How to Avoid Eating Out at Restaurants

CC BY 2.0. Ruth Hartnup

If you're serious about saving money, then regular restaurant meals will have to go.

Restaurants are the most common roadblock to frugality, according to blogger Mrs. Frugalwoods. She likes to say, "Food is a necessity, but expensive food is not." While many of us know this to be true, restaurants can be difficult to avoid. When dinner hour rolls around, the kids are starving, and there's nothing to eat in the house, calling for takeout and shlepping everyone to a local diner often seems to be the easiest solution.

Mrs. Frugalwoods' advice is to understand that planning ahead is your greatest weapon against last-minute restaurant meals and their associated enormous bills (especially if you have a family). If you can cut down on eating out, you'll save far more money than any amount of coupon-clipping, price-matching, and sale-shopping. She asked readers on Facebook what their tried-and-true strategies are for avoiding restaurants, and got hundreds of answers. What follows are some of the responses I thought to be most interesting and helpful.

1. Make sure you have enough food on hand to prepare meals quickly. Even if this means lowering your from-scratch standards, it's still preferable to going out. Stock up on frozen pizzas, pierogis, ravioli, or whatever can be turned into a quick meal. Buy soup in cans, frozen veggie stir-fry mixes, vacuum-packed Indian curries.

2. Try to have three meals in the freezer at any point. Do this by doubling or tripling batches of whatever you're making and storing. Buy the right packaging to make it easy to freeze extra food.

3. Get a slow cooker and use it. Get in the habit of prepping a meal first thing in the morning and letting it cook all day, then you'll have no excuse to call for takeout. Related to this is one reader's suggestion to prepare dinner during breakfast. Throw ingredients into the oven to roast before you leave for work, making dinner prep that much easier.

4. Keep it simple. (This one's a real challenge for me!) Remind yourself that it's OK to prepare a very simple meal for a change - whether it's grilled cheese and tomato soup from a box, a bowl of buttered noodles, peanut butter sandwiches, or eggs and toast. Have standard combinations ready to go at any point, i.e. tortillas in the freezer, cheese in the fridge, salsa and canned beans in the pantry for burritos. Monotony is allowed.

5. Always, always make a menu plan. Plan out the whole week, shop in advance, and stick to it. However, you must plan meals that you actually WANT to eat, and that are EASY to prepare. Nine times out of ten, I get too ambitious in my meal plan and then end up deviating from it because I literally have 15 minutes to pull it all together. Good, sensible meal planning takes practice...

6. Devise your own reward system. One reader describes her strategy:

“We wanted to work out more and eat out less, so we started allotting ourselves a certain amount of ‘restaurant money’ for our time working out. The more we work out, the more we ‘earn’ for restaurants to use as we wish, so we end up having to pick between picking up a quick dinner on our way home tonight versus going on a date night next week. Having that choice makes it easier to say no to the weekday fast food, and it makes our date nights more special.”

7. Have a bigger goal in mind. Are you working toward something related to fitness, health, weight loss, or finances? Maybe you're holding out for a meal at a very special, expensive place you've always wanted to try? Put that on your fridge in bold letters and keep reminding yourself that not going out is one step closer to getting where you want to be. If the restaurant craving is intense, give yourself a mandatory wait time, like 48 or 72 hours.

8. Take snacks everywhere you go. Being hungry when out and about is a big reason for last-minute restaurant bills. Pack nuts, granola bars, chocolate, crackers into your purse and nosh on those to quell the hunger pains when they hit.

9. Change your lifestyle or location. This advice might be taken with a grain of salt, but there's some truth to it. One reader said she became vegan and suddenly her restaurant options shrank. Others (myself included) live in small, rural communities where options are seriously limited. Even if I wanted Thai food, there's nowhere to get it, so I make it myself. Someone else said, "Have kids, then you won't want to go anywhere!"