Recipe for a Cheap Meal at Olive Garden: Salad and Breadsticks

Photo courtesy of Rick Audet

This past weekend my wife and I enjoyed a meal out.  It has been a long, long time since we celebrated a date night.  My mom’s hospitalization has played a part in that for a couple reasons.  One, her or my mother-in-law usually play babysitter when my wife and I have a date night.  Two, traveling back and forth to visit my mom has us on the road a lot.  I usually make a daily trip to visit her (roughly a 45 minute round trip).  But, she has made significant improvements in just the last ten days or so, and I decided to take a night off from visiting to enjoy a dinner out with my wife.  Her favorite restaurant is Olive Garden, so deciding where to eat was the easy part.

Bread and Water

Having not eaten out in a while, I was a bit shocked by the menu prices.  It seemed like each item was a couple dollars higher than it was the last time we ate out.  I looked over the menu in search of the cheapest item, but plain old spaghetti at $9.95 didn’t sound appealing.  My wife noticed me scanning the menu.  Wondering if it was the right time to be a cheapskate, I asked, “Is it alright if I order salad and breadsticks?”  She had a better idea. We ordered the Tour of Italy (which looked more like the tour of Little Italy) and shared the portions.  I ordered unlimited salad and bread for $2.95.  We skipped a glass of wine, opting for a glass of iced tea (my only splurge–I should have ordered water), and skipped dessert.  For less than $25 we enjoyed a meal at Olive Garden and were able to still leave a generous tip.  Just a few months ago we would have easily spent well over $50.

It’s Nice to Have a Spouse on the Same Page

Of course, all this was possible because I am married to a “frugal wife,” who isn’t ashamed of her frugal husband.   We weren’t always this way.  I remember early in our marriage we enjoyed a Valentine’s Day dinner at Outback Steakhouse where the set menu was prime rib, baked potato, and a glass of wine for $60, plus gratuity.  Back then we were still busy trying to impress each other, and those around us.  Now, we don’t waste as much time or money trying to impress others, because we know what our goals are, and are not concerned with what others think.

Guys, don’t misunderstand–it is still a good idea to occasionally “wine and dine” your significant other.  Just don’t make a habit of it, and if dating, be a little wary of someone who expects it.  This is about as close to anything resembling relationship advice you will read here at Frugal Dad.  After all, I’m no Dr. Phil!


  1. I highly recommend the soup, salad and bread deal at Olive Garden. It’s unlimited… so you can make a whole meal out of it. And the best part is when you get a refill on the soup, you don’t have to pick the same kind of soup – you can try all three!

    Olive Garden can be as expensive or inexpensive as you want to make it!

  2. Hi,
    Wow very nice post i really so liked your post
    it is mouth watering.
    keep it up.
    By the way do you want any refinance on your eatable’s…

  3. This past Saturday, my husband and I, along with his parents went out for dinner at Ollie’s, a Lebanese restaurant in Dearborn, MI. We ordered the dinner for two ($27), and ended up having enough left over for lunch for both of us the next day–and we have extra pita bread and hummus still left. Usually you don’t get a good deal I think with “dinner for two” options, but this was great.

  4. I do like Olive Garden and most of the dishes for about $14 can be split between two people. (Remember FrugalDad, you’re supposed to be cutting down on those portion sizes too! Remember the goal you set forth on your One Month of Water plan!) Unfortunately, the wife isn’t too fond of pasta, so I usually end up making two large meals out of a single pasta dish.
    When you’re frugal about it, having lunch/dinner for around $25-$35 is quite easy to do. It is also personally rewarding to give a generous tip.

  5. Like David mentioned, the portions at nearly every restaurant are large enough to easily feed two people. (We often make them stretch to feed both of us AND our 2 yr old.) We learned this trick from a retired couple who’re kind of like our adoptive grandparents. Neither of them have big appetites, so they always split dishes so there’s not a bunch of wasted food.

    The only real trick to this is finding dishes that you both enjoy. The extras like a side salad, free bread, or chips & salsa can also go a long way toward stretching the main course.

    And eat slowly!

  6. One trick our family does is order off the dinner menu at Olive Garden, but request lunch portions. It still saves money and is plenty with the breadsticks and salad. They don’t advertise that they will let you do that, but my family has been doing it for years 🙂

  7. @Amy: Ah, good idea on the lunch portions. We had plenty of food from the Tour of Italy, plus salad and bread. In fact, it was a struggle to finish it all off after filling up on breadsticks!

    And yes, DavidK, has reminded me that I do need to reduce my portion size. It was the first time in a while I left a restaurant without feeling stuffed.

