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Take the Bite Out of Dining Out

Americans are dining out more and more. Here's how to do it for less

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Americans have gone restaurant crazy. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 42 percent of the typical American family's food budget is now spent on food prepared outside the home — in other words, eating out.

See also: Slow cooking can save you money.

As rates of dining out have steadily climbed during the past few decades, so has the size of the family kitchen. Kitchens with commercial-sized appliances and enough counter space to land an aircraft on are now the norm. They're one reason newly built homes are nearly twice the size of houses built in the 1950s, according to the National Association of Home Builders. So we're eating out much more but building our own trophy kitchens at the same time. Go figure.

Don't get me wrong: I enjoy eating a good meal in a restaurant as much as the next guy, cheapskate or otherwise. But to keep the financial indigestion from arriving with the dinner check, here are some ways to dine out for less:

Make mine a water. Restaurants typically mark up beverages — alcoholic and otherwise — by 300 to -600 percent. By drinking tap water with restaurant meals, the average family of four can save about $800 per year. If you want to have a glass of wine or a before-dinner cocktail, consider having one at home before you go out (as long as you have a designated driver, of course).

Control your own portions. Studies have shown that food portions served in restaurants tend to be about 60 percent larger than servings of dishes prepared at home. Gee, you don't suppose that they're serving us more so that they can charge us more, do you?

Consider ordering a smaller meal off the less expensive appetizer menu or splitting larger entrees with your dining companions.

Next: Pull out your coupons. »

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