6 Tips for Making Healthy Choices When You're Eating Out on a Budget

Canned tomatoes a part of the base of classic Minestrone soup. (Photo: Olga Nayashkova/Shutterstock)

Sometimes I hate eating out. I feel like I'm spending a lot of money to eat mediocre food that is bad for me and my family. The average meal at a fast-food joint really isn’t even that cheap. If you buy a hamburger, fries and a drink, you aren’t buying super cheap food anymore. Sure, it may be "cheap" in the sense of being full of fillers, pink slime, or who-knows-what, but your wallet can still end up empty.

Yet, it doesn’t always have to be that way. By buying simple, inexpensive food at better restaurants, food carts, and even grocery stores, we can all eat food that isn’t horribly expensive, horribly bad for you, and can taste amazing. I haven’t always had success when traveling, but I can often find delicious food for a good price in our city. Here are a few guidelines that I follow:

1. Simple food is often cheap and healthier

For the sheer fun of it, I often want to order elaborate dishes when eating out, but it's not easy on the budget. Simple food, like a bowl of soup, a ladle of oatmeal, or granola and yogurt, can often save some cash. While perhaps not as exciting as a big pile of pasta, I’ve found many entrees at chain restaurants to be disappointing, and a bit too expensive when purchased at better restaurants.

Simple food is often cheap, and often healthier. There are more than a few restaurants in our city that specialize in simple foods like soups, rice bowls, and higher quality brats or hotdogs — creating a lunch for $5 or less. One restaurant offers a piece of cheese pizza and a large pile of fresh salad for $5 every day.

2. Food carts

There is a definite food cart craze right now. They are getting a lot of national attention and are certainly blooming in my city. While some are fairly expensive, others are decidedly on the cheap side. They make a great option for lunch, and many cater to the "healthy eating" crowd. There are soup food carts, for example, which make soups from scratch using healthy ingredients. Some carts cater to the gluten-free or vegan crowd as well. In just one food cart "caravan," we found many inexpensive choices, from tacos, to Thai fried rice, to soup, to breakfast burritos.

3. Ethnic food

Ethnic food is a favorite in our household. It is not only flavorful but often healthier. While MSG-sensitive people should be wary of many Thai or Chinese restaurants, we've found several places that make their food from scratch using "real food" and traditional recipes. While certain things may still be lacking (such as traditional fats), the food is leaps and bounds better in taste and quality than most American fast-food places.

When possible, I like to order lamb, as most often it is 100 percent pasture raised and high-quality meat. We recently discovered a Lebanese restaurant that serves 100 percent grass-fed beef as well. For $13, we had a big plate of rice and beef that practically served all three of us. With pita on the side, we were more than satisfied. While certainly not as cheap as the dollar menu, the fact that this was real food — in fact, grass-fed beef — was thrilling for the price and the quantity. Plus, I love introducing our children to ethnic food. Vegan and vegetarian foods also abound in many ethnic restaurants.

4. Soups

As mentioned in my first point, soups are often really cheap. I look for places that make soups from scratch. This may take going to a nicer restaurant, but their soups will often be priced reasonably. If you go to an ethnic restaurant, such as Indian, it can be especially cheap!

When I was in high school I went on a few out-of-state conference trips on which I had to dine out for every meal. I survived this financially by practically eating soup at both lunch and dinner every day. Let's just say I spent about one-fourth the money that my friends did.

5. Grocery store fare

While not as fun as going out to a restaurant, picking up a few ingredients, like apples, sliced cheddar cheese, and some decent crackers can make an impromptu picnic lunch that is certainly cheaper than going out (and no tip required!). My husband, daughter and I have done this numerous times when on an outing when we didn't want to spend a lot of money. Plus, it is so much faster than having to sit down in a restaurant.

6. Splitting big plates and sharing small plates

Of course, eating with another person can easily bring down your overall cost per person. Restaurants are prone to over feeding you, so one plate can often feed two (or even three!). My husband and I like to go to restaurants that have small plates for a good price, and we order a couple and share. It makes a fun date that really isn't too expensive.

Along the same lines, occasionally we will find that by ordering sides (a baked potato, roasted vegetables, etc.) we can make a cheap meal that offers plenty of food for two people. I've noticed that some American-style restaurants can have high prices on sides, but ethnic restaurants have really cheap sides. It all depends on the restaurant.

While cooking healthy, frugal food at home is certainly the best choice, I've found that I can still buy decent food on a budget when out.

I'd love to hear any ideas and thoughts from you on healthy restaurant eating on a budget. Do you have any tips to share?