9 Ways to Save when Dining Out


By: , SparkPeople Blogger

Dining out is a fun way to socialize with friends or relax after a hectic day. Unfortunately, it can be the first thing to go when our budgets tighten. Here are 9 money saving strategies to help you stretch your dollar.

  1. Go out for lunch instead of dinner. This strategy will not only help your budget, but it can help your weight goals for 2009 as well. Many times the portion sizes at dinner are larger and more expensive compared to the same item served at lunch. Dining at lunch can provide the same great taste and atmosphere but with the added savings benefits.
  2. Drink water instead of other beverages. Drinking water instead of soft drinks or cocktails can save money on your bill and help you meet your water needs for the day. Drinks usually have a higher price point proportionately which adds quickly to the bill. Also resist the urge to pay for flavored bottled water. Instead, ask the wait-staff to add lemon, lime or a slice of cucumber to make your water a bit more special. You can save 20% on your overall bill simply by making this one small change.
  3. Have dessert once you get home. Many restaurants charge a very high price for a slice from a boxed or frozen dessert that can be picked up at the grocery store on the way home for much less. If you really love homemade desserts, try eating at home and then going out for dessert and coffee instead. This could save even more money and can be a fun way to change things up.
  4. Select restaurants without tipping requirements. There are many casual dining restaurants that do not require tipping based on your overall bill. Places like Panera Bread, Chipotle Grill or McAlister's Deli provide wonderful food and great family atmosphere without the expectation of tipping a wait-staff. Visiting places like this allow you to save the 15-20% you would tip at a table service restaurant.
  5. Use an Entertainment Book. If you enjoy trying new restaurants, you may really benefit from purchasing an Entertainment Book for your area. These books cost between $15-25 and provide over 150 dining discounts as well as many other money saving opportunities. With $1,000 worth of savings in each book it could be a wonderful benefit if you are good with coupons, willing to shop the deals and are interested in experiencing new dining and shopping adventures.
  6. Plan to split an entrée. One of the best ways to save money AND maintain portion control is splitting an entrée. This is a fairly common practice with desserts and can be a wonderful option for your main course too. Since some restaurants charge a $5-6 “split plate charge” it will be important to check with your wait-person before ordering to find out if that will apply.
  7. Use coupon's from the local paper or websites. Many restaurant’s provide coupons in your local paper that offer money saving discount opportunities. Be sure to read all the fine print before use since these types of coupons tend to be quite specific. There are several online coupon options as well. Restaurant.com, Wow Coupons, Free Mania and Coupon Surfer are just a few.
  8. Take the family out where kids can eat free. More and more restaurants are offering free kids meals especially during the week. Since over 75% of these types of savings are found by word of mouth, the website My Kids Eat Free might be a good place to find opportunities in your community.
  9. Pack a picnic or plan a pot luck.Enjoying time with friends doesn’t have to mean reservations at a white linen restaurant. Suggest everyone pack a picnic and meet at the park on a nice day. Offer to host at your home and have others carry in a dish to share. A progressive dinner with several other families is another cost saving and fun dinner idea.

Being creative and thinking outside the box can allow you to save money and enjoy eating away from home. What cost saving ideas have you found that I missed? Which of these new ideas is the most helpful for your family?

