Although you may once have been able to fit eating out into your budget comfortably, once you have kids, that flies out the window. One of the many realities of parenthood is that almost everything, from housing to grocery shopping to gas for your car, suddenly costs exponentially more than it used to.
According to 2015 statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the cost of raising kids averages $12,980 annually, per child, for a middle-income family. And food is a huge budget buster, second only to housing. But while reducing how often your family eats out may be important or even necessary to stretch your family’s dollars, it’s hardly much fun.
Moreover, a lack of time and sheer exhaustion have led to increased spending on convenience. Some nights, it just seems easier to relax at a restaurant than make a meal yourself. The recent explosion of home delivery services, from meal kits to DoorDash, attests to how much weary parents simply don’t want to cook, even when eating out may cost three, four, or even five times what cooking from scratch does.
In fact, even though 49% of Americans responded in a 2016 survey that cheaper prices at restaurants would make them dine out more often, revenue for the restaurant industry continues to expand. The USDA found that Americans spend as much as one-third of their food dollars on dining out.
Americans love eating out and aren’t likely to stop. And if it’s something you truly enjoy doing with your family, there may be room for it in your budget. After all, part of raising kids involves creating fun experiences and shared memories, and eating out on occasion can be one way – though certainly not the only way – your family does that.
Ways to Save on Eating Out With Kids
If eating out once in a while is a pleasure you’d like to hang onto, here are some tips for making it more manageable for your household budget.
1. Save Any Restaurant Coupons You Get in the Mail
Even if you hate junk mail, resist the urge to throw it away immediately. Sort through your local value pack or the pile of paper flyers that come in the mail. Both can be goldmines for finding coupons to local restaurants. You might even find some kid-specific coupons. That’s especially true for fast food establishments such as Wendy’s or McDonald’s, but sometimes, full-service restaurants offer them as well.
It can be difficult, however, to keep track of all those paper coupons, and losing them means losing your savings. I know I’ve found myself out at a restaurant only to suddenly remember I left the coupon I needed at home on the kitchen counter. To solve this problem, I’ve started keeping an envelope of coupons in the glove compartment of my car. Since we always take the family car when we go out to eat, this ensures I always have coupons on hand.
2. Search for Coupons Online
A simple Google search of your desired restaurant plus the word “coupon” can reveal any number of websites offering printable or downloadable coupons. You’ll likely find several usable coupons for your meal, potentially including coupons for deals on kids meals. For that matter, it’s always worth doing a coupon search before you go anywhere or buy anything. It takes minimal effort and can help you find ways to save.
3. Check Deal Sites
Sites such as Groupon, LivingSocial, Travelzoo, and Restaurant.com can yield some great deals on restaurants. Also, make sure you have the Rakuten (formerly Ebates) extension installed on your browser before you make your purchase. Using Rakuten is like doubling down on a deal; not only will you be able to dine at a discounted price by purchasing from the deal site, but you’ll also potentially get anywhere from 4% to 10% cash back through Rakuten.
4. Use Coupon Apps
In addition to searching for coupons online, there are a number of smartphone apps that will give you restaurant coupons on your phone. That makes saving on dining out convenient if you’ve forgotten your paper coupons at home or failed to plan ahead by searching for printable coupons online. Restaurant coupon apps include:
- Ibotta. Should mom or dad desire a glass of wine or a pint of beer with their meal, the Ibotta app can help bring the cost down. The same app that gives you rebates on items you buy at the grocery store also gives you rebates on alcohol at restaurants. Ibotta offers rebates of up to $2 for any single glass of wine or beer at any restaurant and up to $3 for hard liquor.
- RetailMeNot. With this app, you’ll find more than just deals for retail stores; they also have deals for any number of restaurants, though they’re typically limited to chain restaurants. If you’re not sure where you want to eat, RetailMeNot uses your location to show you a list of all the available deals in your area – meaning wherever you are at the moment of your search.
- Coupon Sherpa. Like RetailMeNot, Coupon Sherpa offers a wide variety of coupons for both retail stores and dozens of chain restaurants. Additionally, their smartphone app uses GPS to find discounts for restaurants in whatever area you find yourself in, so you can see what deals are around before you make your final decision on where to eat.
