It’s estimated that the average American family spends about $225 a month eating out. That adds up to $2700 a year just on food away from home, not including any groceries. However, I’d bet that that is a low estimate for some families, who seem to rely on fast casual meals and restaurants more often than not to get through the week. In fact, recent studies point out that for the first time in history, Americans are spending more at restaurants than they are on groceries. There’s nothing wrong with going out to eat. But when a family is looking to cut back on food expenses, there’s always a lot of emphasis on reducing grocery bills but not nearly enough on the obvious decision to eat out less.

Remember – a plate of food at a restaurant is going to cost you much more than if you prepared the same dish at home mostly due to overhead and mark up – you are paying not only for the meal but the nonfood costs of the establishment such as labor, rent, utilities, and marketing. This is obviously how restaurants make a profit. And while one could argue that sometimes it’s worth it to avoid shopping, cooking, and cleaning up, this philosophy might be better suited for going out to eat more seldom rather than the norm. I don’t know about you, but I can certainly think of other things I’d need that $2700 a year for! For families who might like to cut back on eating out expenses but may not be sure how to make that happen, here are some totally feasible steps to get you started:

Get introspective: Take a few moments to think about why you find yourself going out to eat so often. Is it a hatred for cooking or a feeling of inadequacy in the kitchen? Do you feel like your family’s schedule is just too hectic for anything else? Be honest with yourself. For some, maybe paying for nice meals at restaurants is a status symbol. Or do you just enjoy the sheer convenience of it? The better you are able to pinpoint why you spend so much money on food away from home, the better you’ll be able to develop strategies to deal with the reasons behind it all.

Get real about how much you’re actually spending: If you don’t already keep track of what you spend, start by writing down every dollar your family dishes out on food and drink away from home for at least two months. I can guarantee that you’ll be blown away by the numbers. Many do not realize how quickly a trip to the drive through or a night of pizza delivery will add up when you’re also stopping for coffee often and going out to eat several times throughout the month. Don’t beat yourself up over the total – just use it to recognize how much of your money goes down your throat before even stepping into the grocery store.

Start small: As with everything else in life, it’s all about baby steps. Wean yourself slowly. Make a budget and stick to it. Think about what might be a realistic reduction in expense for your family and set yourself up for success by not making the budget too low. You’ll never feel a sense of accomplishment if you make unrealistic goals.

Meal plan and anticipate busy nights: Combat the need for convenience meals by planning out your week and anticipating what nights you’ll need an “easier and quicker” meal. Then, fill out the rest of the week with simple meals you can prepare at home.  When you meal plan, you maintain control over when you chose to go out to eat, making it all the more budget-friendly. If you know you’ll have an opportunity for a date night on Friday, cook the other six nights that week. If take-out might be easier on the way to gymnastics, try to commit to home cooking the rest of the week. Every little bit of savings helps. For my complete set of guidelines on meal planning, especially for busy schedules, check this out.

Forget about being a foodie: If lack of culinary expertise has you eating out more often than not, that doesn’t need to be an excuse for all the spending. You don’t need to be the next Julia Child to feed your family most nights of the week. Grilled cheese and tomato soup? A steak on the grill with a salad?  A rotisserie chicken with some rice from the pantry and peas from the freezer? Most dinners like this require little cooking knowledge and are more about assembly than anything else. Also, if you’re serious about reducing your spending, there’s no time like the present to practice basic cooking skills.

Recreate the restaurant experience: Some feel like the caliber of cuisine is far superior at restaurants. Sure, this may be true at some establishments, but like most families, you might be spending most of your money at fast casual and sit down chains where sometimes the food is just mediocre and the service less than stellar. I love trying to recreate items I’ve had out by using copycat recipes or just experimenting at home. You can find a bunch of copycat recipes just by searching online. Some of my favorites include this copycat Chick Fil A chicken nugget recipe and this take on Panera’s Cheddar Broccoli soup. You may discover you can even achieve better results!

Stay focused on your goals: If you’re trying to reduce your eating out spending for financial reasons, have some set goals in mind (saving up for Christmas shopping or a major purchase, paying down a debt) and remember that small reductions in spending add up remarkably. Perhaps you are trying to reduce for health reasons. Stay motivated by remembering that when you prepare your own food, you are controlling the ingredients. As you acclimate to eating more home cooking, you soon discover that your body can’t handle restaurant food like it used to! I think this is a testament to how more healthier it is to consistently commit to home cooking.

Do your research: When you do go out to eat, you can still be cost conscious. Check menus in advance online to get an idea of prices, call ahead about any specials, look for Groupons and other deals. Commit to only patronizing establishments you have coupons for or find deals on, such as restaurants that have “kids eat free” nights.

Finally, make dining out more sacred than standard. Going out to eat or getting treats should be reserved for special occasions and fun spontaneous excursions. If you go out to eat too much and “normalize” it as the way your family eats most of the time, you are taking away the specialness of it, as well as wasting a lot of money, because now it’s become a habit rather than an occasion. Remember that going out to eat should not always translate into being a form of entertainment or just a way to pass the time. I don’t agree that it should never be, because it’s fun and enjoyable and a great way to get together with those you love. But balance and moderation are key. You’ll have a much more amazing, memorable experience trying that new steakhouse in town or being blown away by the burger in the hole-in-the-wall establishment everybody’s been raving about if you haven’t just eaten out two days prior. Keep the joy of dining out joyous by keeping it sacred and reserved for the right moments. Your wallet – and your waistline- will thank you in the long run!