We are a very budget-minded family and we do a good job in all of our budget categories each month except for one: DINING OUT. This is the downfall of every month's budget. Try as we might, we have lots of trouble going out less. I mean, just thinking about it makes us hungry. And, then we think about it for such a long time, it is too late to make anything for dinner. And, we can walk to six places for dinner from where we live. What, is a hungry family to do?
Plan our weekly meals? What a great idea. In fact, check out BellyGrowling to see just how we do that in our family. Plan as we might, we still find ways to rationalize going out to eat. Plans never survive their first encounter with reality, or in this case, a growling belly. Admittedly, these have been a particularly bad few weeks because we had a lot of seasonal illness going through the house and the tendency not to cook is great when one is likely to cough all over the ingredients.
But even when we are all healthy, weekends are our biggest temptation. There is no schedule. Saturday is often a "wildcard" on the menu board which usually translates into make-at-home pizzas or going out. And, this time of year, we are often drawn to go out to watch a Steelers game since we cannot at home. I have a great understanding of the problem, but what can we do to improve our behavior?
As I've been typing, I've come up with a few at-home ideas. First, we could make Saturday or Sunday (our biggest dine out days), "try a new recipe" day. Second, we can challenge ourselves to make at home whatever dish we would eat if we were going out. Third, I can dig out the list we made up a while back of "food worth dining out for" (such as Indian food; bar food; and big, drippy deli sandwiches) and put it somewhere visible.
But realistically, we are still going to go out "too much." What strategies can we employ to reduce the impact of the times we do go out?
Sharing meals: We all know portion sizes are TOO BIG. And, I know, that I am unlikely to stop eating after half my huge portion and take the rest home. Often, Joshua and I will share a meal. For example, at a local Thai place he loves Pad See Ew. Chicken AND noodles in one dish how can he go wrong? Broccoli, that's how. The nerve of this restaurant to put broccoli in his perfect dish. So, he gets all the chicken, I get the broccoli and we split the noodles.
Order an extra side: If after sharing meals (see above), one of the sharing party is hungry, order an additional side. To expand on the previous example, I was really hungry one time we went to this Thai place and I ordered a side of steamed vegetables for $4-ish to add to my broccoli and noodles. Much cheaper than adding a second $12 plus entrée to our bill and just as filling. Appetizers can also play this role, but are often more expensive than sides.
Kid's meals: In many chain restaurant, I am incredibly disappointed in kid's meals. Now, I enjoy a chicken nugget, hot dog, cheese quesadilla, or cheese pizza once in a while, but honestly with all we know about diet and kid's long-term health, put a piece of GRILLED chicken on your menu! Fortunately, we have found several places we like that have some variety in their kid's menu or, at least, include the healthiest version of the stand-by's as possible. When I do find a "worthy" kid's meal (and I can get away with it) I order one too! Items such as a grilled cheese (add tomato, avocado) or quesadilla (add black beans, veggies) can often be "upgraded." And, to be honest, sometimes I just want some chicken nuggets!
Go out for lunch: The same meal you order at dinner can be several dollars cheaper at lunch. Plus, I find myself less likely to order appetizers, non-water beverages, and dessert at lunchtime. The added bonus, none of are in our unpredictable end-of-the-day mood.
Quality over ambiance: As Comfy people, we have come to realize that ambiance does not mean much to us if we spend the meal sad that we spent lots of money for food that was not that great. Now, we are all for spending money if there is quality of experience, but to spend money to say we went to a trendy place is just not our thing. So, if we enjoy the $6 soup and sandwich deal at a deli we can walk to more than the $25 plate of bland pasta in a fancy place we had to drive to, guess where we are going?
Finally, there are just times when even if it is outside of the budget, it is just the best thing to do to go out. Last April, when we needed to make a trip to the ER 15 minutes before dinner time, we decided to stop at a restaurant on our way home. When a four hour road trip takes 6 hours and extends through a meal time, we stop to eat. And, finally, when it is a day when you really need some tater tots (and we all know they are never as good when you make them at home), then you go out to eat! And, that, my friends, is COMFY.