The Best Cheap Restaurants with Big Portions in America

Do you ever feel like restaurant portions are getting larger every time you go out? You’re not crazy. In recent decades, many national restaurants have tried to win your business by offering cheap meals and big portions. That’s a trend that didn’t happen overnight.

Elizabeth Weise, a science reporter for USA Today, traces the inception of super-sized portions to the end of World War II. After the war, she writes, “agricultural policy in the US expanded. Farmers were able to grow food more cheaply by using fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides. In the 1970s, the government began subsidizing farmers to grow more food.”

All of this meant that the cost of producing big meals went down tremendously. And, at the same time, chain restaurants were growing into national corporations.

“US companies went from a mode where Wall Street just let them make slow and steady profits, to this idea that every quarter they just needed to be upping their sales and upping their profits,” Weise explains.

At first, the restaurant industry struggled to find a way to perpetually increase profits because people could only eat so much food. But then a trend of increasingly larger portions at restaurants began popping up. Since the cost of food had become so low, restaurants could encourage diners to pay just a little more for an immense amount of food. Even the physical size of dinner plates grew on average. Not surprisingly, this paralleled the rise of obesity in the United States and beyond.

Are Giant Portions Really a Good Deal?

That depends. Forcing yourself to eat more in a single sitting won’t do much beyond jeopardize your health. But, since this isn’t a buffet where you have to consume the meal inside the building, patronizing a restaurant with the intention of bringing home leftovers is a smart maneuver. When you order an enormous portion, remind yourself that you are paying for two or three meals, and not one. That way, you’ll save yourself both money and the gratuitous calories.

And so, here are Savetastic’s picks for the best cheap restaurants serving big portions with quick links are at the bottom.

IHOP

Cheap Restaurants with Big Portions
Photo: Shutterstock

The International House of Pancakes serves far more than breakfast fare these days (hence the current branding as IHOP and the move away from “pancakes” in the name). You’ll find enormous portions packed into meals like their Country Fried Steak and Eggs. This food-fest includes a “golden-battered beef steak, smothered in hearty gravy,” as well as two eggs, 2 pancakes, and a side of hash browns. All of this for just under $13 (and as many as 1,660 calories). It’s basically breakfast and lunch in one.

The Cheesecake Factory

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If you’ve ever been to this shopping mall anchor, you’ll know that the menus are as thick as textbooks and the portions are equally challenging. And you can get far more than cheesecake, which serves mondo-sized portions of pasta, burgers, tacos, salads — just about everything. You might as well ask for that to-go box before you start chowing down.

Some of their meals are hearty enough for an entire day’s consumption. Take, for instance, the Pasta Carbonara. This creamy spaghetti with bacon, peas, and cheese sauce costs only $18.50 (unless you want to add meat), but the calorie count is an incredible 2,070. That’s more than most diets suggest you eat in 24 hours.

Instead of inhaling the entire dish, this is another one you can divvy into portions to enjoy for the remainder of the week.

Applebee’s

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Applebee’s notably offers family-sized meal plans, prepped specifically for takeout orders. That’s helpful if you’re looking to feed the entire household for less and don’t want to hit a fast food restaurant.

The Classic Broccoli Chicken Alfredo Family Bundle, for instance, is enough to serve six people. This creamy pasta and poultry combo boasts 9,690 calories, and is available for takeout at the reasonable price of $49.99 or $8.33 per person.

Alternatively, for $64.99 and 9,000 calories, you can opt for the Riblets Family Bundle. This pack includes spinach and artichoke dip, Applebee’s Riblets (small ribs) with honey barbecue sauce, a Caesar salad, 4-cheese mac and cheese, French fries and slaw. Now that’s a hearty feast!

Olive Garden

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The Italian-adjacent restaurant chain is known for its “endless” breadsticks, salad, and soup. For only $7.99, you can get all three of those items in the lunch special, and your waiter will replenish your bowl anytime you empty it.

Even if you don’t opt for the special, bottomless breadsticks come with every order. So, like mom said, filling up on bread will make you less likely to eat your entrée, letting you take a doggy bag to enjoy that pasta at home.

Olive Garden also offers many family combos, but even their individual dishes are enough to serve many mouths. Take the Chicken Parmigiana, which includes two breaded chicken breasts smothered with sauce and served over spaghetti. The $16 entrée carries 1,060 calories, and that doesn’t include the complimentary soup, salad, and beverage.

Food for Thought

The big takeaway is that restaurants are making money by serving you more food. So if you really want to make those enormous portions worth it, resist the urge to shovel it down in one sitting and enjoy their over-sized dishes for several meals.

Cheap Restaurants with Big Portions — Quick Links

IHOP
Cheesecake Factory
Applebee’s
Olive Garden

Internal Links: “Cheap and Healthy Fast Food Restaurants,” “Eating Healthy Without Breaking the Bank”