Restaurant Dining on a Budget (Frugal Friday)

I love to eat out. I confess it freely. I always have. I always will.

When I was a kid, eating out was an event. We loved going to ChiChi’s Pizza Parlor or Lui’s Chinese Kitchen on a Friday night with my parents. And Mom and Dad had some budget strategies that worked well for them to feed five kids and not go under. These days I have more kids than my parents, but we still practice some of the same techniques.

1. Go to restaurants you really love.

After much trial and error, we’ve hit on a few restaurants that we really love. We’re okay with spending money on “a sure thing,” so we’ve narrowed the field to a handful of places that everyone likes and that cover a range of price points: In-N-Out Burger, Chick-Fil-A, Chipotle, Panda Express, and Red Robin. We want it to be enjoyable for as many of our crew as possible.

2. Don’t “go big.”

In our days before children we might have bought the biggest meal possible with all the extras. These days, we go for enough to feel satisfied without having too much. That means that we each might forego “a meal” for a sandwich and then share fries. Hubs and I agree that we’d rather be frugal eating out and get to go out more often rather than splurge just a fraction of the time.

3. Remember little kids don’t eat a lot when dining out.

How many times have you ordered a full meal for your kids only to find out that they only picked at it? What a waste! I’ve figured out that my girls (ages 2 and 4) don’t need to order their own meal items. I can usually order a large salad with chicken and share it with them and all three of us are happy.

As a family, we usually share fries instead of getting an order for each person. And we buy kid’s meals only once in a great while.

4. Drink water.

It’s amazing how much beverages can jack up the cost of a meal. We generally opt for water and find that is enough. Though since we all enjoy Chick-Fil-A lemonade, that’s an occasional treat that we indulge in.

How do YOU save money?

Share a creative money saving idea below or in the comments.

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Comments

  1. thanks for hosting

  2. I go online and see if they have coupons, promos for certain nights, etc. For example, last night was “Date Night” at Hu Hot, so it was $29.95 for two meals, two drinks and an appetizer. Then I signed up for their email club and got another FREE appetizer, so what would have been about $43, we got for $29.95. Most of the chains have some sort of a deal online either for birthdays or something just for signing up, like PF Changs has a rewards card where it is something different every month. I am with you, stick with the ones that we like…..although you are in CA, where there are some good hole in the wall ethnic places. ;) Panera Bread also has a rewards card where you get a FREE pastry right off the bat for nothing. ;)

  3. thanks for hosting

  4. “we’d rather be frugal eating out and get to go out more often rather than splurge just a fraction of the time.

    I agree that it isn’t always necessary to order a lot , but going out more isn’t always a good idea. If you visit fast food places, then going out more is a sort of false economy because you get to eat more meals that aren’t nourishing. That’s pretty much true of any meal in any chain restuaurant.

    These days I go out less, but I go to better quality restaurants. I order something that’s really delicious and made from real ingredients so it’s good for me.

  5. Jessica,
    that is so funny. ALL your family’s favorite eating out places are OUR favorites too.

    • @Nia, although our 4 year old sometimes complains chipotle is too spicy. Do you get this from your younger ones?

      • Jessica Fisher says:

        @Nia, we usually get the kids the bean and rice plate or the carnitas which is hormone-free and the least spicy of the meats. The chicken and the beef are a lot spicier than the pork.

  6. Our three children can split an adult meal, and that saves us a lot of money. They don’t even know what kids’ meals are, and we hope not to introduce them! And we all drink water!

  7. We’ve avoided eating out with the kids so far because of the expense and corralling 5 kids. This fall I want to try maybe once a month or so just going to one restaurant and enjoying it before trying a new one.

  8. One of my keys for eating out is to maintain a strict grocery budget. When I spluge on groceries, I don’t have the budget for eating out. Making frugal dishes like the pilaf I posted helps leave room for eating out.