- Valpak. That envelope that often comes in the mail filled with paper coupons for local establishments also has an app version. So if, like me, you frequently forget your coupons when it matters, you can simply use an electronic version of the very same coupon you sorted out of your mail – which means that maybe you can cancel your junk mail after all.
- Spotluck. This app makes dining out into a game that helps you discover new restaurants in your area. Spin the wheel for a surprise discount at a local restaurant. None of the options will be chains, which makes the app great for adventurous families who enjoy discovering new things. You might even end up finding a new family favorite.
- Restaurant.com. Not only does Restaurant.com have a deal site on the Web, but it also offers an app for your phone that helps you find deals wherever and whenever, even if you’re already at a restaurant. Even better, it requires no printing, unlike its Web counterpart. Though it only gives deals for local restaurants, not chains, it features reviews from diners that you can check out before you try a deal. You can also access menus through the app, which lets you plan ahead in case you have a picky eater or a child with food allergies or special dietary restrictions.
5. Sign Up for Restaurant Rewards Programs & Apps
Almost every restaurant has a loyalty program these days, especially chain restaurants, which are beloved as easy, fun, and convenient places for family dining. Be sure to sign up for any rewards cards, email subscriptions, text messages, and smartphone apps, especially if your family has a few top favorite restaurants. Though it doesn’t take many sign-ups for email subscriptions to quickly clutter your inbox, it can be worth it for the regular blasts of coupons, deals, and even news about special events.
Many restaurant rewards programs offer more than just the traditional free entrée on your birthday; it’s now common to regularly get coupons for other deals. As restaurants scramble to compete with each other for your loyalty and repeat business, offering a slew of deals in return for sign-ups has become the norm.
For example, Red Robin releases new coupons every two weeks for everything from half-price burgers to BOGO burgers to free desserts and appetizers. You can get a free burger on your birthday, of course, but Red Robin also allows you to sign up each of your kids for free burgers on their birthdays. And you can earn rewards and freebies for your purchases, such as a free burger or entrée after the purchase of nine burgers or entrées.
Don’t sign up for emails only, though. Even though many restaurants now link their loyalty programs across platforms – email, smartphone app, text message, and so on – you can often discover different deals on different platforms. For example, you may get a coupon on your smartphone app but not in your email. Moreover, most restaurants give you freebies just for downloading their apps. Red Lobster, for example, offers a free appetizer or dessert simply for downloading theirs.
6. Purchase Discounted Gift Cards
If there’s a restaurant your family frequents often or one you know you’ll be visiting, you can buy discounted gift cards ahead of time from Raise. Raise is like eBay for gift cards; it allows sellers to post their unwanted gift cards for sale, offering them at a discounted price in exchange for cash.
Alternatively, you can buy gift cards for restaurants at any number of regional grocery store chains that offer fuel perks. Although you’ll pay face value for the gift card, your restaurant meal will help knock some cash off your gas bill, and what mom or dad couldn’t use that?
A third idea is to stock up on gift cards during the holidays. Most restaurants offer bonus cash during the holiday season for purchasing gift cards, and if you buy from a restaurant you frequent often, you can keep the gift cards to pay for your own meals and get the bonus cash too.
7. Plan Ahead
Many of these tips for saving money on family dining involve planning ahead, whether that’s clipping coupons, buying gift cards, or shopping deal sites. But you can also help your family budget by planning what you’ll eat when you get to the restaurant and discussing those expectations with your kids.
For example, if you plan to attend a restaurant that offers meals at a range of prices, you may want to stick to a certain threshold. If that’s the case, let your kids know ahead of time what is and isn’t an acceptable price range for an entrée. Similarly, if you prefer to skip appetizers, drinks, or desserts as a way to save money, make sure you discuss this ahead of time to avoid any confusion and hurt feelings.
If you have younger children who don’t yet understand prices and limits, it never hurts to take a look ahead at the menu and figure out what menu items are within the family budget. That way, when you get to the restaurant, you’ll already know exactly what to order to stay within your set limit.
And finally, if you’re planning to eat at a restaurant you’ve never been to before, be sure to check the price ranges for menu items ahead of time so that there are no surprises when you arrive. I’ve eaten out with my family at restaurants we expected to be priced as casual, only to find prices that were closer to those for fine dining. At boutique restaurants, a gourmet grass-fed burger can cost double what a burger at a casual chain restaurant does.
