When I started taking a closer look at our grocery budget a couple of years ago, I was surprised to find that it wasn’t nearly as high as I’d feared. After entering all my bank transactions into an online budgeting program, I learned that while there was definitely room for improvement, my grocery bill made up a pretty reasonable percentage of our household spendings.
So where was all that “extra” money – you know, the bucks I couldn’t seem to account for at the end of the month – going?
Looking at the other slices of pie on the color-coded chart, I gulped. No, we weren’t spending that much on groceries. But yes, we were spending a lot on food – restaurant food.
I’m a big fan of eating out, and count great dining with friends and family among life’s biggest pleasures. But when you’ve got a family of 7 including teens and growing “big kids”, there’s no real way to economize even a fast-food meal – it’s stinking expensive, no matter what; and completely out of proportion with the quality of the food or the experience. As a once-in-a-while event, eating out is wonderful. But it’s no way to feed a family day in and day out.
Then there were the meals I’d shared with my husband. Some had been wonderful, while others were utterly forgettable and definitely not worth the price tag. No wonder I was so far in denial about how much we’d actually spent on them.
So I set out to cut down on our family’s consumption of restaurant meals. And I found that, when you’re trying to eat out less, it helps to understand why you’re doing it so much in the first place. After identifying four basic reasons we visited restaurants too often, I was able to come up with some solutions to steer our eating habits back toward home:
Reason 1: Boredom. When life is feeling humdrum, dining out can seem like a quick fix. But honestly, I’m pretty rarely blown away by a meal out – in fact, my husband and I have started calling most restaurant experiences “The fifty-dollar disappointment.” Sure, there are amazing restaurants out there, but exceptional meals tend to come with a price tag to match. To be able to afford those great dining-out experiences, I need to cut back on the mediocre ones that I’m only craving because I’m bored with the usual routine.
Solution: Jazz up mealtime a little bit. Some ideas:
- More meals with friends and family. Sharing a nightly meal is one of my favorite ways to make dinner time more fun: you get to share the expense and workload of getting dinner on the table, and it can turn an ordinary Wednesday night meal into a fun little party.
- Try new things. I’m a back-to-basics kind of cook, but every now and then it’s fun to experiment with new dishes, or even just an alteration on an old favorite.
Reason 2: Lack of Planning. It’s easy to say we don’t have “time” to cook at home, but is that really true? Or is it more that we didn’t plan ahead? True, if it’s 6:00, I haven’t taken the chicken out of the freezer yet and there are no veggies in the fridge, I “don’t have time” to go grocery shopping and then come back and prepare a meal by a reasonable time. But if I’d had everything on hand, putting it together would likely be quicker than a trip to pick up takeout (and a whole lot faster than corralling the whole family to a restaurant!)
Solution: Better planning! Creating weekly menus and doing my shopping on time leads to fewer stressful moments digging through the pantry and fewer last-minute runs for pizza. Meal planning can be simple, but it needs to be part of the weekly routine.
Reason 3: Date Night Syndrome. For much of our early parenting years, my husband and I rarely went out: lots of little kids and nursing babies, lack of child care, and a serious budget crunch made “date nights” few and far between. So whenever we managed it, we made the most of the date with a full-on meal experience including drinks, appetizers, an entree, and desserts (one each.)
But since our youngest is now 3 and we have two kids of legal babysitting age, heading out for an hour or two with my husband has never been easier. When we first realized our relative freedom, we initially went on a restaurant-hopping spree…and since we were still mentally stuck in that early-parenting stage where nights out together were scarce, we continued to treat each “date” as a blowout. It’s one thing when you’re doing that quarterly, quite another when it’s once a week!
Solution: We need to get creative about what it means to go on a “date” instead of always defaulting to the standby of a nice dinner. Some ideas that are cheap or free:
- Go on an ‘afternoon date’ for happy hour or an appetizer, then join the rest of the family for dinner
- Have dinner with the family, then head out for a drink or dessert and coffee.
- Have more “date nights” in the house – a game of cards, shared TV show or just a quiet conversation after the kids are in bed. Sometimes my husband and I like to feed the kids early and then make a separate, fancier meal for ourselves that we can eat after they go to bed.
Reason 4: Too Busy. Feeling frazzled at dinner time is often an indicator that my life has gotten a little too busy. If I feel pressured to check my email fifteen times between 6 and 7 PM, or have a hard time managing dinner because I’m driving kids around at that time every day, or can’t seem to wrap up my work day by 5:00 most days…then it generally means my priorities have gotten a little out of whack.
Solution: Take a hard look at my evening shuffle and see if there are things that need to go. Sometimes extra “busy-ness” is a temporary thing that I just have to get through – but sometimes, it suggests that I’ve taken on too many responsibilities or have let the kids get over-committed. We all have different levels of tolerance for “busy”, but if I can’t set aside a Kitchen Hour at least three times a week, I start to feel off-balance and have to scale back.
Did any of the above reasons for eating out too much strike a chord with you? What helps you keep restaurant meals under control?
These tips were originally shared at The Happiest Mom.