Restaurant alternatives outside of your own dining room!

Where Can You Find Restaurant Meals That Aren't In a Restaurant?

by Lynn Bulmahn

Most frugal advice-givers tell dollar stretching folks to always eat at home. Restaurant meals are just too expensive. The latter fact is correct, but there is sometimes a frugal alternative to home cooking, namely community meals.

Often, churches and community centers offer breakfasts or dinners that will allow you to get out of the kitchen, stretch your food dollars, and socialize with friends and neighbors.

For instance, many senior citizen centers offer "congregate meals." These may be operating under the names of "Senior Lunch and Activity Programs," "Senior Nutrition Programs, "Senior Lunch" or similar titles.

Typically, such programs are open to all older adults age 60 and older, although some may have a minimum age of 55. The suggested donation for lunch is $3, and a guest of a senior participant may pay $5. The $3 "donation" amount is not always a requirement; any amount an impoverished senior citizen can pay is accepted, and usually programs say they will not turn away anyone due to inability to donate.

Lunches usually consist of a hot lunch, and often milk will be served as the beverage. Some programs have health screenings and recreational activities offered along with the mid-day meal. Consult your local Area Agency on Aging for locations and times of the meals and other requirements.

At the opposite end of the age spectrum, schoolchildren have school cafeterias. Sometimes, people who are low income may qualify for free or reduced-cost school breakfasts or lunches. The reduced cost can be less than $2.50 per meal on average in a typical school. Forms to sign up your child in such a program are handed out by schools at the first of the school year, but parents can register their children at any time during the term. Your school or public school district will have more information.

Sometimes, community meals are not limited to any one age group. My friends and I are members of a large church. From time to time, a men's mission group serves lunch in the fellowship hall. The charge is "whatever the Lord would have you to pay" and the proceeds benefit mission efforts in Haiti, Peru, and other Third World countries.

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Since the meal is prepared by volunteers, we can pay a modest amount and eat better food than we would at most restaurants. The mission group makes a profit, and everyone comes out ahead.

We recently found another great meal at our congregation. On Wednesday nights, when choir rehearsals and classes are scheduled, the church serves dinner. The charge is $5 for a full meal and $20 per family if they make reservations in advance. Inexpensive salad bars, baked potato bars, and sandwiches are also available.

This is a terrific bargain! For about half of what a commercial restaurant would charge, we can eat with our friends, meet new people, and not have to cook. It's incredibly convenient to go "eat out" at church, and then go on to rehearsal or class. We look forward to the midweek meal!

From time to time, local organizations like volunteer fire departments, civic clubs, booster clubs, PTA or schools and churches have special events that include meals. Barbecues, fish fries, cookouts, spaghetti suppers, and pancake suppers are typically held to raise money for the groups' worthy causes.

It's not unusual for volunteers putting on the "feeding events" to go all out, and you'll usually get a plate piled high with home-cooked food in exchange for buying a ticket. The fees usually aren't very high, although supporters can pay above the ticket price if they desire. You can find out about such events in your local newspaper or broadcast station's community calendars.

It's frugal, fun, delicious, and nutritious to eat out at non-commercial community meals. Don't overlook the chance to get out of the kitchen and chow down!

Reviewed December 2017

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