The Best Cheap Places to Eat when You Don’t Want to Cook
Having a handy list of cheap places to eat might not sound like a frugal hack at first. But being prepared for those days when you can’t stand to cook can be a great way to avoid blowing your food budget for the month.
Meal planning is a great way to save money, but sometimes, schedules can get thrown off track. Surprise guests, bad days, or late work nights are all culprits to pushing the best-laid plans aside.
There are tons of great cheap places to eat – so how to pick? I’ve asked some fellow bloggers to send me their favorites.
While some offered up local eateries, and other chain restaurants, all of them had terrific tips on where to find a great cheap meal. Many even threw in tips for additional savings!
Here are the best cheapest places to eat out when you’re too tired to cook.
Cheap Places to Eat with Friends
Try the local supermarket. Back when I was in high school, my friends and I used to sometimes go to the local supermarket on our lunch break and gather ingredients for some ‘mega subs.’ A few baguettes, some deli meat, cheese, and lettuce split between 5 of us came out to something like $4-$5 a person…and that left you with an awesome sub that was more than a foot long. Not exactly a chain or typical restaurant experience, but it was a fun way to make a tasty lunch! – Tom Blake from This Online World
Share a drink. My wife and I enjoy eating at McDonald’s for breakfast because the coffee only costs $1 for any size. Depending on the day, we might split their largest coffee and then each of us have a breakfast item off the value menu. We usually get fed and caffeinated for under $5! – Riley Adams from The Young and Invested
Make sure to bring your coupons. We love eating at the Outback steakhouse. You can get some really great steaks for bargain prices there and they even have coupons to get the steaks for an ever lower cost! – Russell Barbour from Unconventional Prosperity
Use loyalty programs at your favorite restuarants. Red Robin’s royalty program is bottomless source of free food. Most notably, every 10th food item (burger, salad, sandwich, entree) is free. You will also get exclusive deals sent to your email, as well as one free burger on your birthday. And don’t forget to take advantage of their bottomless fries that come *free* with your burger! Evan Sutherland from Budgeting Couple
Try out local fast food. I’m from California, and every time friends come to visit they are shocked by how expensive the restaurants are…until they go to In-N-Out! California food, at a great price! I recommend splurging to make your fries animal style. – Sally French from Wire Cutter
Check out the lounge. The airports! I’ve visited over 35 lounges in the last 6 months and I always eat free and often come home with leftovers thanks to the restaurants that have been added. My favorite lounge are the Centurions and my favorite priority pass restaurant airport is Portland. – Justin Taylor from Saving Sherpa
Cheap Foods for Families
Put your Costco membership to good use. If you really need to eat on the cheap and you’re a Costco member, then definitely their $5 Rotisserie Chicken….$5 and it feeds the whole family of 4. – Pinyo Bhulipongsanon
Pick up a pizza. Instead of going out to a restaurant, getting a “take and bake” pizza is a big hit with our kids! Our local Aldi has huge take and bake pizzas that are priced around $5 each. Last time, we invited a neighbor kid to share the pizza, too. I instantly became the cool mom in the neighborhood! It’s our new favorite way to feel like we’re eating out. – Jamie Gibbs from Bubbling Brook Budgets
Add some ice cream. Our go to cheap place to eat is Dairy Queen for their $5 buck lunches. It helps that we both have flexible schedules that let us eat out for lunch rather than dinner. You get a burger or chicken strips, fries, a sundae and drink all for $5. You can even upgrade to a small Blizzard for $1 more. You can upgrade the ice cream to a larger size for the difference in cost between the small and the size you want. We use this hack to get a large sundae for just $0.69 cents more so we can split it with our son. If we bought another sundae on our own, it’d cost an additional $4. – Lance Cothern from Money Manifesto
Try a vegetarian option. We love Waffle House, Qdoba and Taco Bell. We are both vegetarian so those three places never let us down with the meatless options and we always spend less than $15 for both of us. – Danielle Flores from I Like to Dabble
