Having worked in restaurants, I know one of the main methods intentionally used to run up your meal tab is pushing drinks, desserts and other expensive "extras." It's called Suggestive Sales. One restaurant where I worked, a dining room supervisor held regular training classes for the new waitstaff to help them learn more effective Suggestive Sales techniques. ("Would you care for a piece of hot apple pie ala mode to go with your after-dinner coffee, sir?" Notice the ala mode part -- they mention ice cream on your pie because it adds more expense to your bill.)
One easy technique our family uses to save money when we occasionally go out to eat (besides laughing to ourselves at all attempts at Suggestive Sales) is to only order water to drink. Since many restaurants now charge $2 just for a cup of coffee and often more than that for a soda or a glass of milk for the kids, drinking water can often cut $10 or more from the cost of the family's meal. To make the water seem special, I'll ask for a lemon or lime wedge.
Restaurant dining for lunch rather than dinner is another way to save your pennies. Often restaurants will have similar luncheon items for half the price of the ones on their dinner menus.
Check around and see if any of your local restaurants have special "reduced rate" menus on certain days or during particular hours. A local Seattle-area restaurant has what they call Sunset Dinners on weeknights (Monday through Thursday). The restaurant is attempting to attract a pre-dinner crowd on off-days -- the hours are something like 4:30pm - 6:00pm. Choosing from a special menu, we get an appetizer, salad or soup, main dish, dessert and a beverage for around $12 per person. My husband and I have our just-the-two-of-us "celebration dinners" (birthdays, anniversary) at this restaurant during their Sunset Dinners. $25 for dinner for two for an excellent four-course seafood dinner plus beverage (with some of the best waterfront views in town) isn't a bad deal.
Another way we've learned to save on fancy meals is by preparing gourmet foods at home. We have an advantage over many families because my husband was formerly a professional gourmet cook, but learning to cook restaurant-quality meals isn't difficult if you're moderately adept at basic home cooking techniques. The book Cheapskate in the Kitchen by Mary Hunt details basic steps for making gourmet "special occasion" meals at home for a fraction of the cost of restaurant dining. While this particular book won't save you money on your regular meals, it will help save on the cost of those gourmet special occasion meals that can be so expensive.
Living within your means doesn't have to mean deprivation and joylessness -- the occasional meal eaten in a nice restaurant can become a fun (and even frugal) event.
You can browse Mary Hunt's helpful book, Cheapskate in the Kitchen, by going to: www.amazon.com
Deborah Taylor-Hough is the author of the bestselling Frozen Assets: Cook for a Day, Eat for a Month and A Simple Choice: a practical guide for saving your time, money and sanity. She also edits the Simple Times email newsletter. To subscribe, visit Debi online at: thesimplemom.wordpress.com
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