The Chain (Restaurant) Gang

On Saturday night, my family and I did something fairly new for us: we ate at a chain restaurant. We’d spent the afternoon at Longwood Gardens and found ourselves in a giant stretch of strip mall development around 5:45 p.m. So we ate at Ruby’s Diner (we’d checked out Texas Roadhouse and P.F. Chang’s, but both had huge waits. I’m thinking that’s a leading economic indicator…).

The reason we don’t eat at chains much has nothing to do with our sophisticated tastes. We lived in Manhattan until June and the chains aren’t the most obvious options there. Then after moving to suburbia, we found that, with kids ages 4, 2, and 4 months, eating out has been a total pain. It’s just not very relaxing. While eating at home is certainly not effortless or costless (groceries, the opportunity cost of time spent cooking and cleaning) it has involved less effort than trying to keep a toddler from crawling around on the dirty floor under the table. 

But in the past month or so, while Ruth is still unable to move, we’ve started trying again. We’ve had a few almost pleasant dinners in restaurants with the older kids not making much of a fuss. Chain restaurants — unlike small NYC restaurants — seem built with families in mind. The kids’ menus have pizza and milk. There are often booths (key to keeping little kids sitting down and not running around the restaurant). There are crayons or puzzles or something. And, as someone who just hasn’t eaten much at chains in my life, I realize that a lot of the food is pretty good the first time you’re there.

Of course, it isn’t that good. The first time we went to Outback Steakhouse, I thought it was tasty. The second time I was not at all impressed. The hedonic treadmill runs fast in this particular gym. Was it worth the cost of dinner when I could have cooked steak at home just how I like it?

I’ve been thinking about this lately in the context of personal finance. The usual advice, when people are trying to free up more cash in their lives, is to stop going out to eat. But I think this advice needs to be a bit nuanced. And so, I was happy to read a fascinating article over at The Primer Magazine on how “The Chain Restaurant is the Worst Deal in America.” The point was that, to get the most pleasure out of your food money, you should go big or go home. That is, either drop $100 on somewhere awesome (plus a babysitter) or cook.

This is, in fact, what we tend to do. When we manage to get an evening sitter and make plans for date night, we try to go someplace nice and memorable. Somewhere without booths and crayons. Then, rather than going to a chain restaurant, on nights no one feels like cooking, it’s frozen pizza or some ready-made dish from the supermarket.

What about you? What’s your philosophy when it comes to eating out?

(photo courtesy flickr user Clotee Pridgen Allochuku. I ordered the fish tacos instead.)



20 Responses to The Chain (Restaurant) Gang


  1. Karen Allendoerfer says:

    Eating out is actually the one thing I don’t want to skimp on. I dislike food shopping, I dislike cooking, and even more, I dislike cleaning up after cooking. I guess I am in the minority on this, but I always think food tastes better in a restaurant than it does at home. Even plain white rice tastes better to me in a restaurant. It may just be because I don’t have to buy it, cook it, or clean up after it, but I think there’s more to it. I’d much rather buy steak, or almost any meat, in a restaurant, because I think handling raw meat is disgusting and I’d just rather not have to do it.

    My kids are actually pretty well-behaved in chain restaurants, often better than they are at home. And, they can order what they want and so can I. Not having to all eat the same thing makes family meals infinitely less stressful. So, I find it easier from multiple viewpoints.

    I think you can combat a lot of the restaurant abuses by ordering tap water or milk instead of soft drinks, by ordering veggies as side orders, by ordering off the “light” or “healthy” menus that some restaurants have implemented, and by eating only half of what you are served and taking the other half home.

    • Laura says:

      @Karen- this is true, we almost always have leftovers. I think as my kids get older chain restaurants will be fun on occasion. Right now, it still seems like going out is work as I’m constantly fussing with them. So I’m weighing that against the work of cooking and cleaning. But once I don’t have to deal with potential screaming or someone climbing out of the booth and running around the restaurant, the balance may change.

  2. Kathy says:

    I like to make a meal out something special–and one thing I don’t like about where we live is the preponderance of chain restaurants. I love it when we discover something unique, even if it’s just a little cafe. (Except I love the Panera bread chain–I think they have lots of reasonable choices for lunch.)

  3. Abby says:

    We walk a lot, and sometimes stopping at a restaurant is better than rushing home and back. Tonight I’ll pick up two kids and have to feed them and turn around to take them for basketball practice … better to stop at the restaurants midway between here and there than to go all the way home and back. But I do try to remember that it is convenience food – and to use it sparingly!

    • Laura says:

      @Abby- the fast food concept is probably another post… then, you are in and out and there’s no waiting for the waitress, which is great with a business dinner or date but not with little kids. On the other hand, I don’t like the taste of many fast food burgers. I think Chipotle is good. Panera. Pizza is usually a winner for me too.

