Chef extraordinaire Julia Child famously said, “People who love to eat are always the best people.”
And people who love to eat out do so at great expense. Americans spend more than $3,000 per year, per person, on food away from home, according to a 2015 estimate from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That same year, the Commerce Department also found that money spent in restaurants and bars had outpaced money spent on groceries.
Dining out can be wonderful! You don’t have to cook. You don’t have to clean up. You don’t have to buy exotic ingredients that spoil when you don’t use them in other meals. You can relax and socialize; enjoy the sensory experience of sights, sounds, smells and flavors…until the bill arrives. That’s when those thousands of dollars get transferred out of your wallet, often leaving a bitter taste in your mouth.
One sure-fire way to reduce your expenses is by shaving money off your restaurant spend. We’re not suggesting you stop (full stop) dining out, but we do have a handle on how you can enjoy your restaurant experience the most. In other words, we invite you to eat out less, but better.
Do your research
In this, the so-called Information Age, you can find out almost anything you want to know about a restaurant before you actually eat there. What’s on the menu? What do the furniture and décor look like? Is the chef renowned for any specialty dishes? How’s the service? Is the venue kid-friendly? These are all appropriate questions to ask the Web before you make a selection.
Restaurant websites have given graphic and web designers the opportunity to showcase an array of interactive, visually stunning features. This means that a restaurant website might be a great place to start your evaluation of a possible candidate for your next $100 date night or family dinner out – or even your next $12 workday lunch. Make sure there’s something for everyone in your party on the menu. You can also find a way to contact the restaurant should you need more information before you dine, such as:
- Do you have a kids’ menu?
- Is your restaurant wheelchair-accessible?
- Do you have high chairs or room for strollers?
- Do you allow guests to bring their own wine or birthday cake?
- What forms of payment do you accept?
- Is smoking permitted (if applicable)?
- Do you have off-street parking/valet? How much does it cost?
- Do you serve vegan or gluten-free options?
- Do you have a dress code?
Depending on the needs and preferences of your party, you can use a restaurant website as a way to scope whether or not the food, space and other aspects will work for you.
Listen to the critics
Outside an establishment’s own website, you can now find out if a restaurant is worth it from third-party sites, too. Gone are the days when you had to rely on food critics alone to recommend a good place to eat (though that is still an option at some newspapers, magazines and blogs). Today, it’s possible to read customer reviews and comments on myriad sites, from social media networks (like Facebook and Twitter) to consumer review platforms (such as Yelp and TripAdvisor).
Additionally, websites that function as booking channels for restaurants (OpenTable, Reserve, etc.) often have a review function for verified diners, in addition to their proprietary rating system. As with online comments about most things, you can generally adhere to the law of averages. One bad review does not a bad restaurant make.
Another nugget of information you can learn from social media, and the web at large, is how much money a typical diner spends per meal at a given restaurant. It’s possible to calculate your potential spend in advance using posted prices for top chain restaurants – and even select lesser known venues – from websites like RestaurantMealPrices, or even the restaurants’ websites themselves.
Similarly, third party review sites often rate meal pricing with a series of three, four or five forks or dollar signs. Familiarize yourself with these icons and what they mean when you’re in bargain-hunting mode selecting your next meal.
Keep logistics in mind
In order to whittle your annual $3k or so spend down to something more reasonable (by say, opting to eat in a nice restaurant just once per month, rather than once per week), rely on more than just the restaurant’s track record and good intentions to make your dining experience an enjoyable one.
- Make sure you have enough time (a good dinner should be enjoyed and digested in no less than one to two hours) – don’t scarf and run
- Dine with people you love (like friends and family members who offer up pleasant and interesting conversation) – nobody wants to eat dinner with a troll!
- Consider your comfort (that the type of food served, the space it’s served in and the dress code align with what feels comfortable for you) – you’d feel silly wearing a tiara to a roadside diner, for instance
Make your dining out experience the best version of itself by checking in with who you are and what you want.
Spending less money on eating in restaurants – or even takeout food from restaurants – doesn’t have to be a drag. It’s true that you’ll be spending more time in your own kitchen and shopping for groceries. But if you take a few simple steps and plan to truly savor your next dining out experience, you’ll find that your wallet – and likely your waistline, too – will thank you.
Rachel Moehl is a mother, wife and writer – in that order. She is the Digital Content Strategy Director at Prudential Financial. She also wears sweatpants to the buffet place around the corner from home.
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