We love to eat out. When we plan a vacation or a weekend trip, one of the most important parts is planning where to eat. But we also have five kids. So we’ve adjusted to make it more affordable, and now frugality is our default. It’s easy.
We’ve learned and developed so many different ways to save money when we go out to restaurants — some are so ingrained in us that we forget we do them, but I’m going to share as many as I know of, and I may come back and add more later.
Sure, buffets frown upon sharing, but most other restaurants are used to it. Our kids are between the ages of 1 and 14, so it makes sense for most of them to share. Since we have four older kids, they get with each other to figure out who is sharing with who.
It saves money, and builds reasoning and decision making skills. That was kind of a joke, but really, it has helped our kids learn to reason and even to negotiate.
Plus, sharing usually prevents needing that to-go box. When you share, kids are able to get larger portions, and more options, which leads to my next point…
2. Avoid the Kids Menu
In preparation for writing this article, I did some research to see how others save money at restaurants, and I found a lot of the articles saying things like “order off the kids menu if you’re an adult.”
False. The kids menu is, more often than not, a scam.
The kids menu is full of all kinds of marketing and advertising tactics to get kids to want what’s on it. Explain that to them (you’ll learn more about the specific marketing in the infographic below). Then look at the prices. It’s not much cheaper than the regular menu, and it often costs extra for a drink or dessert, though they don’t advertise that part very well.
Lunch and dinner portions will always be larger than the portions on the kids menu, and usually they aren’t much more expensive. When you consider sharing one dinner portion between two kids, it’s going to cost less per child, and they’ll get more food.
3. Don’t Get Too Fancy
We love to eat out, but there doesn’t have to be a white table cloth and wine glasses set. We prefer smaller restaurants, often where the food is picked up at the counter, rather than delivered to the table (this also saves on gratuity).
We’ve even been known to do McDonald’s occasionally, though in Europe, it’s really not any cheaper than a sit-down restaurant. The point is, eating out doesn’t have to mean spending lots of money. Find some restaurants you like in a lower price range. Your kids will be happy to be eating out with the family; they don’t care how nice it is.
4. Use Coupons and Specials
Save those coupons you get in the mail and actually use them instead of leaving them on the kitchen counter until they expire. Don’t just use them to use them, make sure it’s actually a good deal, and something you want to eat.
Scout out local restaurants for specials, and specific nights where your favorite things are on sale. Specials are usually a good deal, so listen when the server explains them.
Use websites like Raise to buy gift cards at a discount. Just be sure you buy them for restaurants you would’ve eaten at anyways.
You can also look for places where kids eat free certain nights. Money Crashers recently published a great list of restaurants that do this:
- Applebee’s. Kids 12 and under eat free on Tuesdays with the purchase of an adult entrée.
- Back Yard Burgers. Kids 12 and under eat free on Tuesdays from 4pm to close with the purchase of an adult combo meal.
- Baja Fresh. Kids 12 and under get a free kids meal on Sundays with the purchase of an entrée and a drink.
- Bennigan’s. Kids 12 and under eat free on Tuesdays from 4pm to close with the purchase of an adult entrée.
- Bob Evans. Kids 12 and under eat free from 4pm to 9pm on Tuesdays with the purchase of an adult entrée.
- Cicis Pizza. Kids under 3 eat free every day with an adult purchase.
- Chili’s. Kids 12 and under eat free on Mondays with the purchase of an adult entrée.
- Firehouse Subs. Kids 12 and under get a free kids meal on Sundays with each adult purchase.
- Golden Corral. Kids under 3 eat free every day with the purchase of an adult entrée.
- IHOP. Kids 12 and under eat free every day from 4pm to 9pm with the purchase of an adult entrée.
- IKEA. Kids 12 and under eat free on Tuesdays, plus you can get free organic baby food for your smallest eaters.
- Logan’s Roadhouse. Kids 12 and under get a free kids meal on Wednesdays when you purchase an adult entrée.
- Lone Star Steakhouse. Get two kids meals for free every Tuesday with each adult entrée purchased.
- Margaritas Mexican Restaurant. Kids 12 and under get a free kids meal on Saturdays and Sundays.
- Moe’s Southwest Grill. Kids 12 and under get a free kids meal from 4pm to close on Sundays with an adult purchase.
