Have you ever kept track of how often you eat out and how much it costs you? Add it up: takeout lunches, designer coffee, fast-food meals, bistro brunches, sports-bar snacks and fine dining. And tax. And tip.

We’ve all been there – buying restaurant food for the sake of convenience or as an indulgence. In fact, Canadians are spending more on restaurant meals than ever before. In the 2018 Canada Food Price report, researchers at Dalhousie University and the University of Guelph predicted that the average Canadian home would spend nearly 30% of its food budget on food service, the highest number ever recorded. So, if you or your family have a monthly budget of $1,000 for food, then you may be spending $300 of that at restaurants and takeout counters every month.

This year, with the cost of food on the rise, Dalhousie  researchers believe restaurant prices could rise by up to 4% – essentially taking that much more out of your wallet. So what can you do to save some of that money? The obvious solution – making your own meals and giving up eating out altogether – isn’t ideal or feasible for everyone, especially if you have a busy schedule, regular social engagements with your friends and family or if you simply enjoy going out to eat. So what other options are there?  

Here are some small steps you can take to lower your eating-out bills and stay on budget:

1. Extend your Dry January

Was Dry January successful for you? If you met the challenge of abstaining from alcohol for the first month of the New Year, then try to keep the momentum going when you’re dining out. A survey from the University of Sussex in England noted that 88% of Dry January participants had saved money as a result. Makes sense, since alcoholic beverages can take up 15 to 30% of your dinner bill, depending on what kind and how much alcohol you order. Survey participants also reported several health benefits from leaving out alcohol, including better sleep, improved concentration, clearer skin, more energy and weight loss. So the next time you’re out with friends or family, go for a glass of water or a nonalcoholic beverage. It could help your food budget and your health-care costs in the long run.

2. Look for BYOB or free-corkage restaurants

Perhaps Dry January isn’t for you, especially if you enjoy a glass of wine or other alcoholic beverage when you eat out. In that case, keep an eye out for restaurants that let you bring your own bottle (BYOB) on specific nights of the week or at dinnertime. BYOB establishments generally won’t charge any fee, service or corkage charge for customers who bring their own wine, beer or alcoholic beverage. This can help you save a few bucks when it comes time to pay the bill.

3. Try cutting one course out of your dinner

It’s not just that glass of wine that tops up your bill. Next time you’re out for dinner, try skipping the appetizer or ditching the dessert. Doing either or both could save you anywhere between $5-$30 dollars, depending on the restaurant’s prices. Alternatively, you could choose to have an appetizer as your entrée. Appetizers are generally cheaper, but portion sizes can be nearly as large as an entrée.

4. Split the meal or take home leftovers

Speaking of huge portions: Some restaurant and takeout meals are so big that one entrée alone is enough to feed two people. When you go out for a meal with a friend, ask the staff how large the servings are. If it’s too much for you to finish in one sitting, consider splitting one entrée with your companion to save money. Or, you could ask for a doggy bag after you’ve eaten your fill, and enjoy the leftovers later. If you can appreciate leftover pizza the next day, why not do the same for your other out-of-home meals?

5. Try meal-delivery kits

If you eat out because you’re starved for time and can’t make it to the grocery store, let alone whip up your own meal, then a meal-kit delivery service might be a great option for you. How does it work? Basically, you sign up for a box that contains the ingredients for two to four meals (you can choose how many you want) and that’s delivered to your home. Each meal comes with step-by-step instructions on how to heat, cook or put the ingredients together in a short amount of time. The cost? While the price varies depending on the company you’re ordering from, with boxes ranging anywhere from $8 to $15 most meal-delivery kits are a cheaper alternative to eating out. Many companies also offer discount codes for new and regular customers. And, unlike most restaurant menus, these meal kits will give you their nutritional information upfront. This means you’ll get the added health benefit of knowing exactly how much sugar, sodium and fat go into your meals. 

6. Look for discounts, coupons and freebies

Find yourself returning to the same spots for lunch or dinner? Sign up for e-newsletters from your favourite restaurants or food joints. These email alerts often come with discount codes, coupons or freebies with select purchases. You can always unsubscribe later if you want. Plus, don’t forget birthdays. Check to see if any eateries near you offer birthday discounts or free treats on your special day. 

7. Make your budget work for you

Love the dining-out experience and don’t want to give it up? Saving money doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice the things you enjoy. Instead, take a look at your budget and see if there are other places where you can cut back to save money. For instance, are there subscription services you no longer use? Or, maybe you can find ways to save on home expenses (utilities, water and electricity), like taking advantage of time-of-use electricity rates or tweaking your water heater to curb your energy bill.