Mary writes in with a fun question that was originally going to be in a mailbag, but my answer got a little long:

My husband and I really enjoy eating at Olive Garden and have considered buying the Never Ending Pasta Pass when it has been available. We are trying to work out the math on it and hoped you could help us. Is it worth it?

Let’s dig in here.

The “Never Ending Pasta Pass” is a promotional item sold by Olive Garden on a somewhat recurring basis. For $100 plus tax, usually totaling around $107, the pass allows you to order the “Never Ending Pasta Bowl” meal at Olive Garden for free every time you go to the restaurant in a nine week span.

To be clear, the “Never Ending Pasta Bowl” is a dine-in-only menu item at Olive Garden that allows you to order a combination of several pastas, several sauces, and several toppings, along with unlimited soup or salad and unlimited breadsticks, for $11 plus tax (around $11.80 in my area).

The basic math is simple: you’d have to go to Olive Garden a little over nine times during that period in order to save money buying the pass versus just ordering the “Never Ending Pasta Bowl” off the menu. On your tenth visit in that nine week span, you would be spending less per visit using the pass than just buying it regularly, and that remains true for every visit thereafter within the period. So, if you want to simply make it cheaper than just buying the “Never Ending Pasta Bowl” each time, you have to visit Olive Garden more than once a week and order the “Never Ending Pasta Bowl” each time.

But how cheap can it get? Let’s say you went there for lunch or dinner every single day during that nine week period – 63 days in all. If you paid $108 for the pass after tax and went there 63 times in that period, you’d be effectively paying $1.71 per visit for a “Never Ending Pasta Bowl.” That’s pretty good, actually, but there are a few catches.

First, you would reasonably have to pay a tip each time you visited. If you pay a 15% tip on your meal, that’s $1.77 in tip each visit on top of the food cost each visit. A 20% tip is $2.36 on top of the food cost each visit.

Second, if you’re drinking anything besides water, you’re paying a restaurant price for that beverage, too. A “bottomless” fountain drink comes in at $2.99, for example, and their various fruit juices and coffees range from $2 to $5, according to their menu. If you want to order wine or another alcoholic beverage, the price goes up significantly. (The most cost-efficient way of using the pass is to just use the pass and drink water with it, of course.)

It is worth noting here that these extra expenses don’t really affect the comparison between just ordering a “Never Ending Pasta Bowl” and a “Pasta Pass.” It’s just the additional cost of dining at a restaurant. If you just go in there and have the “Never Ending Pasta Bowl,” whether with the pass or not, and you also order a fountain drink and tip at 20%, your cost beyond the entree is going to be between $6 and $7, depending on local taxes. That’s simple reality. Thus, even if you’re only “paying” $1.71 per visit because of daily use of the pass, you’re tacking on at least $2.36 per visit and likely tacking on $6 per visit, and possibly tacking on more than that.

Then there’s the final issue: eating at Olive Garden on a daily basis for nine weeks is going to have a negative health impact that contributes to long term health costs. If you go there and have a “Never Ending Pasta Bowl” every single day for nine weeks and eat enough of it to make it worth even considering as an entree option, you’re almost guaranteed to be exceeding your daily caloric intake unless that’s literally the only thing you eat each day. The nutritional facts on those “never ending pasta bowls” are pretty amazing – the absolute healthiest combination I could find, which is whole wheat linguine, marinara, and garden vegetables, adds up to 525 calories, while a combination like the cavatappi, creamy mushroom sauce, and Italian sausage adds up to 1,470 calories for a single bowl. Add in two breadsticks at 140 calories each and a bowl of soup, most of which weigh in around 200 calories, and you’re very close to 2,000 calories for that meal with just a single bowl of pasta and no refills. The sodium count is amazing, too. Let’s not even add in any extra beverages.

The reality is that in terms of reasonably healthy eating that will keep your long term health care costs low, Olive Garden is probably in the “rare occasion” camp, not the “daily meal” camp. To eat this daily and maintain some reasonable definition of healthy eating, it’d probably have to be your main meal of the day, with just a single bowl of the healthiest combination you could put together, one breadstick, and a small amount of the salad.

Not only that, it’s not actually that much of a bargain, as you can approximate this meal at home for a small fraction of the price. I can approximate this meal at home for about $8 for all five of us – naturally, the “pasta bowl” won’t have quite as many options for sauce and toppings, but I could make something distinct for everyone in that price range in reasonable time if I wanted to. That would include a few homemade breadsticks for everyone and a nice side salad or a bowl of soup. I’d also guarantee that it would be light years healthier than the Olive Garden option and (debatably) taste as good, too. That’s about $1.60 a plate, and I don’t have to pay taxes on any of that food, and any beverages would be a tiny fraction of the cost, and I don’t have to pay a tip, either.

It’s not a time issue, either. Assuming I make the dough in the morning and let it rise all day, I can probably get this full meal to the table in about twenty minutes, we eat in fifteen or twenty minutes with conversation, and I have the table cleared and everything in the dishwasher in ten more minutes. That’s fifty minutes, which is less time than we’d probably spend at the restaurant, let alone time spent driving there and driving home.

But what about leftovers? The strategy that many people point to with the Never Ending Pasta Bowl/Pass is to order a second bowl and essentially take it home as leftovers in a doggie bag. That way, you have lunch covered the next day. While that would extend the savings of the pass notably, as you’re effectively getting two meals out of the prices noted above, you’re also multiplying the negative health consequence. I seriously can’t recommend eating an entire pasta bowl twice a day for nine weeks, as the calories for even a “healthier” pasta bowl would blow away daily recommended health standards if eaten twice a day.

If you’re really going to dive into this and are trying to get the maximum value out of it over the short and long term, my recommendation would be to go to the restaurant once or twice a week during the span of the pass, order a pasta bowl and a refill and water, fill up as much as possible on soup or salad and breadsticks, and take home the leftover pasta bowl contents for lunch for the next day or two. This will get you about thirty meals worth of food out of about twelve visits, and with the cost of tipping about $2 per visit, you’re spending a total of $132 to cover about thirty meals, or roughly $4.50 per meal with the pass. If you do this more frequently, the price per meal will go down further, but that’s a lot of calories and sodium in a relatively short amount of time, which amps up your likelihood of health-related expenses.

(What about that lifetime pass, for only $500? You’d have to eat a never ending pasta bowl 50 times just to break even on it and somewhere around 60 times just to get your meal cost plus tip with just water to drink down to $10 per meal. Unless you utterly love Olive Garden, you’re almost assuredly going to be sick of the Never Ending Pasta Bowl by that point, and prior to that it’s not a bargain. I’d definitely pass on this unless you’d be content eating at Olive Garden every week for years and ordering a limited selection of dishes without getting tired of it.)

For me, I’ll save Olive Garden for a rare occasion and just make pasta dinners at home. It’s a lot cheaper, particularly for a family of five, but I’d probably do the same even if I were single and just make lots of pasta meals in advance.

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