a simple pasta dish in your kitchen in no time and at a seriously low cost, it's financially beneficial to prepare it yourself.

8. Breakfast and Brunch

A fancy brunch or breakfast outside the house can get the morning off to an enjoyable start. But since breakfast food is incredibly inexpensive and quick to prepare, you're probably getting duped financially. A restaurant can purchase eggs, bacon, potatoes, pancakes, milk, and other breakfast items in bulk for cheap. Eggs retail for about $0.10 each, and it costs a restaurant practically nothing to prepare pancakes, hash browns, and toast. However, I've seen restaurants charge as much as $10 or $12 for a simple breakfast plate with these items. Don't get me wrong — I worship at the cathedral of brunch — but I participate much more sparingly than I used to.

What dishes do you avoid because of the cost when dining out?

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Guest's picture
Blaise Pascal

I think there's a difference between "high margin" and "terrible value", especially since a restaurant meal is about more than paying for the food (it's paying for the convenience, the ambiance, etc).

Guest's picture

Well, why not just stay home for EVERY meal, since that's obviously cheaper. People don't eat out for a bargain, they eat out for the experience or convenience. I often eat out with friends or family. If I want to eat a salad instead of a heavier entree, who cares? A restaurant isn't Costco - I didn't go to get a "bargain." This article sounds like a real downer.