Go to a restaurants where kids eat free. We love to eat out at the chain Cafe Rio. They have huge portions and all kids under age six get a free kids quesadilla. My husband and I can easily split one of their entrees and then our kids eat free. For under $10 it is a steal! – McKinzie Bean from Moms Make Cents
Visit the food court. My favorite place to get a cheap bite to eat is Costco. There’s plenty of pre-made food that’s pretty cheap including the famous rotisserie chicken. However, beyond that, if you’re just looking for a quick bite, you can rock the sample carts and try a variety of great foods. If you’re a bit hungrier, the food court is awesome too as you can get some cheap pizza or a hotdog at very affordable prices. Hell, even the bottle of water in the vending machine is 25 cents. Those are prices you can’t beat for the quantity and quality of food. Also, if you’re in a place like Hawaii where the weather is nice, you can rock the outdoor food court without even being a member. – Jarek from Time in the Market
Sign up to get free shakes and other discounts. My kids and I love eating at Ruby’s Diner, especially on Tuesdays when kids eat free after 4pm! You can also sign up for their rewards program and get free shakes, and discounts! – Lauren Mochizucki from Casa Mochi
Use a gift card. My family likes IHOP. My daughter and son love pancakes, and the rest of us like omelletes. We’d use our $10 OFF $25 coupon from Restaurant.com, which I only bought for $1 or $2. We order two meals and split those to four people. Since pancakes are included in the price of the meals, we only pay for those two meals. Sometimes, we go there when kids can eat free. With the coupon, we always end up spending less than $12 for a family of 6. It’s not bad at all since we have leftovers to take home. – Allen Liwanag from The Practical Saver
Grab a bite while shopping. I know this may sound crazy, but one of my favorite places for cheap eats is IKEA. While most people go there strictly for furniture shopping, I’d stop in there just to get a cheap bite to eat. They have a restaurant inside most of their stores where you can buy their pretty well known Swedish meatballs meal that comes with mashed potatoes and a veggie side for under $6. They also have several other options available in the restaurant, including a salmon dinner, but the meatballs are my favorite. And if you have kids, they have kids meals starting at $2.99. Now if you want to get really cheap, IKEA also has a small food counter by the exit where you can buy a hot dog for about a $1, or for about $3 you can get 2 hot dogs and a drink. – GP from Entirely Money
College Food Hacks / Cheap Student Meals
Take advantage of BOGO specials. I’m not sure if Chipotle is considered “cheap”, but I make it cheap by always answering the “how was your visit today” survey on the receipt. By answering it, I get a buy-one-get-one-free burrito or bowl on my next visit. So sure enough, I’m able to get Chipotle at basically 50% off every time I go in. I eat one burrito or bowl while I’m there and then save the other one in the fridge for the next day. I’m pretty sure this strategy isn’t unique to Chipotle and that a lot of fast food places have these deals for completing the survey on the receipt, but I was surprised at how few of my friends take advantage of these deals! – Logan Allec from Money Done Right
Try something new. Our favorite thing to eat when we’re in the mood for cheap for are Banh Mi’s. Most vietnamese restaurants offer them and they’re usually less than $6 and plenty of food to eat. Depending on your appetite, you could easily stretch them into two meals. – Richmond Howard from PF Geeks
Split a meal. We love to split a chicken finger sub from the Publix grocery store deli. The thing is MASSIVE. We get it sliced in half so that we can each pick our own toppings. It’s a super tasty $8 dinner for two. – Clint Proctor from Wallet Wise Guy
Use the restaurant’s app for discounts. I would say Mc.Donalds. I downloaded the Mc Donalds app, that alerts me of sales, shows the current menu, and most importantly it gives you all the current coupons that can be scanned right from my phone. – Swati Chalumuri from Hear Me Folks
Order off the value menu. I love Wendy’s. They have the 4 for $4 deal.You can get a combo of sandwiches, wraps, brugers, nugges, fries and a drink for 4 bucks. You can’t beat that. – Jason Butler from My Money Chronicles
Take a survey for a discount. Wendy’s and Panda Express offer free sandwiches and entrees, respectively, for guests who take the time to fill respond to simple surveys on the back of their receipts. It’s a quick and easy way to save several dollars! – David Cahill from Finance Superhero
