Need a smart resolution? Now that I can work from home, I find it is easier to save on food costs. But years ago when I worked in an office, my monthly food bills were much higher. I ate lunch out, and snacks were handled by the in-office vending machines. Dinners out (whether sit-down or take-out) were common because I was so tired after working all day. New restaurants open every day for reasons just like these! But if you want to keep your monthly food bills reasonable, here are some hints to help you.

What Americans spend on eating out

Have you ever stopped to add up exactly what you spend on eating out? Statistics tell us that most of us spend more than what we are comfortable with eating out (see The Simple Dollar, Forbes for more).

  • The average American family spends $2,668 per year eating out—that’s $225 per month.
  • "Eating out" = lunches, snacks, prepared healthy meals, fast food, sit-down meals in restaurants and coffees.
  • Office workers spend around $936 per year eating out at lunch—that’s $78 per month.
  • For the 70% of workers who eat lunch out regularly, the average cost per lunch is $10 (range from $14 to $21).
  • Workers who earn less spend more to eat lunch out (on average 20% more per lunch!).

6 Tips to reduce the cost of eating out

30% of office workers never ever eat out. But for most of us, that isn't realistic (heck, I live and work at home, and I still eat my lunch out sometimes!). Here are more practical ways you can reduce your "eating out" costs.

1. Think "treat" not "daily routine."

My stylist recently told me she used to eat out all the time at lunch. But then she realized that, due to her heavy client schedule, her expensive take-out was usually cold by the time she got to sit down and eat it. So she switched to brown-bagging lunch. Now she saves eating out for special times with her husband on evenings and weekends.

  • Tip: Give yourself an "eating out budget"—say a set dollar amount per week, or a set number of times per week.

2. Prepare for "fast food" at home.

One of the most common reasons people eat out is fatigue. Another is lack of time. So stock your fridge and freezer with quick meals—things you can heat and serve in five minutes (one of my favorites is hot dogs – it is a "fast food" item, but I pay less than $1 per meal when I "order" one at home!)

  • Tip: Brainstorm with your family. Have each member pick a favorite "at home fast food" and be sure your freezer/frig is always stocked with those items.

3. Don't forget your coupons!

Restaurants are hungry for your business and are willing to discount your meal to bring you through the door. If you keep a stack of coupons for nearby eateries in your desk drawer (at home or work or both) then when you do head out to eat, you will never pay full price.

  • Tip: As part of your weekly "eating-out" budget, you can include a couponing parameter. For instance, perhaps you can eat out two times per week, as long as the meal doesn't cost more than $10 at full price and you can save at least $1 by using a coupon.

4. Make your home kitchen into an assembly line.

Most every restaurant—and certainly any fast food restaurant—functions like an assembly line. You can do the same with your home kitchen—and save a bundle in the process.

  • Tip: If you find yourself eating the same meals frequently, keep all the fixins handy! You can even time yourself and compare that versus the wait time at the local fast food drive-through at dinnertime…you’ll likely find you save time and money by preparing your own assembly line meals at home!

5. Freeze leftovers in "ready-to-serve" form.

I have a couple of friends who say they "never" eat leftovers. This is not me—I love leftovers. But I don't like having to take them out of the freezer, defrost them, and then reassemble them into something that looks edible. I like to take it out and eat it right away.

  • Tip: Freeze your leftover meals as close to a "ready-to-serve" form as possible—this is especially handy for spouses and kids who may not be as at ease in the kitchen!

6. Economize your social eating time.

If you find yourself eating with the same friends regularly, suggest a potluck, brown bag, or similar option to keep costs economical.

  • Tip: Designate one day per week for a potluck or brown bag—or, if you lunch with other parents during the day, take turns hosting lunch at home!