How can I eat cheap with a family?
Even if dining out used to fit comfortably in your budget, that flies out the window once you have kids. One of the realities of parenthood is that almost everything, from housing to grocery shopping to keeping your gas tank full, suddenly costs exponentially more than it used to.
Adding insult to injury, no matter how much you enjoy dining out, kids aren’t always into it. My son never wants to sit still and only wants to eat mac and cheese, even at a Chinese or Mexican restaurant.
Luckily, there are plenty of ways to save, even if your kiddos want nothing but hot dogs or chicken nuggets.
Ways to Eat Out Cheap With a Family Full of Kids
Eating out with your family is a welcome respite from daily schedules and dirty dishes, but it can be expensive. Fortunately, there are plenty of tips for making it easier on your monthly budget.
1. Look for Restaurant Coupons in the Mail
Even if you hate junk mail, resist the urge to toss it immediately. Sort through your local value pack or that pile of paper flyers. Both can be goldmines for finding coupons for local restaurants. You might even find some kid-specific coupons. That’s especially true for fast-food establishments like Wendy’s or McDonald’s, but sometimes, full-service restaurants offer kids deals as well.
Once you’ve collected them, stash them in your bag or glove compartment. That way, you’ll always have them on hand, even if you make a last-minute decision to dine out.
2. Search for Coupons Online
A simple online search of your favorite restaurants plus the word “coupon” can reveal multiple websites offering printable or downloadable coupons, including deals on kids meals. You can save significant cash with coupons if you only dine at places you have them for.
3. Check Deal Sites Using Browser Extensions
Download and install the Rakuten, CapitalOne Shopping, or Honey browser extensions before you purchase. Using browser extensions on deal sites is like doubling down. You can dine at a discounted price by purchasing from the deal site and potentially get anywhere from 4% to 10% cash back through these shopping extensions, which offer you rebates on online purchases.
4. Use Coupon Apps
Multiple smartphone apps can give you restaurant coupons on your phone. That makes saving on dining out convenient if you don’t have coupons on you. Restaurant-friendly coupon apps include:
- Ibotta. Once a rebate app exclusively for grocery deals, Ibotta has expanded to cover all realms of shopping, including dining out. It even offers cash-back rebates for popular meal-delivery services like DoorDash, Uber Eats, and Grubhub. Many of its restaurant rebates are for cash back on gift cards, but you can still save by cashing in your points for a free gift card to pay for your meal.
- RetailMeNot. Despite the name, this app also has deals for restaurants, though they’re typically chain restaurants. If you’re not sure where you want to eat, RetailMeNot uses your location to show you a list of available deals in your area.
- Coupon Sherpa. Coupon Sherpa offers a wide variety of coupons for both retail stores and dozens of chain restaurants. Additionally, the smartphone app uses GPS to find discounts for restaurants wherever you find yourself.
- Valpak. The coupon-filled envelope that comes in the mail also has an app version. So if you frequently forget your coupons when it matters, you can simply use an electronic version of the very same coupon. And unlike many other apps, Valpak comes with local coupons.
5. Sign Up for Restaurant Rewards Programs and Apps
As restaurants scramble to compete for your business, many offer smartphone apps with coupons or loyalty programs with rewards points you can exchange for free food, especially kid-friendly chain restaurants. Sign up for any rewards cards, email subscriptions, text messages, and smartphone apps at your family’s favorites.
It doesn’t take many sign-ups for email subscriptions to clutter your inbox, but it can be worth it for the regular blasts of coupons, deals, and promotional events. Or you can set up a secondary email account just for money-saving newsletters.
Some of the most popular family-friendly restaurants that offer loyalty programs with rewards points or mobile apps with coupons include:
- McDonald’s. If your kids are regulars at McDonald’s, this app is a must. Typical coupons include offers for free breakfast food, sandwiches, fries, and buy-one, get-one coffee deals. Plus, score a free large fry just for downloading the McDonald’s app.
