How to Eat in the USA on a Budget

big boy fast food burgers detroit

One of the most important things to figure out upon arriving in any unfamiliar country is where to eat. Therefore, in this article I offer some of my insights about five of my favorite affordable places to eat at in the US. These institutions won’t usually have a Michelin star rating, but you’ll also rarely spend more than $30 per meal. First of all, a piece of advice for every road trip: Your first stop should be a grocery store, where you should purchase some water and/or sodas, some nuts and protein bars – all of which will be very useful during moments when you simply do not have enough time to stop for a proper meal, or when it is so early/late that diners are closed. Before I get to my Top 5, a brief description of what to expect of breakfast in an American hotel.

Breakfast

Most large hotels in the US do not include breakfast in their admission price, and you will usually be charged around $20 extra for it. Said breakfast usually includes freshly squeezed juice, an order for one custom-made omelette, some fruit and berries, yogurts, and some (usually) good coffee. Something interesting to keep in mind is that some hotels offer to let the visitor opt out of room cleaning service in exchange for breakfast at no extra charge.

In the smaller hotels everything is much simpler. Don’t get your hopes up about the breakfast too much, but there are some tricks how to get more out of it. Firstly, it’s definitely not a good idea to show up at the last 10 minutes before the restaurant closes for the morning, since at that point the food will no longer be re-stocked. Also, when booking a hotel, have a look at the reviews.  There will often be some describing what exactly is served for breakfast there. More often than not, you can get some bread with jam, cream cheese, yogurt, coffee, tea, a pre-packaged muffin. If you’re lucky, they might have a waffle pan and some waffle batter, and there might be an omelette and/or some boiled eggs, bacon strips or sausages, and some fruit – sometimes even potato balls or cutlets. After staying at hotels like this for three weeks in a row, I sometimes didn’t even want to go to breakfast, since I was bored of the same foods being served again and again. Still, the food is not bad. From my experience, even while staying at a $30 per night roadside motel, there was coffee, tea, cheese, bread and boiled eggs available for breakfast. Gas stations normally don’t have a wide variety of foods to choose from (there may be some packaged bread and sausages), so I prefer to eat at hotels.

Dinner and supper aren’t included in the admission price (unless you stay at an All Inclusive Resort), and, if traveling by car, you’ll be at a different location every day, anyway. That is why I decided to write this article, about my experience on how not to starve in America and which places to eat at are my favorites.

Top 5 Places to Eat At in the US

5. Roadside cafes and diners

Diners sometimes resemble a true blast from the past, as if nothing has changed since the very day they were opened.  Okay, maybe some restored chairs and some more modern cooking equipment, but aside from that, the same owners since the 60s and an overall vintage look. Occasionally you’ll even come across cafes that offer free salad and soup along with the main course. The salad is usually just grated cabbage with some slices of tomato and cucumber, and there’s only a mugful of soup, but it is nice nevertheless. The main courses are the typical American-sized (gigantic) portions – ordering a chop, you’ll likely find two on your plate (or one, but huge). You are also asked to choose two sides, out of which the most commonly offered ones are mashed potatoes, French fries, broccoli and beans. You can click here to read about the others available if you do not want to be surprised upon actually traveling there. I don’t remember even one occasion where just regular boiled potatoes would have been offered as a side. When ordering coffee or lemonade, you will usually get a free refill (same as in fast food restaurants). A meal for two could cost you around $30. Keep in mind that diners can vary greatly as to their quality, and you could get very lucky (as in The Cracked Conch in The Florida Keys) or very unlucky (such as the Adirondack mountain diner, pictured below, about which I will write a separate article at some point).

adirondacks diner usa new york4. Applebee’s

 There are a lot of restaurant chains in America similar to Applebee’s, but on my journeys I have had the best experience eating at the aforementioned. There is a standard menu in every restaurant, with a wide variety of food available. The same meal does indeed taste very similar from one location to another, independent of what state the particular restaurant is located in, and everything is usually prepared very quickly. There are frequently specials – discounts during particular days of the week or for particular foods. If, upon arriving at Applebee’s, you see that there is a huge waiting line, there is a trick you can try to avoid it. You can immediately tell a waitress that you’re okay with sitting at a smaller table, since even two customers will usually get a large table, most of which will be occupied during the evenings, with the smaller two-seat tables left empty. A meal for two will cost you around $30.

3. Subway 

Many may be surprised by my decision to include Subway at the not-too-shabby third place on my list, especially seeing how Subway has now become available even here, in Riga. The main reason is that it’s a very convenient way to eat. Granted, not the healthiest, but in terms of convenience it is miles ahead of the competition. Most Subways are open 24 hours a day and can be found in every city district. The menu is standard in every restaurant and tastes identical across states. The choices are just like in Riga – you can order a footlong or a 6 inch, except there will be a lot more of each ingredient in a sandwich, and the whole thing will cost you less. I typically order an Italian herbs & cheese footlong (usually called the Oregano & cheese footlong in Latvia), also with American cheese, pickles, tomatoes, paprika and honey mustard. I usually eat half right after ordering, the rest later. You can take your sandwich with you and save the time that you would have spent eating on location. Eating here usually costs $15 for the two of us. We don’t order drinks unless we can save money by doing so, and usually just make do with what we’ve got left in the car.