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  • 53
    These are all great tips, including #4. Many of these we already practice and have instilled in our sons as they were growing up. I do hope my son, who is attending culinary school this fall, will be able to read these tips without accusing a very awesome group of saying something they did not say. It has always been our practice not to go out to eat if we could not afford to tip well to go to one of the restaurants where TIPPING IS NOT REQUIRED. This site is not putting anyone out of business, except maybe some doctors when we are older.
    - 6/5/2009   9:02:06 AM
  • 52
    These are all great tips, including #4. Many of these we already practice and have instilled in our sons as they were growing up. I do hope my son, who is attending culinary school this fall, will be able to read these tips without accusing a very awesome group of saying something they did not say. It has always been our practice not to go out to eat if we could not afford to tip well to go to one of the restaurants where TIPPING IS NOT REQUIRED. This site is not putting anyone out of business, except maybe some doctors when we are older.
    - 6/5/2009   9:01:07 AM
  • 51
    Looks like you hit all the money saving techniques. I always order water; just because the diet soda don't taste good; I never order desserts, I don't have a sweet tooth. On the average, I prepare my meals at home. - 5/28/2009   11:35:45 PM
  • 50
    We hardly ever eat out which saves so much money. We almost always just order water with our dinner. And, I've only ordered desert like twice in my life! I don't eat that much, so I always have something to take home and eat the next day. I usually go out to eat with my mom, and we generally split the two meals (which allows one of us to get a more expensive entree and the other to get a salad or some soup). - 12/30/2008   11:34:02 AM
  • 49
    Lots of good ideas. Thanks - 12/29/2008   5:03:29 AM
  • 48
    Isn't it "funny" how many people hone in on the WITHOUT TIPPING in tip #4, without reading the entire tip?! These tips are for saving money! It does NOT say NOT TO TIP! It says, if you want to dine out casually and cannot afford a SIT-DOWN AND BE SERVED atmosphere (where you would tip 15 - 20%) THEN you should try one of these serve yourself restaurants. My daughters have been food servers at restaurants, as I was YEARS ago. These wait-people are paid very little! It is horrible. My opinion is that restaurants should pay ALL personnel a decent living wage, so that they would not have to rely on tips to provide for their families. If that means raising the price of the meal, then so be it! A TIP is a TIP for good service. When it is divided among all wait people and staff, then even those who did NOT provide quality service, receive the same as those who work harder. If all employees were paid properly, then the TIP could go to the ones who provide the superior service. - 12/26/2008   8:15:55 AM
  • 47
    Great information - 12/24/2008   9:16:27 AM
  • JUSTME52
    Great article and coupon sites. Thank you!! - 12/24/2008   12:24:34 AM
    Being a consultant in the restaurant (foodservice) industry, I am concerned about your recommendation to go to restaurants that do not require tips. I can't speak for these particular establishments, but for the most part servers are paid very little and live off tips. People are so desparate for jobs that they will often accept less than minimum wage--and, I hate to say it, but we most often exploit our most needy people. I am not rolling in money, but I would rather tip a server (who often has to share tips with the kitchen staff) a respectable amount and order less expensive dishes or go out less often. Let's be concerned not only for our pocketbooks but for the workers who keep this country running. - 12/23/2008   9:38:49 PM
    I, too, split my meal with whomever I am with. - 12/23/2008   7:23:31 PM
  • 43
    When my meal comes, I move the right portion size to one side of my plate, the rest I either put into a doggie bag or I pour salt or sugar all over it to ruin it. That way when the meal is over I wont be tempted to "pick" at it or overindulge. My family hates that I do that but it would go in to the trash anyway. This way it doesnt go into me! - 12/23/2008   1:07:40 PM
  • 42
    Thanks, MDTWEETY, for saying what I was thinking. I was wondering who you would tip at Panera. The person who takes your order or the one that calls your name when your order is ready?

    I like the idea of free meals for birthdays but it rarely works out for me. My birthday is 12/24 and most places are closed. Also they send the coupons a week or two before your birthday but at this time of the year there is just too much going on and too many other places to be. I have some coupons I would really like to use but they expire at the end of the month and we won't be anywhere near those restaurants before then, unless we happen to fly past one on the interstate.

    We have always pretty much just ordered water with meals because we have a lot of kids and I could not see paying that much extra for a beverage. Soda is so much cheaper at home so that's where they got that treat.

    Often now my hubby and I save half of our meals and have them for lunch or dinner the next day. So we like the big servings. We don't really care for the same things so this is our way of splitting a meal. - 12/23/2008   11:51:53 AM
  • 41
    Some people are flying off the handle without reading the article very carefully. She means go to places where tips are NOT expected, like Chipotle and Panera. Those places are pretty much fast-food, almost like McDonald's. She is NOT saying "Don't tip in a fine dining restaurant." Geesh! - 12/23/2008   11:28:05 AM
    Wonderful ideas! Thank you. - 12/23/2008   10:42:12 AM
  • 39
    DH and I get an entertainment book (or two!) every year. Just a couple uses gets your $$ back. Lately, I've been getting offers (yes, spam...) in my e-mail for $10 off and free shipping on the books!