8. Split Meals
Restaurant meals are notoriously huge; their portions for “one” can often easily feed two or more. Thus, it can pay to get creative with various ways to split meals. For example, if you have a child who’s under five, they may rarely eat more than a few bites of a kids meal. So you can easily shave $5 to $7 off your restaurant bill by simply sharing your meal with your little one. If you ask, you server will likely even bring you an extra plate so your child can still feel as if they’re getting their “own” meal. We did this for several years with our son.
Another option is to order a couple of entrées to be shared by the whole table family-style. Many times, my family has ordered two entrées to be shared by three or four people. We especially like to do this at Chinese food restaurants, where the food often comes on separate plates and bowls than the ones you eat on, which is a perfect setup for sharing.
You can also try splitting one adult entrée between two kids, ordering a la carte and sharing sides, or splitting appetizers and desserts. Any way you can share food will help pare down the total bill as well as eliminate waste.
9. Order a Kids Meal If You’re an Adult
Although some restaurants won’t allow you to do this, it’s worth asking. Because restaurant portions are so large, kids meals are usually an adequate amount of food, even for grownups. More importantly, they typically cost half as much.
Keep in mind that the kids menu is likely to have much less variety than the regular menu, but depending on where you’re eating, it might be a feasible option.
10. Order Appetizers Instead of Entrées
Appetizers usually cost less than entrées but can often be a fairly substantial size. I’m a huge fan of nachos, for example, and have ordered them as my meal many times. Not only do I get all the food groups covered, including meat and veggies, but I’ve never managed to finish a plate. You can save significantly by ordering appetizers during happy hour when they’re often half-price and splitting them with at least one other family member.
And nachos aren’t the only bargain off the appetizer menu. I’ve been to plenty of restaurants that offer what might be considered “complete meals” as appetizers. Buffalo wings that come with veggies are one example, and some restaurants even serve their appetizer chicken tenders with fries.
11. Avoid “Extras” (Or Split Them)
If you want to keep down the total cost of your bill, skip all the “extras.” Nothing will drive up the final price like ordering a bunch of drinks, appetizers, and desserts. More than once, my family has gone out to eat with a “free entrée” coupon in hand, expecting to get a cheap dinner, only to be shocked when the check came at how much drinks hiked up our total bill.
It’s the same with appetizers and desserts. But if you really want these courses, try splitting them with another family member. Appetizers are made to be shared, and restaurant desserts can be thousands of calories, not to mention generously sized. You can save your waistline and your wallet by splitting them two or more ways.
12. Sneak in a “Freebie”
I discovered this tip entirely by accident after struggling with an indecisive toddler who repeatedly insists at restaurants that he wants French fries, only to burst into tears later when the server doesn’t bring him applesauce. Kids meals often come as a package deal; you get to choose between one entrée, one or two sides, a drink, and maybe a dessert, all for one price. That means if the meal comes with one side and we order French fries, we can’t add in applesauce without incurring an extra charge – at least, in theory.
I have been to many a restaurant with my little one and asked for the server to throw in an extra side, fully expecting to pay for it, only to discover they gave it to us for free. I’ve heard the same story from others. So although you can’t necessarily expect it, and no restaurant will technically guarantee it, it may not hurt to ask for an additional side.
13. Look for “Kids Eat Free” Deals
Restaurants typically make most of their money serving adult meals since kids meals are generally already discounted. But that’s precisely why you’re likely to find many restaurants offering further discounted or even free kids meals. Like doorbusters on Black Friday, the aim is to rope customers in with free kids meals and then make money selling adult entrées. But if you’re planning on eating out anyway, a free kids meal is a win for you too.
Here’s a list of just some of the restaurants with “kids eat free” days. Keep in mind that these are most often offered on weekdays as restaurants are most inclined to try to draw customers in on their slow days. But if you look hard enough, it’s not impossible to find some restaurants that offer free kids meals on weekends as well.
Offers vary by location and can change at any time, so be sure to call ahead to confirm the deal. And finally, in many cases, you can’t combine “kids eat free” deals with coupons or other promotions.
- 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.
14. Rethink Why You’re Eating Out
If you find yourself defaulting to eating out several times per month, and it’s wreaking havoc on your budget, saving significant amounts of money might be as simple as rethinking why you’re eating out so often.