2. All you can eat Chinese buffets

I discovered my first all-you-can-eat buffet thanks to a good friend in Toronto, and it was actually an entire chain – Mandarin. It’s likely that there are similar chains in the US, but from what I have experienced, the buffets are mostly just one location with one owner – usually an Asian immigrant.

alina andrusaite all you can eat chinese buffet

There are also Indian and other ethnic food buffets, but I have only been to Chinese ones. The system here is that you walk in, find out what the price is (it usually depends on the time of day, e.g. dinner is cheaper than supper, kids pay half price, etc.), and you get a table. The price usually ranges from $6-18 per person. Drinks aren’t included, but lemonade, like elsewhere in America, is eligible for free refills. Still, the “lemonade” is often syrup with tap water, and you can (especially common in Southern states) feel the taste of chlorine in the water. A waiter will bring you your eating utensils, and you can go food hunting! The amount of variety depends on the size of the buffet. Usually there’s a lot of meat to choose from (at least 5 types of chicken – grilled, with and without sauce, etc.) as well as some seafood (crabs are usually subject to a separate charge, upon payment of which you can eat as many as you want). Sides include fries, rice, sliced vegetables. Some buffets offer sushi, soups and wok. For dessert there are watermelons, strawberries, jelly, ice cream, various cakes.

fortune cookies in all you can eat buffet

After a meal, you can always get a fortune cookie. We once calculated that with how much watermelon we eat, it’s cheaper to visit a buffet than to buy pre-sliced watermelon at the grocery store. Chinese buffets really are some of my favorite places to eat at in the US – they always have a parking lot and are often near shopping malls and outside the centre of the city. I try to visit a buffet at least a few times on every one of my visits to the US. There are also more extravagant buffets.  For example Brazilian steak buffets, where meat is constantly brought in which you can get a slice of, but the entry fee at these is already around $50 + drinks.

1.Denny’s

We truly discovered Denny’s while staying on the Caribbean island of Curaçao, where it was the cheapest alternative to eating at the hotel. I had been at Denny’s before in Holbrook, Arizona, but was extremely tired at the time and didn’t fully appreciate the place. But while on Curaçao, we truly got hooked and went there at least once a day, and this is now our favorite American restaurant chain. They call themselves the classic American diner. Since this is a franchise, the food is identical at every location. You can find a Denny’s in every state, but the largest amount is in California. They are open 24 hours a day and offer their gigantic breakfast all day long.  You can choose four out of more than a dozen sides, such as an omelette, sausages, bread, bacon, French fries, pancakes, waffles etc. I have taken a great liking to a food that Americans call skillet, as well as some soups, stews and steak. Delicious milkshakes, cakes – anything you desire can be found here. The menu is similar to what Applebee’s offers. There are also $2, $4, $6 and $8 offers. Coffee and lemonade is eligible for free refills. It’s a nice place to sit and take a break at after a long drive across American highways, no matter what time it is and which city you are at. The bill for two is typically ~$30. You can also often order one main course or one drink for two, thus saving money.

diners usa where to eat

Others

 Aside from the aforementioned chains and restaurant types, you can also always visit a fast food restaurant like McDonald’s or Burger King. You could also get a bucket of 20 chicken nuggets at Wendy’s, and then there’s always Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, although these three are definitely not among my favorites. If I do head to a fast food restaurant, McDonald’s is usually my choice. A pleasant discovery was also Big Boy(pictured in the main photo of the article. I opted for fruit, instead of a second side), which, along with Cheesecake Factory and Olive Garden, is definitely a familiar title to fans of The Big Bang Theory. All three are pretty good, with Cheesecake Factory, unsurprisingly, being known for their cheesecakes, while Big Boy and Olive Garden are reminiscent of Denny’s (the prices are also similar). The portions at Olive Garden are gargantuan, some of the biggest I have seen in the US.  Fans of Mexican food can head to Chipotle Mexican Grill, where you can also order pretty good steaks, but the prices will be higher.

If you stick to eating (included) hotel breakfasts, a dinnertime snack at Subway, and supper at one of the four other restaurants mentioned, food for two can cost you less than $45 per day. If you choose specials and share the main course (which, believe me, is often enough for two people), that can drop to as low as $20 per day. As previously mentioned, buying some drinks and protein bars at a grocery store can also be very useful, since one protein bar can occasionally replace dinner. Protein bars are cheap if you buy them in large packages, but they can sometimes truly taste awful, so I suggest buying just one and trying it out, before investing in a bigger pack. Another thing to keep in mind is that in the US, tax is not included in the price tag, so expect to pay more than what you see displayed (the exact percentage varies from state to state). As for tips – our usual 10% is not enough, as waiters often have a lower than minimal wage. Receipts often have a recommended tip amount, ranging from 15-18%.

Have a delicious trip to the US!


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