- Chick-fil-A. Earn rewards points toward free food when you buy using the Chick-fil-A app. Chick-fil-A’s loyalty program is tiered, so the more you buy, the better the rewards get.
- Tim Hortons. The Tim Horton’s app is a gateway to its loyalty program. Use it to order, pay, and earn points. Or have your app scanned at checkout. The app also regularly features coupons for free beverages, doughnuts, and breakfast sandwiches.
- Dunkin’. Dunkin’ designed its app for on-the-go ordering, but it also keeps tabs on your loyalty points. Loyalty members earn free drinks and exclusive bonus-point offers.
- Red Robin. Join Red Robin Royalty for more than just a free burger on your birthday. Each of your kids can also get a free burger on their birthday. Plus, every 10th burger (or entree) is free. Your email inbox also gets regular coupons — everything from half-price burgers to BOGO burgers to discounted kids meals and free desserts and appetizers. Red Robin doesn’t currently have a smartphone app.
- Chili’s. Use the Chili’s app to earn points as part of its customer loyalty program. Points are redeemable for free food, including kids meals, appetizers, and desserts. Plus, if you visit at least every 60 days and purchase a minimum of $5, you get to choose between free chips and salsa or a free nonalcoholic beverage with every visit to a participating restaurant.
- TGI Fridays. Join Fridays Rewards to score a free appetizer. Then download the Fridays app to earn, redeem, and keep track of your loyalty points. Each visit earns you more points redeemable for free food — pretty much anything on its menu, depending on your point level.
- Red Lobster. Sign up for Red Lobster Rewards to earn points on every visit. Plus, get a bonus of 75 points just for signing up — 125 points earns you your first reward, redeemable for free food. Download the app to your smartphone to earn, redeem, and keep track of your loyalty points. Red Lobster’s program is tiered, so the more you earn, the better the rewards get.
If your family’s favorite restaurant isn’t listed, check its webpage to see if it offers a loyalty program or smartphone app.
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 pay face value for the gift card, your restaurant meal helps knock some cash off your gas bill, and what parent couldn’t use that?
A third idea is to stock up on gift cards during the holidays. Most restaurants offer bonus cash for purchasing gift cards during the holiday season, 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. Make a Savings Plan
You can help your family budget by planning your meal before you get to the restaurant and discussing those expectations with your kids.
For example, you can stick to a certain price threshold. Let your kids know the maximum price they can spend on an entree before you leave. Similarly, if you prefer to skip appetizers, paid drinks, or desserts, let your kids know upfront.
If you have younger children who don’t yet understand prices and limits, look at the menu online and figure out what kids meals are within the family budget. That way, you’ll already know what to order when you get to the restaurant.
And finally, if you’re planning to eat at a restaurant you’ve never been to before, check the price ranges upfront to avoid surprises when you arrive.
Our family’s eaten out at restaurants we expected to be priced as casual only to find prices closer to those for fine dining. For example, a gourmet grass-fed burger at boutique restaurants can cost double what a burger at a casual chain restaurant does. Checking ahead can help you avoid sticker shock and make different plans if necessary.
8. Split Meals
Restaurant meals in the United States are notoriously huge. Their portions 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 5, they may rarely eat more than a few bites of a kids meal. So you can shave $5 to $7 off your restaurant bill by simply sharing your meal with your little one. You can ask your server to bring an extra plate. We did this for several years with our son, and servers in most restaurants are accustomed to it.
Another option is to order a couple of entrees to share family-style with everyone at the table. We frequently order two entrees for three or four people to share. We especially like to do this at restaurants where the food comes in separate dishes from the ones you eat on, which is a perfect setup for sharing. Some restaurants specifically advertise family-style dining. Others, such as barbecue joints and American-style Chinese restaurants, make it easy to share.
You can also try splitting one adult entree between two children, ordering a la carte and sharing sides, or splitting appetizers and desserts. Any way you can share food helps pare down the total bill as well as reduce wasted food.