  9. We love eating out too. Our fave is Baja Fresh — my son loves rice & beans and they have a plate for less than $2.

    It’s so true that whenever I order him something he never eats it! But, if I don’t then he suddenly gets hungry and eats all of mine…

  10. I had to laugh at your comment that kids don’t eat a lot at restaurants! You haven’t met my kids! The older kids (7, 5, 3) eat and eat and eat. It’s amazing how much food they can put away. We went to Chili’s on the 4th of July because they had a kids eat free offer – 2 kids per adult entree! My husband and I each got a meal and we got 4 kids meals because we also have a 1 year old. There was not a scrap of food left at our table. The kids ate all of the kids meals (shared the baby’s) and they ate off my plate as well. They also eat like that at home, unless they don’t like what I’ve cooked. Maybe that’s what they’re trying to tell me! They prefer restaurant cooking to mine! ;-)

    • @Michelle @ Simplify, Live, Love, This is my family too! Glad I’m not the only one with littles (6,5,&2) with big appetites. ;) I just don’t have those kids who pick. And we LOVE Chili’s “Kids Eat Free” nights. Our 2yo absolutely eats an entire meal by herself– and she’s not a big kid! Of course, my kids also don’t tend to choose “kid fare”. I’ve got the kindergartener who chooses the grilled salmon and broccoli every time.

    • Jessica Fisher says:

      @Michelle @ Simplify, Live, Love, no, I said, my girls don’t eat what I order for them. My boys are going to eat me out of house and home!

  11. It’s so nice to hear of a frugalista who likes to eat out! I think sometimes we feel guilty about such things. But you are right, there’s a ‘way to do it.’ When mine were little we would share drinks and fries. In fact, even though it’s just Mike and me going out now, we still do that! And if we don’t finish something, it goes into a doggy bag. My middle son is the benefactor, LOL. Oh, and I even get a ‘doggy cup’ if I have extra lemonade!

  12. We give the kiddos healthy snacks an hour or so before heading out to a restaurant and then they eat, but don’t inhale the food. Except in the case of Chipotle where we take them hungry and the three of them DEVOUR a giant burrito…Whatever will we do with our three boys when they are teenagers????? Rice and beans…beans and rice?!?

    • Jessica Fisher says:

      @amy, supplementing is a great idea. My two bigger boys (10 and 14) are ravenous eaters when we go out. So, I know exactly what you’re talking about.

  13. I also love to go out to eat at restaurants….and hubs does even more than me.

    As far as being frugal we do all the things you mention. I think drinking water is a big one because the drink bill can add up really fast. Also another thing I do is ask if I can order lunch portions. This helps with keeping calories and the bill in check. Most waiters don’t care and are happy to accommodate.

  14. I order kids meal coupons off Ebay. They cost me a fraction of the amount that I would pay at a restaurant and we have a variety to choose from when we go out.

  15. We don’t eat out much due to budget and behavior. When we do, we often use entertianment.com coupons or go to restaurants that offer free kiddie meals with an adult one.

  16. I too admit we love to eat out. We don’t eat out often because we are total food snobs. Portland has so many great restaurants that cheap chain restaurants aren’t an option. Although we have plenty of affordable places to eat at if we need to watch the budget.
    Eating good food is a Money4This item. I will save in other areas just so I can eat out.

  17. Great ideas! Especially love the recognition that half the time half of kids meals are thrown away. I don’t know about the other places, but I know Red Robin has a birthday club where you get a free meal on your big day!

  18. I don’t enjoy going out to eat usually, except a few places as usually I think “I can make this better at home….”
    but sometimes for the experience of it, it is fun! My boys are big eaters, but sometimes I remind them that we are there for the experience of it and not to stuff ourselves. We can always eat more at home!

  19. Don’t forget local restaurants! Most have websites and e-mail lists which can be a great way to score coupons. One local place asks for your birthday and anniversary months so that they can send you a coupon!

    One of my favorite hole in the walls is a Chinese restaurant. You get an entree/fried rice/ egg roll for $4.50 from 11am-3pm daily. It’s so much food it can easily make two meals.

    • Jessica Fisher says:

      @Nora, if I could find some good local restaurants, I would totally choose those over the chains. We don’t know San Diego that well and we’re hesitant to blow the money on an experiment.

  20. Groupon! We have gotten good deals off this. Also go to the restaurants like IHOP & Sharis that give free kids meals on the weekends. I believe Applebees has reduced kids meals on Wednesday nights at different locations as well.

  21. Hubs and I disagree on this, but I prefer to avoid restaurants that don’t have waiters. I hate paying the waiter (i.e. the tip). I always tip well, but I don’t like the fact that the entire cost isn’t in the cost of the entree. I prefer a place w/out a waiter and w/out a drive through–someplace like chipotle or baja fresh.

    I also have only one 3 year old, so I know I have a little more wiggle room than some of you bigger families. My sweet boy and I go out once a week to McD’s for lunch after story time. My McD’s will give me the mini-meal w/apple dippers and milk–essentially a kid’s meal w/out the toy, and for more than a $1 less, woot woot!!

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