Dining at restaurants while trying to save money on food may seem a lot like trying to lose weight while eating stacks of decadent cookies on the reg. And there's no wonder why. To turn a profit, restaurants generally charge about four times as much per dish as they paid for its individual ingredients—that's a 400 percent markup. (I know, we died a little, too, when we found out!) And According to the National Restaurant Association, Americans spend more than $782 billion—yes, billion—at restaurants each year.
But here's a bit of good news: You don't have to ditch your favorite restaurant fare altogether to stick to your food budget. According to the group of restaurateurs and wait staff we interviewed, there are tons of ways to cut $5, 10, and even $20 from your bill—without saying farewell to your favorite waitress or forgoing the food you love. Read on to discover their must-know money-saving secrets and put all that extra cash towards something amazing—like a vacation or a new pair of running shoes. And speaking of dining out smart, be sure to check out The #1 Worst Menu Option at 40 Popular Restaurants—and stay away from them at all costs!
GET IT TO-GO & SIZE UP
Strange but true: Getting your order to-go may be more economical than eating it in-house—and you'll oftentimes get more food for your money, too. "If you're looking to order a small chicken salad to-go, for example, ask for it in a large to-go box," Becca, a former waitress from New Jersey, suggests. "Servers will often fill the box with more food without ever measuring it, so you'll get more bang for your buck." By taking your food to go, you can also save cash on costly meal add-ons like salad, wine and dessert. (Skip delivery, though — the tip and delivery premium are tough on the wallet.) "If you order something like chicken parm to go, you can easily split it into two servings and beef up the meal with a make-at-home salad, which costs just a few bucks, a $2 glass of wine and some fruit for dessert. In a restaurant, a meal like that could be $35 per person," Becca tells us. Following her strategy, however, will cost you about $14.
SKIP BOTTLED WATER & SODAS
Restaurants make a killing on bottled water and sodas—especially pricier places with an upscale or exclusive ambiance. The same bottle of H20 you can get for next to nothing in a grocery store is bound to be 50 percent more in a trendy restaurant; I found that one out the hard way. (Six bucks for a bottle of fancy water in a glass bottle? No thank you!) Even some restaurant owners suggest nixing water to save cash: "One of the easiest ways to save money—without giving up your favorite food—is to skip the bottled water," says David and Tricia DiCenso, owners of Lakeside Restaurant and Bar in Wayne, New Jersey. "Restaurants wouldn't offer tap if it wasn't palatable and safe to drink." The same holds true for soda (which you shouldn't be drinking anyway). A cola that would cost you 20 cents from a bottle at home will likely cost you $2.00 a drink at a sit-down restaurant. Sounds like another great reason to skip the chemical- and calorie-laden beverage to us!
LOG ON & GET SOCIAL
Some of the very best restaurant savings are reserved for those resourceful enough to hunt them down. "Check your favorite restaurant's website for special deals or other gems before going out to eat," suggests Eyal Hen, owner of New York City-based Middle Eastern restaurant Nish Nush. "For example, Nish Nush has a special maza hour that you would never know existed if you didn't see the deal on the website first." Other restaurateurs agree: "Follow your favorite restaurant's social media channels. You never know when a limited promotion or free giveaway might come up," says Leith Hill, owner of New York City-based organic cafe, Ellary's Greens. "Unlike corporate chains, many smaller restaurants like mine use social media to personally engage with their customers, show our appreciation and provide valuable promotional deals. I suggest taking a moment to survey your favorite local restaurant's communication channels to see if there's a cost-conscious reason to drop by."
OPT FOR LINNER
Ordering linner, or a lunch dish for dinner, is a money-saving hack that Mike DeFalco, the food and beverage manager at NoMa Social in New Rochelle, New York, swears by. "One of the easiest ways to save money while eating out is choosing a lunch dish for dinner. If you've noticed, lunch dishes are only a bit smaller than dinner dishes and the difference in price can be astonishing." If your favorite restaurant won't let you order off the lunch menu during dinner, consider dining out for lunch instead of dinner. It's the same great food you love for a fraction of the cost. Another added bonus? The smaller portion sizes. Considering nearly all restaurant entrées carry more calories than you should eat in a single meal, less food should be considered a win! For more easy ways to save calories while dining out, check out our exclusive report How to Eat Out at Any Restaurant and Still Lose Weight.
If you're the type of person who considers no meal complete without a bottle of wine (or two), then BYOB restaurants should be your go-to. It's not uncommon for wine to sell for $40 a pop or more, so bringing your own booze from home means you could easily slash a big chunk of change from your check, the DiCensos tell us. To ensure your love of all things boozy doesn't derail your diet efforts, be sure to check out Eat This, Not That! for Drinkers!
CONSIDER A COMBO
Don't assume value meals and combos are just calorie bombs marked as a deal. They can actually save you major cash without expanding your waistline, says Ben Friedman, co-owner of Homegrown Sustainable Sandwich Shop in Washington. "Value menus are no longer reserved for bad-for-you fast food. The value menu is back and healthier than ever. Homegrown's combo menu has some amazing deals, including any half sandwich and any half salad for $10 or less. Plenty of other restaurants offer similar deals, so keep your eyes peeled!"
OPT FOR APPS & SPLIT AN ENTRE
"At my favorite fine dining spots, I like to share a bunch of small plates and then just split one entrée, with my dinner mates, Friedman tells us. "Often it's cheaper than getting appetizers and main dishes, and you usually get the same amount of food or more. Plus, you get to try more things on the menu. I always want everything on the menu—but that's another problem entirely."
