Food & Finance: Taking In and Dining Out

By: Roni

I’m sure that some of you are surprised by this week’s topic. After all, this is a blog about saving money on food, and we all know that it’s cheaper to cook at home than it is to tote dinner home in a (recyclable) bag or go out to eat at a restaurant.

But everyone deserves to take a break without breaking the bank, and sometimes you just don’t feel like turning on the stove, striking up the grill or even reheating yesterday’s leftovers. Test out the tips below for saving on take out and restaurant visits – just in time for Mother’s Day.

Do Your Research!

You’ve learned to check grocery store circulars for sales and online and in newspapers for manufacturer’s coupons. Well, many casual dining establishments and franchised food chains offer coupons, as well - check online, in newspaper inserts and through direct mail (e.g. ValPak, SuperCoupons, Clipper Magazine). Using these coupons and other offers can get you anything from free donuts to a free entrées – so find them and use them! Also check local newspapers and direct mail for special offers at local restaurants (e.g. discounts for seniors or students) and check take out menus for coupons, discounted combinations and other money-saving offers.

Time it Right

When it comes to purchasing prepared food or going out to eat, not all hours of the day are created equal. The meal that you purchase for $20 at dinnertime might very well cost you one-half that amount at lunch. If you are planning to bring a meal home for dinner and have access to reliable refrigeration; it’s a good idea to buy that meal at lunchtime and quickly reheat it later. Likewise, if you were planning to go out to a restaurant for dinner, make it a lunch date instead, and save a bundle. Many restaurants offer lunchtime-only specials to draw in the midday crowd and delivery orders. If you want to stick with a dinner outing, go early in the evening to take advantage of early bird specials and early in the week (Mon., Tues., Weds.) – slower nights when there may be more bargains on the menu (e.g. prix fixe, less expensive specials, etc.).

Skip the Sides

Even if you use the oven to store shoes and handbags (true story), I’m willing to bet that you keep the microwave free of accessories in case you need to reheat your latte. Expand your ambitions for this useful appliance to save a bunch on takeout. Instead of buying the whole meal, purchase the core of the dish – a roast chicken, for instance – and make quick sides yourself. You can buy many great sides frozen and cook them in the microwave in 5-10 minutes (or even less!). Among the convenient microwaveable sides – frozen vegetables (prepared literally dozens of ways), frozen rice (several different varieties) and potatoes (all types, including sweet). If you use your microwave to store your jewelry, you are not out of luck….. just make a side salad.

Avoid Food Sold By Weight

I live in the New York area, which is replete with grocery stores and smaller convenience markets that have “salad bars,” the common term for displays of hot and cold prepared foods. You make your own selections and put the food in take-out containers, then take it to be weighed at the counter. That’s when you learn that a piece of chicken, three cherry tomatoes and some spinach leaves are going to cost you a day’s salary. I say skip it. There are almost always more economical options.

Discover the BYOB

If you are deciding between restaurants and intend to have a glass of wine or other libation, choose the BYOB. Because the mark-up on liquor keeps many a restaurant going well past its prime, it is worth the trip to the liquor store to purchase your own wine, beer or spirits. BYOBs don’t have liquor licenses, so you have to bring your own – hence no restaurant markup. Also no corking fees, which restaurants with liquor licenses commonly charge if you do bring your own. As, depending upon the habits of your crowd, liquor can double the total of a restaurant bill, it is well worth investigating this option wherever and whenever it’s available.

OK readers, those are my tips. As usual, I welcome your comments and suggestions. Let me know whether you try any of these out this weekend (did I mention that Mother’s Day is Sunday?). Everyone deserves a (little) break from time to time – just don’t break the bank!

Yours in food frugality,
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