Saving

9 Ways to Keep Your Dining-Out Budget Low Without Having to Stay In

(photo: ZagatBuzz)

If you want to save money on food, dining out less often is certainly one way to do it.

Without a doubt, cooking at home is almost always cheaper. Restaurants aim to keep food costs at 30% of their tab, which is another way of saying that you’re paying roughly three times the ingredients’ wholesale costs, and more than double the price at the supermarket.

(Maybe even more. Frugal Foodie and other bloggers have concocted plenty of gourmet recipes that come in under $1 per person, under $10 total.)

But let’s face it, cost-effectiveness usually isn’t the driving factor for dining out. It often works the other way around: eating out is almost among the first to go if you find yourself on a very tight budget. 

The good news is, you can still enjoy a restaurant meal without seriously overpaying. As we point out every Friday, one way to do it is to use coupons and take advantage of restaurant promotions. Ordering the right food can also help you get the most bang for your buck. Here are nine suggestions:

Pick an appetizer…

“Often times this section is where chefs experiment,” says Ashton Colleen Keefe, of “Diary of a Sweet Tooth.” The result: high-quality ingredients in a low-cost section. 

…but not the salad

Even on a fancy salad the markups are huge, Keefe says. If you must order one, consider splitting it with someone else at your table as a starter.

BYOB

Alcohol carries a high markup, says Jay D. Ducote, the blogger behind “Bite and Booze.” Bottles of wine are usually double or triple the price you’ll see in stores, and mixed drinks can be even more.  Check the corkage fee to bring your own (it’s usually about $10 to $15).

Check for free refills

Mark-ups are high on non-alcoholic drinks, too, so check the venue’s refill policy if you plan to guzzle the equivalent of a two-liter during dinner. “Coke products, tea and coffee are all extremely cheap, like 10 to 15 cents per cup, yet you can pay sometimes $4 to $5,” Ducote says.

Go ahead — splurge

It might be bad dating etiquette to pick the most expensive dish on the menu, but it’s probably your best value. Expensive dishes or ingredients such as lobster and steak usually have slimmer mark-ups, says Bernard Ros, the owner and executive chef of Meli Melo in New York City. Such items are pricey for restaurants to buy, but diners are unlikely to stomach the usual markup.

Skip comfort food

Pasta, hamburgers and ice cream sundaes generally have very high markups, Ros says. You can easily and cheaply make your own at home.

Get what you can’t make at home…

Frugal Foodie’s strategy is to order food that’s not easy to make at home for one reason or another. Reconsider if the ingredients are hard to come by (ostrich egg, venison), tough or messy to work with (sweetbreads, phyllo dough) or beyond your cooking skill (turducken).

…or what you won’t

“I am unlikely to cook liver at home, because my wife doesn’t enjoy it,” says Nicholas Petti of Mendo Bistro in Fort Bragg, Calif. “But if it is on the menu, I’m likely to order it, despite it being inexpensive and easy to prepare.”

Take home leftovers

Stretching a meal into two is a great way to improve your wallet and waistline. Don’t forget the breadbasket, Keefe says.

Frugal Foodie is a journalist based in New York City who spends her days writing about personal finance and obsessing about what she’ll have for dinner. Chat with her on Twitter through @MintFoodie.