Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Tips for saving time, money, and calories when dining out

We've all been there: left my lunch at home, burned dinner, dinner was so good we ate it all and have no leftovers, I was too tired,  my spouse is out of town and I hate cooking for myself, everyone in the office is going out together, cat ate my pad thai (or is that just me?)...There are plenty of reasons for not eating home-made meals every single day. It was especially bad for me when I had a 2.5 hour daily commute to another city for work last year, which gave me very little time to make dinner in the evenings and had the extra temptation of many good restaurants in walking distance. Here are my tips for making the most of the times when we're paying someone else to make our food:

1) Get your order to go. While the ambiance of many restaurants is far nicer than sitting at your desk or in the break room, you're paying more for that experience in time, tips, and temptations. I learned to keep takeout menus from local restaurants on-hand and just call in my order...that way, I know exactly when my food will be ready, and can order my favorite salad without seeing their famous loaded french fry platter drifting by my table, or thinking about how much I need to tip my waiter. Plenty of places also have outdoor seating they don't mind you using as long as you've bought their food - so you can still have that out-of-office time without paying for it!

Still getting the Mellow Mushroom experience, and sunshine!
 3) Package up half of your food right away, or split with someone. Most restaurants give ridiculously huge proportions, especially in things like chicken on salads and cheap sides. If you're dining out in a restaurant, ask for a to-go box right away and put half your food in it. Then, you can clean your plate and still have lunch for the next day - getting two meals for the price of one! If you're with friends, coworkers, or your spouse, splitting a meal is always a good option, too.

4) Look for healthy appetizers. Some of the best deals are hidden in the appetizer menu. Skip the chicken wings and loaded fries (sigh) and look for the veggie spring rolls, chicken and veggie quesadillas, dip trios with chips, etc. Mellow Mushroom was a favorite of mine when I needed a quick lunch and had the most amazing salads in their appetizer menu - and all of them were under $6! I usually paired it with a $2.50 slice of pizza with chicken, and had lunch for two or more days for under $10 total.
Mellow Mushroom's caprese salad appetizer is amazing (and huge!)
5) Check the kids' menu. Many places have items in their kids menu that are identical to their regular menu - just in smaller proportions, and for much less! I could never eat an entire burrito at Moe's, for instance (and they don't make the best leftovers), but their kid-sized burrito is perfect and lets me have everything I want for much less. It works great for fast food, too - if you're traveling and have to eat on the road, getting something from the kids menu ensures you're eating less junk, and usually includes an extra small drink, which also saves calories. 

I had to split this "Joey" burrito with Shawn - kiddie size for me next time!
6) Keep tea bags and instant coffee on hand. Buying drinks can be a real killer when dining out- both in calories and in price! I always order water at restaurants, and reserve getting my precious southern sweet tea for when I'm ordering a kids' meal at Bojangles. I've quit coffee (again) recently, but my work has a keurig machine and I was able to use a reusable k-cup to bring my own coffee from home, and always keep a few tea bags in my purse now for that occasional pick-me-up. Almost any place will give you hot water for free (some charge you a quarter for the cup, but not many), so keeping the instant stuff on hand is a great way to save a few bucks when the emergencies happen!

7) Utilize gift cards to help with budgeting. If there's a place nearby that you find yourself going to often, see about getting a gift card! It's a great way to keep track of your spending in specific places and for those special treats like your favorite coffee drink. If you have friends or relatives always asking what to get you as a gift, let them know what your favorite local restaurants are - then you get to say they took you out to lunch or dinner!

Breakfast at Starbucks courtesy of a Christmas gift card from the parents!

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