9. Order Starters Instead of Entrees
Appetizers and starters usually cost less than entrees but can often be a fairly substantial size. For example, I’m a huge fan of nachos and have ordered them as my meal many times. I get all the food groups covered, including meat and veggies, and I’ve never managed to finish a plate.
And nachos aren’t the only bargain from the appetizer menu. Plenty of restaurants offer what some may consider complete meals as appetizers. Buffalo wings that come with veggies are one example, and some restaurants even serve their appetizer chicken tenders with fries.
Likewise, soup and salad cover all the bases and are typically cheaper than your average entree. Some restaurants offer all-you-can-eat refills on these items. For example, you can get endless trips to the salad bar for one price at Ruby Tuesday. Or fill up on unlimited refills of soup, salad, and breadsticks at Olive Garden.
10. Order a Kids Meal, Early Bird Special, or Happy Hour Special
Although some restaurants disallow ordering a kids meal if you’re an adult, it’s worth asking. Because restaurant portions are so large, kids meals are usually an adequate amount of food, even for grown-ups. More important, they typically cost half as much.
The kids menu is likely to have much less variety than the regular menu, but it might be a workable option, depending on what and where you’re eating.
But the kids menu isn’t the only place to look for smaller, cheaper portions.
Some restaurants offer lower-priced lunch portions or an early bird special menu during lunch or early dinner hours (typically 4pm to 6pm). These include smaller portions of select dinner entrees. And since families with younger kids typically eat dinner before 6pm, it’s a convenient way to save money.
Some restaurants also offer menus with smaller portions for older adults, often called “senior” menus. These have more adult-friendly options than kids menus, but many restaurants that offer them restrict them to older adult guests. But it’s worth asking if you don’t routinely finish a typical restaurant portion.
And if you’re eating during a restaurant’s happy hour window, typically 5pm to 7pm, take advantage of any happy hour specials, which often feature half-price deals. They usually focus on appetizers to take the edge off alcoholic beverages, but you may also see pub food like sliders, shepherd’s pie, and meatloaf. Sometimes, these appetizers and entrees are even large enough to split with someone else.
11. Avoid Extras (or Split Them)
If you want to keep the total cost of your bill down, skip all the extras. Nothing drives up the final price like ordering a bunch of drinks, appetizers, and desserts. My family has gone out to eat more than once expecting to get a cheap dinner thanks to a free entree coupon only to be shocked at how much drinks like ice tea and soda hiked up our total bill.
It’s the same with appetizers and desserts. But if you want those courses, split them with another family member. Appetizers are made to be shared, and restaurant desserts are usually generously sized. You can save 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 he wants french fries only to burst into tears when the server doesn’t bring him applesauce. Kids meals often come as a package deal. You get to choose one entree, one or two sides, a drink, and maybe a dessert, all for one price. In restaurants that make you choose one side, you can often still get two without paying extra — in theory, at least.
I’ve been to many a restaurant with my little one and asked 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. You can’t necessarily expect it, and no restaurant will guarantee it, but it doesn’t hurt to ask for an additional side.
13. Look for Kids-Eat-Free Deals
Most restaurants make the lion’s share 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 entrees. But if you’re planning to eat out anyway, a free kids meal is a win for you too.
Restaurants that offer free kids meals typically do so on weekdays to draw customers in on their slow days. But if you look hard enough, it’s not impossible to find restaurants that offer free kids meals on weekends.
Even among chain restaurants, offers vary by location and can change at any time, so call ahead to confirm the deal. Also, in some cases, you can’t combine kids-eat-free deals with coupons or other promotions.
Some of the restaurants with the most popular kids-eat-free days include:
- Applebee’s. Kids 12 and under eat free with the purchase of an adult entree on certain days of the week, depending on location.
- Back Yard Burgers. Kids 12 and under eat free with the purchase of an adult combo meal on Tuesdays from 4pm to close.