Don’t forget your doggie bag. One of my favorite cheap (but still healthy) places to eat is Chipotle. And if you know a few Chipotle tricks you can eat for even less! I always get a bowl because the portion sizes are larger, and if you ask for half chicken/half steak (or some other combo), more often than not you get a decent amount of extra meat vs. asking for just a single option. You can also get a tortilla on the side as an extra bonus! I usually get 2 meals out of one bowl this way. – Andrew from Wealthy Nickel
Local Cheap Restaurants
Try the local noodle shop. My favorite cheap place to eat is Umaido it is a Japanese Noodle Shop here in Atlanta and it has some of the best food for very low prices. You can get a ton of food for under $20.00. – Sa El from Simply Insurance
Visit a food truck. It might be only prevalent in southern California, but one of my favorite cheap eats are authentic Mexican taco trucks that serve a variety of simple meat tacos. Each taco may be small, but the flavors are usually fantastic and the prices are catered to locals. One of my favorite in Orange County is Tacos Manuel. Their tacos start at a dollar each. – Jonathan Huang from Mr. Centsible
Try a local grocery. If you’ve ever been to Texas, you might have seen H-E-B around—it’s the local grocery chain that’s named after the initials of the founder, although it’s also said to stand for “Here, everything’s better.” The local H-E-B near me used to offer an “orange plate special” at their deli/prepared foods section. With this special, you were able to pick one entree and two sides for $6 to $8. (Pricing varied based on the choice of protein featured in your entree.) The service person would heat up your plate if you wanted, and there was even a small dining area in the store so you could enjoy it immediately. The portions were also quite generous, so you could have reasonably split the plate into two meals or at least one and a half. Unfortunately, this special was discontinued—likely because it was too good of a deal—but I used to love grabbing a quick and affordable meal there! – Joyce Chou from Financial Impulse
Hit up happy hour. My favorite cheap place to eat is this rooftop sushi bar in downtown Baton Rouge, La. On Tuesdays, they have happy hour all day (Half off sushi rolls and Sake). I usually order a tasty shrimp tempura roll and a large, cold pineapple sake for $7. The bill ends up being $9 because I leave a $2 dollar tip. – Jerry Brown from Peerless Money Mentor
Use your frequent buyer card. I love Rosita’s Fine Mexican, which is very small local chain in metro Phoenix that’s been around since the 60s. It’s awesome because the food is delicious, there are unlimited fresh chips & salsa, and they have what I call a frequent eater card that gets you free meals when it’s full. So in addition to the already cheap prices, you save even more by getting that card stamped. – Jackie Beck from JackieBeck.com
Earn cash back with your credit card. We have a local restaurant that has amazing food. The prices on lunch specials are always a steal at around $7. I then use my credit card to earn cash back and they are a partner with Swagbucks so I earn cash back there too. – Jon Dulin from Money Smart Guides
Try street food. For traveling, eating street food is a great way to save money rather than going out to eat at restaurants, especially in touristy areas! I always look for places that are busy and have a lot of locals eating there. You can easily pay half the price for street food compared to eating out at a restaurant and still get the same quantity of food. – Dale from Wander Her Way
Ask around about local gems when traveling. The place is called Lucky’s Golden Phenix and Lucky (yes, singular) has been around for 45 years in North Park, a trendy suburb of San Diego. I have been going here for over 20 years and they have only served breakfast during that time but I read he started out serving Chinese food.
Here’s the two crazy things about this place, #1) It literally is the cheapest place you can get breakfast in San Diego. You can eat a complete coffee, egg, bacon, hashbrown breakfast for under $5. #2) Lucky is a one man show. He takes your order, he brings you your drinks, he makes your food, he brings you your food, he then cleans up the table and the process starts again. It can take quite a while to get breakfast at Lucky’s but the entire experience is pretty unique and cool. – Mark B. Huntley from Credit Knocks
Do you have any other cheap places to eat to add to the list? Add them to the comments below!
A forty-ish web designer/developer by day, a budget & financial fanatic by night. I’m a mom, wife, avid reader, and DIY enthusiast who’s tracking our journey to debt freedom. Read More