  4. Twin Mom says:

    We rarely (~once a year) eat at chain restaurants for money, time and health reasons, in that order. We’ve made the choice to have a less expensive house out of town, which means a trip to town is 15-20 min each way. Even ordering judiciously, the check is $50 for five of us with tip. Since we tithe, I figure this is one of the things we give up compared to others at our income level.

    Since this is also a situation where I’d like to use coupons and I’ve had 3 toddlers/preschoolers for awhile, I must admit that I HATE the requirement that you dine-in for coupons to apply. Take-out would be SO much easier and my husband could pick it up on his way home. (Ruby Tuesday’s, our local option, has this requirement.)

  5. Well, since we have 4 kids, one of whom no longer eats off of kid menus, eating out is INSANELY expensive for us. I can feed the six of us for $125/week if I buy groceries, and yet one meal at, say, Red Lobster, can easily run us $80.

    So, we rarely eat out. When we go on vacation, though, we eat at a restaurant a few times during the week, and the kids think it’s a really marvelous treat.

  6. Cloud says:

    We eat out for lunch more than dinner with the kids, and it tends to be done as part of a larger outing. The 2 year old still falls asleep in the car if we are driving too close to nap time- and if she hasn’t had her lunch, her schedule gets all messed up and the rest of the day is a bit fraught.

    We favor brew pubs if we can find them (decent food, good beer for whichever adult isn’t driving, and enough noise that no one notices if our kids are a little exuberant). If we aren’t near a brew pub, there are some local restaurants we know work… or we go with a chain.

    I view getting our kids comfortable with eating out as an essential prerequisite for enjoying travel with them- and we really like to travel, so this matters to us. But I am also a firm believer in having realistic expectations, so I won’t take my kids to fancy restaurants- yet. Once they are old enough that they can behave, maybe we will sometimes. But the older one is a rather picky eater, so if we do that, we’ll have to be ready to see some food (and money) wasted.

    • Laura says:

      @Cloud- I hadn’t really thought about the pub option, but it makes a lot of sense. We would also like to travel with our kids and so it is a skill I hope they will learn. When we traveled in Maine last summer with the two older ones (then 4 and 1) it was always a bit nerve wracking to find a restaurant that wasn’t too busy (but wasn’t awful either) and where our kids would sit and had something to eat. I am hoping that they are both learning, especially since I have this crazy plan to go to Europe with them…

  7. As we improved our nutrition so that I could lose weight, we also improved our cooking skills. Now, chain restaurants just don’t cut it. Over-salted and sugared, ingredients that aren’t fresh enough, more calories than it first appears so we usually feel over-stuffed and icky afterwards. I’d rather eat at home. If I go out, I want to go to a restaurant with a chef who prepares meals so good that I want to copy them at home.

    It’s taken a couple of years but I seem to finally be over my resentment of the time and effort it takes to cook and eat at home. Helped along, of course, by the fact that it all tastes better and makes us feel better. It’s started to become satisfying, creative work — a core competency — to fix food exactly the way that I want to eat it.

    • Laura says:

      @Joy – I think you raise an interesting point in the context of how we spend money. One of the things that I most vehemently disagree with in personal finance literature is that we should be trying to get our grocery bills as low as possible. Having an awesome dinner at home — that you’re looking forward to cooking and eating — makes eating out less tempting. And you can spring for quite a culinary adventure for the same price as a restaurant tab. Of course, some people are never going to like cooking. I guess in that case, the goal should be to become as rich as possible so you can hire a private chef :)

      • Twin Mom says:

        I have to disagree with you her, Laura. You’ve carved out a niche writing about personal finance for the top 5-10% of the population. Most people don’t eat out because they’re “tempted” by the options, but because the time they spend at work and the lack of control over their schedule make it the easiest option. Fast food is about as cheap as cooking at home, for better or worse.

        The focus on grocery bills is that for people in the middle 50% of the income range (not on food stamps but without much discretionary income), groceries are the largest expense that I have much control over. I spend ~$500-600/month on groceries for our family of 5. This includes foods like wild Alaskan sockeye salmon, when it’s on sale at our Pacific Northwest grocery store, so if necessary, it could be lower.

        The rest of the budget is largely fixed- I can’t change the family medical insurance premium, the price of gas for 200 mi roundtrips to the specialist for my son, public transportation options to said specialist (and associated vehicle/auto insurance options), the price of utilities, house maintenance or property taxes and insurance.

        We do make some choices for “wants”- swimming lessons, cable internet, discretionary trips to the park and library- that could be cut, but groceries have the biggest range in our regular expenses.

        Other finance blogs emphasize groceries because they’re aimed at the 95% of the population that is NOT worried about how their children will handle restaurants in Europe. :)

        • Twin Mom says:

          Sorry for errors in above- I was being climbed on and didn’t proof.

