The average American eats out more than once per week. Give yourself a break from cooking but don't break the bank by using these money-saving strategies. Pre-plan and take advantage of these great deals for the family. You can make dining out affordable and fun with a little economic ingenuity.
The early bird special isn't just for senior citizens. Often, restaurants try to rustle up business during the usually "dead" hours between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. with special deals. At the least, you will be able to order off of the lunch menu rather than the dinner menu, which, at some establishments, can jump in price to almost double the cost. Coming in early will also be a lot easier on you if you have a toddler. You will have more attention from your server in case of any spills or messes. Plus, you can head out before the dinner rush arrives.
There are myriad coupon sites on the web where you can find restaurant deals for up to 1/2 off of a dinner check. You just need to surf around and look for places in your area. Usually, the coupons come with stipulations like, alcoholic beverages aren't covered or it won't be available for use on Friday nights and weekends, when restaurants make most of their money.
Don't Buy Extra
When you get to the restaurant, just order your meal. Sounds simple, right? But if your kids are starving by the time you get there, besides some grumpy tablemates, you'll have them clamoring for extras, like pricey appetizers. Kids' meals are priced affordably but appetizers can cost as much as an adult meal. If your kids fill up on a plate of bread or fried stuff then they won't have room for their dinners and you'll have wasted your money, not to mention an opportunity to feed them healthfully. Most kid-approved appetizers tend to consist of meat and cheese, usually fried.
So, either don't wait until late to get to the restaurant or bring your own snacks for them to munch before the meal. A small Ziploc bag of carrots and celery will keep them occupied and won't fill them up so much that they will want to skip the whole reason you left the house.
Lose the Brews
Brews like iced tea can cost up to $3.00 per person at a restaurant. This can also include sodas, hot chocolate, milk, juice, and the list goes on. Some can be refilled for free, some cannot. Just order water for free and save your wallet and your waistlines some problems.
Stretch One Meal
There are two ways you can do this. One, you could suggest that everybody try eating only 1/2 their meal. If your kids aren't starving, they will probably do this anyway, due to the large portion sizes prevalent in most restaurants. Now the $5 that you spent on one kid meal has turned into two meals at $2.50 each. That sounds a lot more palatable. This is also a good suggestion for you, as many a restaurant meal tips the scales at 1,000 calories or more, dependent upon your food choices.
Another way you can turn one meal into two is to try ordering one plate and sharing. If you can get your kids to agree on one option, this will probably adequately fill them up and then leave enough room for a small ice cream cone on the way home (if they behaved themselves at the restaurant, that is). Again, this suggestion is good for grown-ups too.
Going in on one plate together will allow your dining partner and yourself to save some money in case you would like a glass of wine or maybe an ice cream cone with the kids. If you don't think it will be enough food for you, try ordering an extra side salad or cup of soup, which are usually priced pretty low. Just be sure to check the restaurant's menu as some establishments do have "sharing" charges.
Choose Restaurants with Kid-Specific Deals
Pick a restaurant where the kids can eat for free, or at least for very cheap. The restaurants listed are chain restaurants, so the specials should be the same for each location. There are many, many more than those listed here, so call ahead and ask when there is a kids' special. Almost every restaurant has one.
Applebee's: 1 kid meal with every adult meal and any additional kids eat for $1.00;
Boston Market: Kids eat for $0.99 cents with 1 adult meal purchase;
Denny's: Between 4 and 10 p.m., 2 kid meals free per 1 adult meal purchase;
Hooter's: Kids eat free during the afternoon and evenings;
IHOP: Monday through Thursday between 4 and 8 p.m., kids eat free (under 12 years) per 1 adult meal purchased;
Shoney's: Kids eat free; and
TGIFriday's: Kids 3 and under eat for free.
Avoid Eating Out Altogether
Try take-out if you don't have the time to cook. You will save on the service fee and it will be easier to supplement the main dish with sides, drinks and desserts from home. More and more restaurants now offer online ordering, so you can peruse the menu at your leisure. If you really just need to get out of the house you can pick up the meal and take it somewhere picturesque. Try a beach, park, or even in the car overlooking a pretty scene while the sun goes down.
In sum, eating at home is the most affordable option, hands down. However, you can't put a price on new experiences, and trying new foods or just exploring your town are worth the extra effort. Socializing with friends is also necessary for a child's development and hey, you've got to be able to blow off some steam too, away from the toys on the floor and the dishes in the sink.
You can reward yourself and your family from time to time if you make smart economic choices about dining out.