Is It for Convenience?
All parents struggle with periods of exhaustion and a lack of time. And when we’re coming home from work after a long, hard day, the last thing many of us want to do is cook. So why not leave the cooking, serving, and cleanup to someone else?
The Washington Post reports that a lack of time is the No. 1 reason parents don’t cook more often. Dual-income households where both parents each work one or more jobs have led to a decline in home-cooked meals. Stress is another significant factor, according to Reuters.
Many Americans are eating out simply for convenience; it’s just so much easier than going through the effort of making a home-cooked meal. The problem is that convenience is costing the average American about $3,000 per year, USA Today reports. And 2015 data reported by Bloomberg shows that Americans now spend more money on restaurants than on groceries.
So if convenience is the reason behind your spending, you can save tremendously by simply finding ways to make cooking at home easier. Though they’re not a significantly better alternative in terms of cost, meal kit subscription services can make cooking at home more convenient and enjoyable. Survey data from Priceonomics shows that while meal kits cost, on average, three times more than cooking from scratch, that’s still a savings over restaurants, which can cost five times as much or more.
Even better, though, would be just to make your own home-cooked meals. Being a parent isn’t an easy job; it’s fraught with stress, exhaustion, and a general lack of time. But you can mitigate at least one hardship – the financial one – by finding ways that work within your schedule and budget to make home cooking easier.
For example, I make use of my slow cooker multiple times per week. After a long, stressful day, there’s nothing quite like coming home to a dinner that’s already basically done. If you tend to forget to dump something into the slow cooker before you leave for work in the morning, a pressure cooker may be just the thing to turn dinner-making into something more doable.
Is It for Entertainment?
On the other hand, eating out for you and your family may not be about convenience. After all, it can take at least an hour to sit through a meal at a restaurant and 20 minutes or more to wait on takeout or delivery.
It may be that your family eats out simply for fun. Dining at a restaurant can be an enjoyable activity; your family gets to experience a change of pace while also getting some uninterrupted family time when you can focus on each other exclusively, free from the many distractions at home. Further, many Americans dine out on the weekends when a restaurant meal can set the tone for a fun and relaxing end to the work or school week.
Eating out can also be a way to create cherished memories. Whenever families spend quality time together engaging in enjoyable activities, it builds stronger family bonds, according to the American College of Pediatricians. If you can afford to work regular restaurant meals into your budget without neglecting important savings categories, and this is one of the ways your family spends quality time together, it may not be such a bad thing to go out to eat once in a while. After all, kids grow up fast, and if you put off doing fun things together in an effort to save every penny, before you know it, they’ll be grown and out of the house.
Further, if eating out is something you and your family genuinely enjoy, and it’s financially doable for you, it’s also worth remembering that every budget needs a little room for some fun. Money is a tool for creating the life you desire, and that means finding your own right balance between saving for the future and enjoying life now.
Keep in mind, though, that there are also other, cheaper ways to create quality family time, especially if you’re not able to comfortably afford eating out. For example, you could have a board game or movie night at home or, if the weather is nice, play Frisbee in the park. Even a few rounds of miniature golf or bowling can be a lot of fun and create some wonderful memories for less than the cost of a restaurant meal.
If you’d like to keep eating out in your family’s schedule of activities, but you’re worried about its impact on your family budget, be sure to try one or more of these tips for saving money on family dining. Even though food may be one of the biggest expenses for families, there are plenty of ways to help mitigate the costs.
If nothing else, you can also try cutting back on the number of times your family goes out to eat, saving it as an activity you do only once in a while or only on special occasions. Simply cutting back can significantly affect your family’s monthly and yearly budget without having to eliminate eating out entirely. Plus, you might decide to put away everything you save on eating out toward something even more fun, such as a vacation.
Though it’s certainly important to respect your family’s finances, in the end, money is a tool to help you get the most enjoyment out of life. And if that’s eating out for you, you don’t necessarily have to eliminate it from your family activities entirely. You may just have to think carefully about the best ways to balance your budget and your financial goals with the pleasurable activities you feel are important to hang onto.
Have you tried one or more of these methods for saving on eating out with your family? Do you have any tips or tricks you’d add to this list?