little kid eating at restaurant

Kids…often finicky mouths to feed…especially when you want to eat out. But if you’ve been resigned to only frequenting restaurants with warmed-over chicken fingers on the cheap kids menu, or cartoon characters adorning the walls, we have a host of better ideas on how to eat out with kids without spending their college fund.
In fact, if you want to save money on eating out with kids, your first best bet might be to forget the kids menu, says Katie Moseman, a mom of two kids, ages 7 and 10, and a restaurant reviewer and cookbook author.

Think that sounds counterintuitive? Turns out the kids menu typically features puny portions and non-nutritious options. Here are nine better ways to get more bang for your buck…so you and your partner can enjoy an extra dessert or glass of wine without feeling guilty.

Order an Adult-Sized Entrée

You might not be able to talk them into something super gourmet, but even if it’s the same food they might choose from a kids menu, like spaghetti or a burger and fries, it’s often a far bigger portion than two kids meals even if you halve it. If you want to round it out, order soup, a side salad or steamed veggies to up the nutrition without upping the check too much. Of course your mileage may vary…if the kids meal features dessert, a drink and a toy, all that happiness might make it the better buy.

Get Free Appetizers

Well, sure, free appetizers are great (and sometimes the menu might have some affordable options even if they’re not free) but we’re talking “free, free,” as in chips and salsa at Mexican restaurants or breadsticks at Italian places. These pre-meal delicacies are guaranteed to keep the kids busy and happy while you order…and will take the edge off their appetites so you can order a little less.

Find Coupons

Local parenting magazines often have coupons for free kids meals (yes, go ahead and get them if they’re free!). Just make sure you’re not traveling too far afield, or you could be wasting the savings on gas. However, if you’ve been dying to try a new place anyway, a discount can make it even more enticing. Many areas offer large year-long coupon books that community groups sell for fundraisers. Support a good cause, then keep it on hand in your car to see if you can use a buy one, get one free wherever you are.

Skip the Drinks

For the kids, that is. If you need a glass of wine, we get it. But drinks – whether it’s soda or orange juice – typically have the biggest markup on the menu so just order water for the kids…it’s healthier anyway.

Fill Up at a Buffet

No waiting. No wondering when the food is coming. No disappointment when it finally arrives, and it’s not exactly what they had hoped for. Visiting a buffet is one time when you want to bring the kids hungry and really let them load up. Sure, kids, go ahead and have another dessert; after all, it’s free.

Take a Pass on Restaurant Desserts

But other than that, plan to forgo most desserts, which are another pricey part of the menu. If the kids really want a sweet treat to finish off the evening, take a walk to a neighborhood parlor where you can order a less expensive kids scoop.

Feed Them Before and Let Them Order a Side Item

Or dessert. Or appetizer. Or whatever they want. After all, you’re not buying an entire entrée.

Find a Place Where Kids Eat Free

Again, yes to the kids menu if it’s free, so search your local faves online to see if they have special free evenings. Many cities also have a site with a comprehensive list of days and times that kids can eat free. You can also check out sites like Upparent.com which features “kids eat free deals” for several major markets around the United States with an interactive map and calendar.

Spend Some of the Money You Saved to Tip Your Server

Even if you’re using one or more of these money-saving ideas to keep the check low, remember that kids can be messy so tip your server well even if your ticket is on the small side. After all, they might have mouths to feed, too.

And of course, remember that explaining to your kids the reasons why you’re making these budget swaps are some of the best life lessons you can teach them.

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