- O’Charley’s. Kids 12 and under get a free kids meal every day with the purchase of an adult entrée.
- Perkins Restaurant & Bakery. Kids 12 and under eat free every day with the purchase of an adult entrée.
- Qdoba Mexican Grill. Kids 12 and under get a free kids meal on Wednesdays and Sundays with the purchase of an adult entrée.
- Red Robin. Kids 10 and under eat free all day on Mondays with the purchase of an adult entrée.
- Romano’s Macaroni Grill. Kids 12 and under get a free kids meal on Mondays and Tuesdays with the purchase of an adult entrée.
- Ruby Tuesday. Kids 12 and under eat free every Tuesday from 5pm to close with the purchase of an adult entrée.
- Shoney’s. Kids 4 and under get a free kids meal on Fridays with the purchase of an adult entrée.
- Smashburger. Get a free kids meal with the purchase of a regular burger or salad after 4pm on Mondays, Tuesdays, or Wednesdays (varies by location).
- Souper Salad. Kids 4 and under eat free on Sundays with an adult purchase. Kids 5 to 12 eat for $2.49 apiece.
- Steak ‘n Shake. Get one free kids meal on Saturdays and Sundays with an adult purchase of at least $9.
- TGI Friday’s. Kids 12 and under eat free on Mondays and Tuesdays with the purchase of an adult entrée.
- Tony Roma’s. Kids 12 and under get a free kids meal on Sundays with the purchase of an adult entrée.
- Uno Pizzeria and Grill. Kids 12 and under eat free on Tuesdays with the purchase of an adult entrée.
5. Watch the Small Costs
Sometimes we’ll set an amount for a specific meal (really just for fun). We can’t go over that amount, so it forces us to think strategically about how we order. The small costs will eat at your budget if you’re not careful.
You don’t have to set a budget for each meal, but if you struggle with adding all the little costs to your meal (e.g. unneeded appetizers, extra sauce, drinks that aren’t water, etc.), consider trying it. And I’m not saying you have to only drink water with every meal, but pay attention to the prices.
The small costs add up, especially if you go out to eat often like we do. We mostly drink water because of that, when we’re in the States. In Europe, beer and wine are often cheaper than water, so sometimes we go that route, but pay attention to the prices of everything you’re paying for.
6. Consider Getting it To-Go
Depending on why you’re eating out, which we’ll discuss in a moment, consider take-away. By getting the food to-go, you’re eliminating buying drinks, sauces, and other extras, and again, you don’t have to worry about a tip, or at least not as much of one.
We do takeout often, and eat it around the dinner table. This works great for the abundance of pizzerias within 10 minutes of our house. Plus, they typically don’t cut the pizza in Italy, so we can take it home and cut it for the kids.
7. Eat Out for the Right Reasons
As I’ve said a few times, we love eating out, but you may need to ask yourself why you’re doing it. If you’re eating out for the convenience of not having to cook, consider developing a better plan that makes cooking at home easier.
If you’re eating out because you love to do it, and spend the quality time together, then keep on keeping on. But make sure your budget can handle it. If you’re working on breaking free from thousands of dollars in debt, it may not be the best season of life to eat out all the time. If you’re debt-free or close to it, it may make more sense.
The main idea is to ask yourself why you’re doing it and intentionally decide whether you eat out too much, or if you’re actually happy with the amount of times you eat out each week.
8. Know and Avoid the Menu Tricks
There’s lots of tricks used in menu marketing to get you to spend more money. Know the tricks, and point them out to your kids when you’re at the restaurant.
I don’t always like infographics, but this one is actually highly informative, brief, and well made. Check out these 11 tricks restaurants use to “make you” spend more money.
All the Tips and Tricks Online
A quick Google search will reveal plenty of ways to save money, but I chose to only include the ways that don’t involve tedious work. Your time is more valuable than money, and I don’t think it’s worth it to use 500 apps, and waste 30 minutes or an hour to save $2.
That being said, check out those other articles too. You may actually enjoy some of the many money-saving apps for restaurants. As always, personal finance is… personal. It’s all about what works for you. These were the tips that work for us.
Over to You!
- How often does your family eat out?
- What are some ways you save money when you do?