    We have also started splitting a meal at many places. Most restaurants really do put way too much food in one serving, and this way we don't have to worry about left-overs.

    I signed up on Noodles & Co. website, and I get a free meal on my birthday! - 12/23/2008   10:39:25 AM
  • 37
    When we dine out it's salads and soups for me if my husband gets a dinner then I get a smidge of it that's it oh and I have only water when dining out. - 12/23/2008   10:15:06 AM
  • 36
    My husband and I often split entrees when we visit a restaurant that we know has huge portions. I like the idea of meeting friends for lunch instead of dinner, too, because of the reduced portion size. We not only save money, we no longer leave the restaurant feeling uncomfortably stuffed! (It's a whole lot easier than trying to eat part of what's on the plate and save the rest for a to-go box!) - 12/23/2008   10:12:05 AM
    The water idea is a great one. I've been charged close to $3 just for a soft drink. - 12/23/2008   8:40:09 AM
  • 34
    woo wee Tanya...
    soon as i saw number four I knew there was going to be people that would laser focus on it and misinterpret what you said...OY!

    Here where I live there are many restaurants that do half price night on several meals or a date night... we take advantage of those...but we do tip the server according to what a full price meal would be:)

    - 12/23/2008   8:14:24 AM
  • 33
    I often have a salad and an appetizer, then split dessert with my husband or a friend. Less expensive, and fewer calories! - 12/23/2008   8:01:01 AM
  • 32
    All great ideas and restaurant.com is new to me recommended by a friend - need to check it out! - 12/23/2008   7:26:35 AM
  • 31
    I can't believe SP would advocate not tipping.If yoiur going to McDonalds fine but a restraunt that has a server needs that tip.When a table dosen't leave a tip,required or not,it upsets the server,even if the restraunt policy is no tipping required,they really do expect one.
    I'm very dissapoointed that this is a suggestion in SP.I spent 28 years as a Chef and I suggest tipping,because it's the right thing to do.If you can afford to go out,you can afford a couple of bucks to a low income industry....Chef Jim - 12/23/2008   6:44:05 AM
    I never order drinks or dessert, nor do I tip in buffet type places except minimally if I am brought beverages by the staff, and I have never considered tipping in a fast food place as they are subject to minimum wage laws and not reliant on tips to make up the difference. I understand people have to make a living, however, when I grocery shop I plan meals around the sales, and don't feel guilty about that and don't feel guilty when I keep my eating out bill to what I can afford either. - 12/23/2008   6:00:46 AM
  • 29
    Soups and salads are often less expensive and just as filling as an entre...while being much less in calories. - 12/23/2008   1:20:02 AM
    I enjoy going out to eat and I order off the Senior menu which is small portions and get my water. and cheaper on Senior menu, most of time. I always tip, the better the service the better the tip. and I understand the article was just pointing out a good way to save money by going to places that is self service and you don't need to tip, if money is the issue.
    BJ - 12/23/2008   12:21:07 AM
  • 27
    When we go out to eat, we always skip the appetizer and the dessert. Its a great way to keep the bill down, as well as the calories! As for the tip, we always leave one, unless there is a no tipping policy. - 12/23/2008   12:18:47 AM
  • 26
    Thanks for the coupon sites. I'll be sure to check those out. We hardly ever eat out anymore, and the truth is, I don't really miss it. There's a lot to be said for cooking at home. Still, with a good coupon, I'd like to eat out once in a while. - 12/22/2008   10:04:56 PM
    Order an appetizer instead of an entree - 12/22/2008   10:01:08 PM
  • 24
    We would always encourage tipping when dining out and being served by a wait staff. Please note the suggestion we made states, "select restaurants without tipping requirements...dining restaurants that do not require tipping based on your overall bill" because they are of the fast food nature but with nicer atmosphere such as the 3 listed. As noted, perhaps saving up to go out to eat fewer times and enjoy the entire experience, appetizer, drinks, dessert and all (always with a tip of course) for a nice site down meal served by a wonderful wait-staff, is the best way to go these days with a tight budget. - 12/22/2008   9:24:22 PM
  • 23
    I always leave a tip at places where I am provided a service. Those men and women are working hard. Panera Bread is not a place where you are "served" therefore there isn't a place to tip which was the point of the article. I always tip at least 20% of my total. - 12/22/2008   9:03:17 PM
    I believe that the comment in the article about tipping refers to establishments where you order and pick up the food at the counter....there is no wait staff at Panera Bread or Chipotle and probably not the deli mentioned either. In these cases, the tip is probably not necessary....this is coming from someone who actually makes sure I have nice restaurant meals built into my budget, this is one of the things my husband and I enjoy too much to give up! By the way, we are very generous tippers! - 12/22/2008   8:48:13 PM
  • 21
    Sharing a dinner. It helps keep you in the correct portion limits. - 12/22/2008   8:13:03 PM
  • 20
    When you use coupons or the Entertainment, please tip for the whole amount before discount!

