Most people enjoy eating out, but with the economy sluggish, it can be an expense that many families just can not afford on a regular basis. While it would be nice to have a home cooked meal every day, the fact is that in today's fast-paced society, there are many days where dinner comes at a restaurant table. So, how can you still work in the growing expense of eating out with kids? We do not eat out as much as we have in the past, but I have tried to stick to some "restaurant rules" to keep costs down while still enjoying a meal out. Of course, there are special occasions, but for the routine restaurant trip, I really attempt to stick to a budget.
Here are a few of the "rules":
1) Check out the kids' eat free deals and/or coupons/Groupons/Entertainment books first before deciding where to go. Unless it is someone's birthday meal and they have carte blanche in the decision about where they want to eat, try to go for one of the places where you know there is going to be a savings. Case in point, we recently had dinner at Steak-N-Shake for $12 for a family of four. The kids got a free meal since it was kids' eat free on the weekends and we had a coupon for the hamburger and fries meal that I usually get. Plus, we had a coupon for buy one, get one free milkshakes so my husband and I were both able to get full-size milkshakes. That is a huge savings!
2) Drink water. It's great for you and your digestion and it's free. Think about how much that glass of soda is going to cost you, especially when half of it is filled with ice. And, I love soda pop, but when eating out it is very rare that I would actually purchase one. Anymore, a beverage in most restaurants will cost at least $2-$3, multiply that times every person in your family, every time you eat out and it can seriously add up.
3) Stay clear of desserts and appetizers in addition to a full meal. If you are ordering a meal, cutting out a $5-$8 add-on like an appetizer and/or dessert will save a lot of money. I know so many people that order the appetizer in addition to their meal and then barely eat a bite of the actual entree since they filled up on the first course. Obviously, there are exceptions, but we do not routinely go out as a family and order a bunch of additional things besides our main meal.
4) In the same breath, embrace the appetizer. Many times, appetizers are fairly large and can actually be the preferred choice to the entrees. In that case, why not order an appetizer as your meal. It will no doubt be cheaper. My daughter and I will sometimes split a larger appetizer and we still can not eat it all, but it saved us from purchasing two separate meals.
5) This is completely dependent on the place you are eating and the ages of your kids, but when at all feasible, have them split a meal. With my children's ages, there are still restaurants where the kids' portions are fairly large and after I realized that neither of them were able to eat more than half of their own meals, I started having them share. There were certain places where the kids' meal consisted of 3-4 large chicken tenders and a whole plate of fries and cup of fruit and my toddler/preschooler was in no way able to eat the whole meal.
Hopefully, by tweaking a few eating out routines and rituals, money can be saved while still being able to enjoy a dinner out as a family.