Tips for Eating Healthy On a Budget When Out for Lunch

If you’re looking to eat well at lunch but can’t seem to bring your own food from home or are often dining with co-workers or clients, don’t worry, you can still find ways to eat nutritious food and not let the cost for dining out add up. (Eating out each day or a few times a week can be costly!)

Your best bet is to know what types of foods and eateries are the most expensive and to keep portions in check to make sure you’re only eating what you need and not wasting food or picking pricy, overrated items. If you need some guidance, here are some handy tips to simplify the process and keep your wallet and health goals in check.

eating out for lunch on a budget

Skip fancy drinks

Okay, you might love a fancy, colorful Frappuccino or a latte from a trendy café, but if you’re trying to pay less, then go for a more basic cup of joe instead. That means you can go with classic coffee, without all the gimmicks, or pick a coffee shop that’s less expensive.

What’s more, fancy coffee drinks “aren’t very big and can add up to $5 on a typical brunch check. You’ll finish and think, I need another of those and before you know it, you’ve spent $10 on coffee alone,” says Suzanne Dixon, registered dietitian with The Mesothelioma Center in Orlando, Florida. Go with regular drip coffee and ask for the milk of your choice—dairy, almond, or soy. Most restaurants have at least one non-dairy milk option.

Split a dish with a friend or co-worker

Share a dish when you can—they’re usually large anyway! “Sometimes you’ll incur a ‘split the plate,’ but this is far less money than each getting your own entree. Plus, who really needs 1,000 calories of pancakes?” says Dixon.

Part of why so many people feel comatose after lunch is they arrive starving and over-eat. “Splitting saves both your wallet and the rest of your day! No obligation to nap after a shared meal, because you won’t be so overstuffed,” she says.

Pick sides or a combo pack

“Instead of a fancy omelette, try a couple of eggs and a side of toast. Each place is different and you can do the math to figure out if this tip is going to work for you, but often, you’ll pay a lot more for an omelette — which is too big to finish anyway — than you will for a couple of ‘sides’ or add ons,” Dixon explains.

The same goes for pricey salads and sandwiches in terms of combo deals. Always look for these combos where you get half a sandwich, a small salad or soup, and a drink.

Have a small snack at the office first

Before heading out to lunch, have a small snack first.

“By the time you arrive, wait in line and finally get your food, it’s easy to succumb to ‘eyes are bigger than my stomach’ phenomenon,” Dixon points out. You’ll be in a better mood (goodbye to hangry mood swings) and you’ll be less likely to order more food than you need or want to pay for, she says. And you’ll likely make smarter choices in terms of what to eat and avoid, too, as you’ll have a clearer mind.

Be wary of the salad bar

Creamy dressings, large eggs, and chunks of meat can add up in cost if you’re paying by the weight and not the item. Or even per item, some are more costly, like veggies and legumes are often less expensive than fish or meat.

To make a great salad without overdoing it—and to budget wisely—only pick one or two items from the expensive section of the salad bar and bulk up with veggies and greens or choose lighter proteins, like shredded Parmesan over blocks of feta or albacore tuna over thick slices of chicken. And as for dressing? Go with dressing on the side rather than on the salad for both health and cost reasons, since dressing on the side lets you better control how much you want to use.

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About Isadora Baum

Isadora Baum is a freelance writer, author, and certified health coach. She writes for various magazines, such as Cooking Light, SHAPE, Men's Health, Women's Health, Health, Prevention, POPSUGAR, Runner's World, Bustle, and more. She is also the author of the book "5-Minute Energy." She can't resist a good sample, a killer margarita, a new HIIT class, or an easy laugh. Beyond magazines, she helps grow businesses through blogging and content marketing strategy.