Five Ways to Dine Out and Save Money

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The usual advice for eating good food on a budget is to cook your meals yourself with items bought from the grocery store. However, we are social creatures, and often it is important to get out of the house and eat in public. But how do you do that while eating reasonably healthy food and sticking to your food budget? Read on for some advice!

  1. Eat at bistro-style establishments. While these are slightly more expensive than “fast food,” the food at places like Panera, Atlanta Bread, Moe's, Qdoba, and Chipotle is usually made to order. The ingredients are refreshed on a regular basis, as opposed to the fast food staple of burgers under heat lamps. They are also cheaper than a sit-down restaurant, where you will pay a slightly higher price and have to leave a higher tip. Tipping at the bistros is not as compulsory as it is at a full-service restaurant, though it is appreciated. If you do tip, a couple of dollars per meal will be plenty.

  2. Become a “regular.” Go at off-peak hours and get to know the management and other employees. Eating before or after the noon to 2 PM rush will make you stand out, and managers and employees will begin to recognize you, especially if you go to the same place at least twice a week. You may get to know about “secret” specials they have for certain time periods on certain days. Managers may even reward your loyalty with the occasional free meal, on top of whatever “official” rewards program the place has. Which brings us to...

  3. Join the rewards/loyalty program. Many bistro-style establishments will have scannable or punchable cards that you can use every time you buy a meal. The standard is that after you buy nine or ten entrees, your tenth (or eleventh) will be free. This is a must if you like the food and find yourself eating at the same place quite often. It also guarantees the occasional free meal in case the staff changes and you become just another customer.

  4. Order water instead of a fountain drink. You would be surprised how quickly sodas can add up to make a budget-minded meal spiral out of control. Water from the same soda fountain will either be free or available with a charge for the cup (usually around ten cents). Since this water is also used in the machine to make the non-carbonated drinks like lemonade and fruit punch, it is filtered, so there is no need to buy a bottled water either.

  5. Reconsider the side dish. If the sandwich, burrito, or taco you are ordering has enough of a variety of ingredients, you will likely find that the item alone will satisfy your hunger, without the need for tortilla or potato chips or another side. Chips, especially, are often overpriced at these establishments, along with the drinks. If you must have chips with your sandwich, order it to go and keep a bag of store-bought chips at the office or at home.

Food does not have to be eaten in relative solitude in order to be cheap. By following just one or two of the tips above, you will be well on your way to shaving off a few dollars from every visit to your favorite bistro or Mexican grill. This will help you maintain your sanity while also staying within your food budget, which is ever-important in these challenging times.

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