Eat This! Tip
To ensure your meal is healthy as well as low-cost, make it a point to avoid fried apps like mozzarella sticks and fries and make sure at least half of everything coming to your table is fruit- or vegetable-based. Think: Roasted squash, charred brussels sprouts, salads and veggie soups. For even more tips on ordering smart, check out these 35 Tips For Being Healthy While Eating Out.
TALK TO YOUR WAITER
"In today's dining scene, restaurants often source their dish constructions from a local vendor," says Hill. "If you inquire what your server's favorite dish is, or ask about the new ingredients the chef is using, not only are you likely to get the kitchen's preferred offering, you'll raise the odds that your server will provide complimentary tastings and treats." Ever notice how free food tastes better?
SPLIT DESSERT—OR SAVE IT FOR HOME
"The hot fudge brownie and molten lava cakes may sound delicious while dining out, however, they just end up being another expense. Wait until you get home to dive into the desserts," suggests DeFalco. Can't pass up the sweets? The DiCensos suggest that each table shares one dessert—instead of each person ordering their own. "Not only does splitting a slice of cake or an ice cream cut some money off the bill, it's the healthier choice, too." Dina, a former waitress from Florida, agrees: "Every dessert I've ever served as a waitress came out of a box. Sure, we dressed it up with fresh whipped cream and fruit so it looked like it was made in-house, but we were actually charging $8 a slice for something you could buy in the freezer aisle. Don't waste your money on it." We agree wholeheartedly—especially when it comes to these 20 Restaurant Desserts with More Salt Than a Bag of Pretzels.
ASK ABOUT STATUS DISCOUNTS
"During my years as a waiter, I found that many customers didn't realize they were eligible for discounts," says Anthony, a former Delaware-based server. "If you're a teacher, student with a valid ID, senior citizen or part of the military, there's a good chance you'll be able to score a discount when you eat out." The only catch? You'll have to ask your server about it. "Many places that offer the discounts won't advertise it, but you can often get 10 to 15 percent off." Corporate and neighbor discounts are popular, too, so it's worth asking!
DON'T ORDER THE SPECIALS
The specials may sound scrumptious, but they're almost always more expensive than the standard menu items, warn the DiCensos. Decide what you'd like to order before your server comes by, and politely decline when he or she asks if you'd like to hear the specials. This way your decision won't be swayed and your wallet will remain safe. For more ways to save money on your grub, check out these 17 Simple Swaps That Save Money on Groceries.
ORDER THE LARGE
Well, at ice cream parlors, at least. "I worked at a burger and ice cream shop a few years ago and parents would always buy each of their kids a small cone, which were $3.35 per 5-ounce serving," Olivia, a former New Jersey-based waitress tells us. "Since kids almost never finish all of their ice cream, it would have been more economical for them to just buy a large for $5.25, which contained three 4-ounce scoops. (And you could get 3 different flavors.) Depending on who was working, if a parent asked for cones as a side item, we wouldn't charge for them." If you have three little ones, that's a $4.80 savings! Scooping out the ice cream at home? Make sure it's one of these 9 Best Brand Name Ice Creams for Weight Loss.
If you're not set on eating at a specific time, hitting up a local happy hour can save you lots of money—and not just on drinks. "We have some guests who regularly come in for happy hour three times a week because of the great deals we offer. It's a good way to sample a variety of different small plates without blowing your budget," says Mellisa Root, co-owner and executive pastry chef at The Hairy Lobster in Portland, Oregon. "I know other restaurants around the country have discounted sips and eats during that pre-dinner time slot, too, so it's worth hunting down a solid happy hour in your area."
BUY DEALS ONLINE
"The customers who get the very best deals are the ones that come through the restaurant with Groupons and LivingSocial deals," says Emily, a Texas-based server. "A lot of times people will come in with a $100 gift card they bought online for $50." We're also fans of Restaurant.com, Gilt City, and Pulsd. Even Yelp.com will sometimes have special deals.
GET AN APP AS YOUR MAIN
Ordering an appetizer as your main dish is not only a great way to save calories—it can save you a lot of money, too. "Appetizers are often bigger portions that people realize," says Anthony. "More often than not, people ask me to pack their entrée to-go if they order an app and something else small, like a salad. Skipping a main dish could easily save you $15 or more." Another thing to watch out for: Apps that are also listed as mains. I once ate at a restaurant where they had crab cakes as both an appetizer and a main, served with a side of asparagus. If you simply ordered the crab cake app and side of asparagus, it was cheaper but the same size. Look out for these types of traps!
EAT A SNACK
"When people come in to eat, they're usually starving," Maryland-based waitress Faith tells us. "This usually leads them to devour the entire bread basket and order a bunch of pricey apps right away. Although this is great for me because it ups the tip percentage, it adds a good $15 to $20 to the bill. For this reason, I always eat something small like a piece of fruit of some nuts before I go out to eat. This way I'm not dying of hunger and can order one, really delicious dish without spending a ton of money."
If you like to go out for just one weekly restaurant meal, make it brunch. It's by far the cheapest meal of the weekend, but since it's a mix of lunch and breakfast foods it still feels like an indulgent special occasion. To ward off extra costs—and calories—avoid buffets and bottomless brunches. An omelet or a stack of pancakes might sell for $9 to $12, but if you get the same thing as part of a bottomless champagne brunch and you're looking at $20 or more, warns Faith.