- Baja Fresh. Kids 12 and under get a free kids meal with the purchase of an entree and drink on Sundays.
- Bennigan’s. Kids 12 and under eat free with the purchase of an adult entree on Tuesdays from 4pm to close.
- Bob Evans. Kids 12 and under eat free with the purchase of an adult entree from 4pm to 9pm on Tuesdays.
- Cici’s Pizza. Kids under 3 eat free with an adult purchase. Some locations only offer this deal on certain days, while others offer it every day.
- Chili’s. Rewards members get a free kids meal as long as they spend at least $5 every 60 days.
- Firehouse Subs. Kids 12 and under get a free kids meal with each adult purchase on Wednesdays.
- Golden Corral. Kids under 3 eat free with the purchase of an adult entree.
- IHOP. Kids 12 and under eat free with the purchase of an adult entree between 4pm and 9pm.
- 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 10 and under get a free kids meal when you purchase an adult entree on Wednesdays.
- Lone Star Steakhouse & Saloon. Get two kids meals for free with each adult entree purchased every Tuesday.
- Margaritas Mexican Restaurant. Kids 12 and under get a free kids meal on Saturdays.
- Moe’s Southwest Grill. Kids 12 and under get a free kids meal with an adult purchase on Sundays from 4pm to close.
- O’Charley’s. Kids 10 and under get a free kids meal with the purchase of an adult entree.
- Perkins Restaurant & Bakery. Kids 12 and under eat free with the purchase of an adult entree every Tuesday.
- Qdoba Mexican Grill. Kids 12 and under get a free kids meal with the purchase of an adult entree on Wednesdays and Sundays.
- Red Robin. Kids 10 and under eat free with the purchase of an adult entree on Mondays.
- Romano’s Macaroni Grill. Kids 12 and under get a free kids meal with the purchase of an adult entree on Mondays and Tuesdays.
- Ruby Tuesday. Kids 12 and under eat free with the purchase of an adult entree every Tuesday from 5pm to close.
- Shoney’s. Kids 4 and under get a free kids meal with the purchase of an adult entree on Fridays.
- 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 with an adult purchase on Sundays. Kids 5 to 12 eat for $2.49 apiece.
- Steak ‘n Shake. Get one free kids meal with an adult purchase of at least $9 on Saturdays and Sundays.
- TGI Fridays. Kids 12 and under eat free with the purchase of an adult entree on Tuesdays.
- Tony Roma’s. Kids 12 and under get a free kids meal with the purchase of an adult entree on Sundays.
- Uno Pizzeria & Grill. Kids 12 and under eat free with the purchase of an adult entree on Tuesdays.
14. Opt for Takeout
Tipping your server is important, as most of their income comes from tips. But it can also add a significant amount to your total bill. For example, if your bill comes to $50 and you leave a 20% tip, that’s an extra $10. If you eat out at least once per week, tips alone could add up to an extra restaurant meal every month.
But if you opt for takeout instead, you can save considerably on the tip portion of the bill. You don’t have to tip as much, if anything, on carryout meals, depending on the restaurant.
For example, if you opt for takeout, you may only need to leave a couple of dollars, depending on the size and complexity of your order. And in fast-casual or fast-food restaurants, you shouldn’t tip at all unless there’s a tip jar on the counter.
Plus, carryout is a convenient option for families with little ones, who often have difficulty waiting for their food or sitting still through long meals. Instead, order ahead, pick it up, and take the meal to a park, where the kids can wiggle and squirm all they want or even play when they should be eating. We often pick up Subway or Panera sandwiches or some ice cream and eat while our son plays at a nearby park.
If you’d like to keep eating out in your family’s budget but you’re worried about its impact, try one or more of these tips for saving money on family dining. You can also cut back on the frequency of your dinners out, saving them for special occasions.
Cutting back can significantly affect your family’s monthly and yearly budget. Plus, you can put everything you save toward something even more fun, such as a family vacation.