  8. The wife and I do the same thing that Amy describes above. They don’t advertise it, but it’s there if you ask.

    Oh, and skip the drinks to save (at least at my local OG here in Arizona) $2.29 per glass of iced tea or soda.

  9. It’s about the company too! If you feel entitled to spend tons of money on fancy dinners because THAT is what makes the night special, I think you need to rethink who you’re eating with!

  10. This is a bit negative:
    For years the (now) fiance and I have gone to Olive Garden for the soup/salad/breadsticks special. When we do go for a full meal though we don’t generally pat ourselves on the back for avoiding wine and dessert. To us the treat is going out to eat, not splurging on the menu.

    Be proud of yourself for avoiding the temptation to eat out at all, not going to the Olive Garden and spending “less than $25”.

    I’m proud of my brother for cutting his smoking down to half a pack, but he’s still smoking.

  11. @the weakonomist: LOL–I’m finding out no matter what good news I have to share, it isn’t good enough for some. My point was that in the past when we have gone out to eat, we could easily spend two or three times that on all the trimmings. Cutting back on things is as big a milestone to some as quitting cold turkey is to you.

    And that meal out was a treat to us–we have had exactly one night out just the two of us in four months, and haven’t been on vacation in a year and a half. Not complaining, just agreeing with you that getting a night to ourselves was treat enough!

  12. Great job having a frugal yet fun night out!

    My wife and I have been sharing dishes for a long time, as we like to say, “Sharing lets you have the taste without the waste.”

  13. I used to work across the street fron an Olive Garden and the soup/salad/breadsticks meal was delicious, inexpensive and a lot of fun. I also loved their chicken ceasar salad when it had artichoke hearts in it–they don’t make it that way anymore.

    I finally got fed up with our local diner and decided that I would drink water if they were going to charge for drink refills. Iced tea, about 12 oz is $2.19!!! (same price for sodas, etc) The last time I was there, I glanced around and there were LOTS of us drinking water, especially the 18-25 year olds. I think it’s a poor business practice to jack up the price of drinks and then not offer free refills.

    I have yet to figure out their motive. It’s a 24/7 diner that is crowded most of the time, so they want us to eat and leave. Lots of people go there after barhopping and have an early breakfast. I know they don’t want kids to linger there and feel like they should limit refills after a certain hour, but I saw recently that they had a per table minimum charge after 9 pm.

    The service is EXCELLENT, the waitstaff run their asses off and are always friendly. The food is good (not great, but not expensive either). They take cash only.

    If anyone has an idea that I could suggest to the owner, I’d appreciate it. They have a lot of “regulars” that are Sr. Citizens and I know that it’s tough living on Social Security. The only thing I’ve thought of so far is having a self-serve beverage area.

    Ok, I’m hungry now!

  14. @Janny, yea I’m not sure why some places stop giving refills. I KNOW that drinks are about the least expensive thing for restaurants next to condiments and have a huge markup on them. One thing that some restaurants have done is to switch to 16oz glasses and give only one refill. (Since the place you describe is a diner, I would guess that they use the big, colored plastic cups that are found in most diners across the country.) At a few diners I’ve seen them limit the customers to one refill and use two different color cups to determine which refill the customer is on.

    @FrugalDad, don’t worry about it FD — even Dave Ramsey has those listeners who think that he doesn’t do enough either. 🙂

  15. I love the Soup, Salad and Breadsticks at Olive Garden. When I’m looking for a cheap lunch or if it’s a cold day, my coworkers and I usually head to “OG” for lunch.

  16. There is something wrong with this country, when $25.00 for a generic meal for two is considered cheap. There is nothing wrong with this blog entry, and I couldn’t do much better here (maybe Sonic’s new $6.99 Brown Bag Special?). But consider ..

    When I was in Ethiopia a few months ago, a Spaghetti meal at a nice restaurant was $0.80! I opted for the meatballs ($0.10 extra), and with a few beers and very generous tip, the total was $2.00!! Similarly last month in South America I got a four course feast with a few beers and a more than generous tip at the classiest restaurant in a not so small town for $6.00 total. There are many, many places where you can get a good meal at a restaurant for $1-$2. Just for perspective ..

    As far as I understand, the main cost at restaurants is labor, not food, at least in America .. So increased food costs should not increase prices at restaurants that much if at all, especially in America since we have such high labor costs.

    • It’s easy to say we have high labor costs until you’re the person making only a dollar or (in the case of the country’s you’re referencing) quite possibly less per hour.