    Order Chinese food family-style, one entree per two people. The three of us usually order one entree with a half-order of fried rice or an appetizer, and that works out just right. Or sometimes I order one lunch or dinner as take-out, then we can split it at home (I feel silly splitting a combination plate in a restaurant).

    Sometimes hubby and I have a hankering for a real pub-style hamburger, so we split one (ya just gotta live it up sometimes!). Then we leave a nice tip, 'cuz we don't want to be cheapskates.

    For fast food, we split a $5 sub. No tip necessary. - 12/22/2008   6:42:37 PM
  • 19
    As far as tipping goes. . .please, PLEASE leave a tip. I used to work at a restaurant as a waitress a couple of years ago & I only made $2.80 an hour. So we do rely heavily on tips for every day staples such as gas for the car & groceries.

    If I can't afford to leave a tip, I don't eat out. - 12/22/2008   4:35:47 PM
  • 18
    I think that the tip comment had more to do with choosing restaurants where the wait staff didn't depend on tips, didn't it? I count a baseline tip as part of the meal, and go higher if the wait staff is extra good, if I've stayed extra long, or - or if it a place I frequent on business. Why the last two? Well, if you are taking someone out for business you may need extra help to get out quickly etc, and if the staff knows you as a generous person, you can get the assistance you need. Also, in a busy place, when you stay extra long drinking coffee, you are doing the waitress out of the opportunity to make more money from other customers, so I personally don't feel right not "making it up" to some extent (and also asking if my long stay is causing any difficulties). Most of this is business related; like Cricketro, I have to do so much business eating that the true pleasure is a quiet home meal. - 12/22/2008   4:29:02 PM
  • 17
    We CAN NOT afford to eat out anymore. Not even McD's! The economy is rough for everyone. If we do eat out (minute occasions like a gift card) - we tip what we can. The resturaunts over charge for pratically everything anyway, so it is actually cheaper to stay at home and make the food the way YOU like it and at the portion size you prefer! - 12/22/2008   4:20:49 PM
  • ZAMEY-
    My, my - we all have varying comments, don't we? :)
    I tend to set a $3 tip limit up to about $35. Then I will tip more. I never tip at Starbuck's, because, the way I see it, they are like a fast-food chain, in which I never tip either. If I "Tip" at places like that, I put my leftover change / some extra money into a donation bin (i.e. ronald mcdonald house) if they have one.
    While I understand that people often rely on tips to sustain their lifestyles / families, I feel that you shouldn't go overboard unless you have received excellent/outstanding personal service.
    Am in much agreement to the "If you can't afford it, stay away" theory, too. :)

    Cheers- - 12/22/2008   4:19:20 PM
  • 15
    Eh,-no tipping is only okay when you eat at places like McDonald's. - 12/22/2008   2:51:25 PM
  • 14
    Don't Tip??? You should always leave a tip. The waitstaff makes very little money hourly and they depend on their tips big time. In some restaurants all tips are put in one jar and split amongst all waitstaff at the end of the night. I probably should, but I don't tip in fast food restaurants where I always get a to go. I am completely against the "tip" of No Tipping.

