Love Dining Out? Here's Why You May Want to Cut Back

As a busy working mom with a jam-packed schedule, I’m no stranger to relying on restaurant food to keep my family fed. Most of the time, that food comes in the form of takeout, as opposed to sitting down at an establishment to eat. But still, I can admit that on an average week, at least 1 out of 7 dinners is a meal I didn’t cook myself.

Now, you’re probably aware that dining out frequently can negatively impact your finances, since it’s almost always more expensive to pay for restaurant food than to cook meals at home. But recent inflation data shows that the cost of dining out has truly soared. And that’s reason enough to consider a change to your habits.

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Restaurant prices have skyrocketed

In January 2024, the Consumer Price Index, which measures changes in the cost of consumer goods and services, showed that restaurant food was up 5.1% on an annual basis. The cost of food at home only rose 1.2%.

But regardless of that, the fact of that matter is that cooking at home is almost always cheaper. See, restaurants have to make money. And they can’t charge you extra for comfortable chairs or a nice ambiance. What they can do, however, is mark up the cost of the food they’re serving you so that a dish of salmon, rice, and vegetables with an ingredient cost of $8 can result in a $28 charge on your credit card.

Of course, some people are willing to pay for the convenience of not having to cook and for the ability to enjoy a meal that may be tastier than one they can prepare themselves. But at a time when the cost of dining out is so high, you may want to consider different ways to make cooking at home more palatable.

How to overhaul your approach to cooking

Right now, there are two things that tend to keep me from cooking more at home: being busy during the week and having kids who are picky. So I’ve done my best to adjust my approach to cooking to account for those factors. Even though I still rely on takeout quite heavily, I’ve been ordering restaurant food less this year than in previous years.

The first thing I did to change my approach to cooking was to make larger meals in batches over the weekend. But I’ve also tried making what I call “flexible” dishes that can be tweaked to accommodate my kids’ needs.

For example, I might make a big batch of five-bean chili on a Sunday so that there are leftovers for Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. But I like to put different vegetables in my chili, like zucchini and squash, which my kids don’t always love. So what I’ll do instead is saute those in a pot separately. Then, when I heat up my own chili during the week, I’ll toss them in.

What I might also do is bake some chicken on a Sunday to throw into my chili for the meat-eaters in my family. I don’t eat chicken, and my daughters will only eat it in nugget form. But this way, my son and husband get a customized chili bowl they’ll enjoy more.

What you may want to do is identify your biggest challenges on the cooking front, and then take steps to address them. If one of your issues is time, like mine, then you may want to get into the habit of making large-batch meals like soups, stews, and chilis that reheat quickly and easily. If your issue is a small kitchen with limited tools, stick to basic meals — things like pasta dishes or chicken breast with roasted potatoes.

If your issue is that you’re not someone who can eat leftovers all week, try preparing a basic food item and incorporating it into a few different dishes during the week. Let’s say you grill a bunch of chicken on a Sunday. That night, serve it with rice and vegetables. The next night, put it into some store-bought taco shells with lettuce and shredded cheese. The night after that, put it into a Caesar salad mix you picked up at the supermarket. And so forth.

Cutting back on restaurants: It can be done

If you’re doing fine financially and enjoy spending money on restaurant food, then you may not need to take any of these steps. But for me, a big reason I’ve been trying to cut back on restaurant food isn’t just financial. In many cases, cooking at home is healthier.

But whether your reasons for relying less on restaurants and takeout stem from a desire to save money or eat a little more wholesomely, the reality is that making changes will probably boil down to identifying your personal pain points when it comes to cooking and finding ways to overcome them. And if you are able to cut back, you may find that on the nights when you do decide to splurge for a restaurant meal, it actually feels like more of a treat.

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