          • Laura says:

            @Twin mom- yes, getting climbed on is an occupational hazard! There is also a certain business decision involved in writing books. You have to write for the people who are most likely to buy books…which has some overlap with people in the top 10% of the income distribution (though not perfectly. We also have to keep in mind that I’m published by a business publisher, so that skews the audience even more. Though this always makes me wonder — the pure frugal books have to get over the fact that you’re asking people to shell out money for them!).
            But some other thoughts… I looked into restaurant spending while writing 168 Hours, and it comes out to $35/person/week in the US. Even with the mean/median problem that can’t all be coming from executives eating four dinners out per week at $75/per. The Consumer Expenditure Survey numbers put it at $2619 spent eating out per year for an average family of 2.5 members with household expenditures around $50,000. So it is a fairly major budget item. If cut in half, it would let the average family raise its $3,753 grocery budget by a third. Or you could raise your grocery budget by a quarter and bank the rest.
            I know that the reason groceries get attention is because that is an expense that is easily changed — one reason to be extra conservative on the housing front. The decision of what house one buys has major implications for the rest of your life, including how much you can splurge in the grocery store. I think the right philosophy is fight hard on the big stuff, splurge on the little stuff.

  8. Twin Mom says:

    Good points, Laura. I just read that the author of Get Rich Slowly, a top 25 money blog, makes $48k/yr right now from his current work. (He sold the blog and got a nest egg that’s excluded from that.) To me, $48k/yr doesn’t sound all that high for someone in the top 25 in his field in the US.

    Right now., our “eating out” expenses are $300-$400/yr (I just did an analysis) but if my kids go to school and we buy school lunches, that will increase significantly. Our school charges $2 for a reasonably healthy lunch. If I’m working and my kids like them, that may be ~$1000/yr (3 kids *~170 school days) well spent and would significantly increase our “eating out” budget. It would also decrease our grocery budget by a similar amount. (I can pack a lunch for less than $2, but not much less.) I wonder how the Consumer Expenditure Survey counts school lunches.

    This, though, is a different budget decision than chain restaurants.

  9. Cara Marcano says:

    I hate to cook but also think most of what you get in a restaurant is overly salty and not good. I think sticking to staples and teaching kids and yourself to eat whole food, eat to fullness and when hungry are most important. I think that the occassional splurge on eating out — for me it is Indian food — which no one else in my family would like to eat, makes you happier than say living in an expensive neighborhood, so I sort of disagree with the posts here about how you can control your grocery budget but not your property taxes. My property taxes are obscene but we could live in a lower cost area. I LOVE the idea of eating more vegetarian b/c I realized I do not love meat that much, eating vegetarian is cheap and the food keeps forever. I make beans and eat various versions of them for like a week and kids will eat most of what you get them used to. I am not a vegetarian but I like to eat more like one. A great meal out is also an amazing thing and I love food and love to eat. But when my husband and I go out with the kids it is more about us being able to all sit at the table together not have to clean up etc. not about fine food or food that is better than what we can get at home. A great cup of coffee I find I can make myself .. and I do wonder about the organic milk thing… pricey so worth it? … at any rate eating well and not too much is part of a good life and shouldn’t be only for the wealthy.

    • Twin Mom says:

      I think in the East, where towns and villages are smaller and property taxes vary more, the property tax question is different than in my area, where you hit National Forest and BLM land outside the “urban” area.

    • Laura says:

      @Cara- I just bought a cookbook called “Almost Meatless.” The dishes all have meat, but use it as a condiment, not the main deal. Lots of ethnic dishes in there. Hopefully we’ll get a few near-veggie additions to the rotation out of there!

  10. Diana Watters says:

    I enjoy cooking and am actually pretty good at it, so if I want a good meal, I cook it myself. Going out is for meeting up with friends. The other reason I prefer eating at home is that for many years I worked in retail, and am currently an account executive, so I see people all day long. I’m always afraid I’ll run into someone I know at a restaurant and will have to smile and make small talk. Maybe I’m mean, but I’d rather not. I find hanging out at home much more relaxing.

  11. Sarah says:

    I live in Norway and eating out here is way more expensive than it is in the USA, even taking into account that salaries are relatively higher here.
    In Norway, you are a BAD parent if you stop at McDonalds because you don’t have time to make dinner before soccer practice. People just don’t do that. They do, however, buy a lot of frozen pizza and other pre-made foods at the grocery store.
    I think eating out here tends to be more of a special occasion, especially for families. Perhaps because it is relatively expensive.
    And another thing- the “drive-through” fast food thing is almost non-existent here. I know of one McDonald’s with a drive through in Oslo. At the other ones, you have to actually get your butt out of the car and walk into the restaurant.