  17. FD, I am glad you and your wife were able to go on a date night! Olive Garden is a wonderful choice. Last week, I splurged on a lunch out while I was running errands. I had saved $10 at Staples, $17 at the market with coupons and gotten a freebie ($7.50) at a chain store- so i deserved a lunch out. My choice? The kids meal at Chick Fil A! You can’t beat it. Two big chicken strips,buffalo sauce, an order of waffle fries and instead of a toy treat, you can order an ice dream cone! And a diet coke, and a refil. I think the total was $4.00….such a great deal!
    You and your wife do a wonderful job at caring for kids, for an ailing parent and each other.
    You deserve to treat yourselves to a special night!

  18. @Frugal Bachelor, yep the exchange rate can work in your favor with that American currency. The Etheopian Burr is at a 9 to 1 exchange for the dollar right now, so that meal would have cost you about 18-19 Burr. Kinda high for a single person pasta dinner if it were the US dollar, so who knows if it was high for the Ethiopians. Not sure where you went in South America, but most exchange rates there are about 2 or 4 to 1, so 12-24 (Brazilian Real) is probably just ok there too. Those exchange rates were probably a little more in the American dollar’s favor a number of months ago. It goes to show that though for us Americans it may seem like a deal, it may not actually be a bargain for those who live there.
    The cost of restaurant labor here isn’t too bad. It is usually the food costs that get you (mainly wasted food from incorrect preparation).

  19. @frugal dad
    I’m good at being the never nice guy. I can improve myself by being more encouraging of others. For now I’m stuck being that guy that’s never satisfied, despite being less than perfect myself.

    PS I was at Olive Garden on Saturday, 5 cheese linguine FTW, on future dad-in-law!

  20. How wonderful that you two felt that things were stable enough that you could take a night off and go out to dinner! It has been such a stressful time for your whole family!

    Nice also that your wife and you are on the same page frugally! And remember, that is why you are frugal in so many areas of your lives…. so that you can afford to splurge now and then without feeling guilty! And your relationship, and time out to enjoy it, needed to be moved to the top of the priority list for a day!

    Glad you enjoyed it!

  21. “Just don’t make a habit of it, and if dating, be a little wary of someone who expects it.”

    Ha ha!!

    I’m a woman, and I’d agree with this.

    Great blog you have here.

  22. I know that this is way outside the point of this post, but just to throw it out there…

    For an even more frugal meal – at half or less the cost of even the most scrimpy OG outing – you can pick up some frozen breadsticks & salad fixings at the supermarket. While the breadsticks are baking, you’ll have just enough time to chill some plates, put together the salad, set the table, and maybe even pour a little wine & put on some Sinatra!

  23. Maybe you should give relationship advice! The important thing about the date is that my hubby and I get some time alone without having to cook and clean up … we’ve even had dinner at home before and gone out for a dessert and coffee date. The restaurants are pretty quiet and empty by 9 p.m. So nice.

  24. @Rob O., it’s a good idea, but the point of the date was to get away from the kids for a few hours (especially for FD’s wife, who’s a stay-at-home mom) and to not have to prep before and clean up after the nice meal.

    For $25 INCLUDING GENEROUS TIP (so $16-$18 for the meal for two), I’d say Job Well Done.

  25. I’m not one for Olive Garden, but I love your point about having a compatible spouse. One of the great joys of life is being able to disagree with my husband on an incredible variety of small things, but be able to read each other’s minds on the big issues. A dinner isn’t a big issue, but the spending patterns that it reflects are. So glad you appreciate your frugal wife!

  26. I absolutely love the salad, soup, breadstick deal at OG. I used to have that for lunch in High School all the time. I know live in a small town that doens’t have an OG.

  27. I work at Olive Garden, and I am glad you were able to enjoy the unlimited salad for 2.95, though keep in mind, the server could have gotten in trouble for only charging 2.95 if you had refills on the salad. Technically if a table shares a meal, and they get refills on the salad we have to charge the full price of a salad which is 5.95. Don’t be mad at the server, it’s just one of the rules we are made to follow.

    Also, the reasoning the prices went up were due to the economy, I had left to have my son, and when I came back, they not only went up, but went up AGAIN after I had been back. The rise in gas and food prices are the culprits.

  28. I’m also a waitress at OG, and I certainly don’t mind when ppl eat for a bargain, but I appreciate you mentioning your generous tip. Too many people come in to eat salad, or soup and salad, and tip 15%…which is like 1.50. All the of the “endless” things require more work for us than anything else on the menu, and it still takes up one of our 3 tables for an hour or so. In cases of bargain eating, tipping should no longer be based on percentage. Even on a 3 dollar meal I would never tip less than 5 bucks, because it isn’t my server’s fault that I want to eat for cheap.