Going Out Too Much to Eat? Stop It!

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The average American household spends 5.2% of its income on meals out, according to the recently released Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Expenditures Survey.  That is 41% of their total food spending, which averages 12.6% of income.

Meals out spending varies by income level, but not as much as you might think.

income meals out total food % on meals out
<11,165 5.1 15.7 32%
to 18,362 4.7 15.3 31%
to 26,874 4.7 14.0 34%
to 35,682 5.0 14.3 35%
to 46,615 5.0 13.5 37%
to 59,549 5.2 12.9 40%
to 75.977 5.5 13.1 42%
to 99.623 5.3 12.7 42%
to 140,196 5.3 12.1 44%
140,196+ 5.3 10.5 50%

If you can afford it, it is fine.  However, 34% of households carry a credit card balance from month to month, with the average balance being $15,706.  Half of American households have no retirement accounts, and those that have them average far short of what they should be.  When asked where they could save, Americans most frequently say reducing eating out and take out food.

Why Do People Eat Out So Much?

According to a thesis from Anthony Epter at the University of Vermont, people go out to eat because:

  • They feel they don’t have time to cook
  • They don’t have energy to cook
  • It would take too long to get home to cook
  • It’s a chance to socialize
  • No one you are with has to maintain the place you are socializing
  • It is something new and different.  You can get new ideas for cooking at home.
  • It is a vacation from healthy eating.  You don’t worry about what or how much you are eating.

We don’t go out to eat very often.  I don’t like to go out to eat, because it is a pain to track it on Weight Watchers.  We do go out to eat on birthdays.   We also go out to eat on vacation, but prefer to eat out for lunch, which costs less, and then make sandwiches for dinner.

Let’s address the objections to eating at home.

Time and Energy

I can relate to this.  When I was working, I wouldn’t cook dinner on Fridays. When our older daughter left home, it was down to three of us.  I’d typically cook for four for three nights and have leftovers (planned overs) the fourth night.  I’d try to time things so leftovers were on Friday.  When we did pick up food on Friday, we would often get a take and bake pizza, which is relatively inexpensive. Now that it is down to two of us, we cook for four every other day, and cycle through leftovers.

One way to save time and energy is to use a crock pot.  You probably have more energy in the morning and can throw a few things in the crock pot to slow cook.

You can cook rice in advance on Sunday, and warm it up in the microwave.

You can cook fish.  It cooks fast.

You can do batch cooking on Sunday, and freeze it.

You can use convenience food.  There are a number of microwave meals available that are relatively inexpensive.

I don’t have any great suggestions for what to do about taking to long to get home.  We had instances where kids activities made it impossible to get home to eat at a reasonable time.  I could suggest packing food, but I honestly never did it.  You can, at least, minimize the cost by eating fast food, preferably with a discount or coupon.


A cheaper replacement for meeting people in a restaurant, is having people over.  You do have to clean up, but that should be a relatively minor inconvenience.  The book Your Money or Your Life suggests that you can have people over for a potluck.  We have people over, but have never done it as a potluck.  The people we have over might offer to bring something.  They also reciprocate, and invite us over to their houses.

Novelty and New Ideas

You can get new recipe ideas from the internet.  We have recipes in cook books that we have never looked at or tried.  In the information age, you hardly need to go to a restaurant to get new ideas.

Vacation from Healthy Eating

This is a bad thing.  I try to follow Weight Watchers.  I don’t want to have an excuse not to accurately track my meal.  Weight Watchers builds in about 2,450 calories a week to use how you choose.  That gives quite a bit of leeway.  They do have information on many chain restaurants, but not all.  They do have a points system for restaurant food by entree, but portion sizes vary widely, so it is a very rough approximation.

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