    Usually I just have water, occasionally a drink. Hubby will have a drink. We always order the full size meal because we like to take food home and have it for another meal. It's like going out to eat again. - 12/22/2008   2:08:59 PM
  • 13
    I also understand that if you can't afford to eat out, stay at home! Too many times we feel like we "need" or "deserve" things. If you can't afford it, you don't "deserve" it! - 12/22/2008   2:03:25 PM
  • 12
    There are a lot of great comments posted. I also tend to get the larger portion (when that option is given) at restaurants because I also like to take the leftover home and have it for another day. It's a great way to have yummy food AND have it already for you.
    As far as tipping is concerned, if the establishment is one that doesn't allow tips, fine. But, if you are getting service and tips ARE allowed, I say leave a tip. I'm probably a bigger tipper than some other people but I've bussed tables so I know what these people go through. Remember, the waitstaff shares the tips with bussers, and sometimes kitchen help as well.
    By the way, I also leave a tip if I get a take-out order. My opinion is that even though you aren't sitting down at the restaurant, people still need to prepare your food and give it to you. But again, this is just my opinion. - 12/22/2008   1:49:54 PM
  • 11
    We eat out twice a month when we go to antique car shows. That is us by our car taken last Sat. We get a sandwich at a great cafe, and I always bring half home for next day's lunch. I just can't eat as much as I used to any more...and that's a good thing! - 12/22/2008   1:12:18 PM
    We go to the restaurant and just get the normal size portions for everyone. However, we don't eat everything we get. What is overportioned, we end up taking home in a box so we can have one or two leftovers in the coming days.

    We went to Red Lobster yesterday and ending coming home with a crab cake and some biscuits. Didn't gain a single pound from what I actually did eat at the restaurant either. We get the full portions because we like being able to take the extras home and stick them in a microwave if we need to be somewhere quick. We also only drink water and never order desserts. - 12/22/2008   1:09:54 PM
    Wow! Avoid tipping, drinking and desert? My daughter works as a server in a fine dining establishment, and I can tell you these suggestions are a good way to put her in the poor house. If you can't afford to dine out, stay at home! She works just as hard to serve a small bill as a large one. Have a heart!!! - 12/22/2008   1:08:31 PM
  • 8
    Thanks for the great links--I forgot all about the entertainment book! I've never bought one, but I just moved, so this might be a good idea! - 12/22/2008   1:06:57 PM
    My son is the owner of a fine dining restaurant. It is suggestions like these that are forcing him to close and lay off employees. Often, the only profit they make is on alcohol, appetizers and desserts, and then very little. You may think you're being "shrewd shoppers", however you're making the economy worse. If it costs an establishment money to have you walk in the door, that's an unsustainable situation. If you can't afford to tip for good service, then perhaps you'd be happier at McDonald's and not take up space in good restaurants. If you are taking up a space at the table, it costs the same in staff costs to bring you your glass of water, whether you order one entree or two. Coupons are a "loss leader"...if you use a coupon, and order nothing else, the establishment loses money on you. Again, an unsustainable situation for small business owners and staff who are trying to feed their families too in these rough times. Just the view from the other side of the fork. - 12/22/2008   11:35:50 AM
    I buy Restaurant.com gift certificates. I love them. They're a great deal! Reminder: You have to tip on the entire amount of the bill, not the amount after the fit card is applied. If you can't afford to tip, you can't afford to dine out. :) - 12/22/2008   11:22:26 AM
  • 5
    We don't eat out much but when we do it's water for us and we usually dine at places where it's under $20. on the bill. Better yet, there is a Pizza place I like, he doesn't. I order Pizza and salad and i get my favorite pineapple upside down cake there. Only time I ahve dessert is there at that palce. They think i am a Senior. What should be $8.00 ends up being 6.00. He doesn't eat. LOL I know, I know... I'm a cheap date. - 12/22/2008   11:07:06 AM
  • 4
    I do most of things already. The spitting an entree works very well for me and my husband. I used to order my own and ask for a to go box with my meal. Problem was most of the time I was throwing away the to go carton a few days later. - 12/22/2008   10:52:49 AM

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