Dining Out on a Budget

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Dining out on a budget requires compromising in small ways, but still achieving the end goals of great food and good company.

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A few weeks ago I shared a few small ways our family uses to save money. One of those ways was to eat at home, of which we do a fair amount. However, while we love to eat at home, our family really enjoys its fair share of restaurant dining. I casually mentioned our target price for eating out for our family of 8: $10 to $30. Y’all jumped out of the woodwork to know how.

So, here’s my story.

I’ve heard tales of families of 4 who can’t dine out for less than $100. I am stunned when I hear these figures. Where are they eating and WHAT could they possibly be ordering?! I imagine that they go to full service restaurants, order drinks, appetizers, and desserts, and live it up.

We rarely, if ever, do any of the above. At least not all in one night. We might go full service, but we drink water and order simple entrees. Or we eat dinner at home and go out for dessert. Enjoying a meal out for our family of 8 meals requires compromising in small ways, but still achieving the end goals:

  • getting out of the house
  • keeping the kitchen clean
  • enjoying someone else’s cooking
  • having a family experience

I’m not sure that I have any “secrets,” but we usually spend anywhere between $10 and $40 when we do eat out, though the usual is often under thirty bucks. There are occasions when the bill reaches in the $50 to $75 range, but those are special events that might even include grandparents or aunts and uncles.

Here’s how we dine out on a budget:

1. We have stand-by restaurants that serve affordable take-out.

We tend to be creatures of habit. There are a handful of places we go as a family that we know everyone likes and that we can afford. These would include: Del Taco, Taco Bell, Costco, In-N-Out Burger, Chick-Fil-A, Chipotle, and Panda Express. We know that we can get in and out the door of these places well within our target range. Del Taco, in particular, offers regular taco specials, where I can, indeed, feed my family for ten dollars or less. And a Costco pizza rings in at $9.99 even. A round of kosher hot dogs and sodas at the food court totals about $10.50+tax since the little girls share.

While some of these establishments are not as “healthy” as others, I don’t fret too much. We don’t make eating out a daily occurrence. (At least not usually. Vacations are a different story.) Instead, I shoot for 80% great, healthy meals (usually at home) and 20% okay meals.

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. We want it to be enjoyable for as many of our crew as possible.

This keeps me sane — and allows us “fun food” every once in a while.

2. We drink water, skip dessert, and rarely order appetizers.

We’ve slowly started to wean our family of sodas and beverage bar drinks. They don’t like this idea in theory. But, they’re warming to it in practice. In fact, recently when we did the round of hot dogs and sodas at Costco, the kids and a certain papa went whole hog on the pop. They were feeling it within the hour. No one felt that great after drinking so much soda.

Preferring to drink water is a great way to save money, as is bypassing the dessert and apps. When we do splurge, we usually split a couple orders. Enough is as good as a feast.

3. We visit family-style restaurants.

Since our kids are still pretty little, not every one needs his own “meal.” In fact, eating at family-style restaurants, like Pat & Oscar’s or Panda Express, where we can get large orders of different items is a great way for us to accommodate the differing appetites in our crew as well as save money. At this type of restaurant, we can usually get out the door for about $30 with leftovers to take home.

4. We order kid’s meals only when the numbers crunch appropriately.

Kids meals are a unique experience. Most of our favorite places don’t offer them. However, when the numbers crunch appropriately, we go for it. For instance at Chick-Fil-A recently, we got one free kid’s meal with each adult meal. While the dinner wasn’t “cheap,” we were able to feed our family for $24 that night and ate like kings.

Recently, I discovered that the kid’s meal at Chipotle is only $3.50. I think this is a great deal — if your kid will eat what’s on his plate. However, FishBoy7 thinks that both the rice and beans are too spicy. I could buy him two quesadillas for two bucks instead. He’d be just as happy — minus the chocolate milk — and we’d shave something off the bill.

5. We 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.

6. 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.

Dining out, obviously means different things to different people. Granted, I can understand spending more money less often and enjoying a nicer dining experience. (We save those for date nights.) But at the same time, this is a way that works for us. We can enjoy a meal I don’t have to cook, be together as a family, and not go beyond our budget.

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  1. I read this a bit ago, and didn’t think I had anything to add. Today at Chipotle whilst eating out with only 2 out of my 4 kiddos – I realized I could share a little, and actually hubby and I could share a little, to shave off money when eating at Chipotle.

    First is, I love their food, but their burritos are SO large I could never finish one. I discovered upon reflection – that I could order a bowl (instead of the burrito) have them add an extra scoop of rice to it, then pay the $2 for extra chicken. I put all the ingredients I want in the bowl, request two tortillas wrapped to go. Then when I sit down to eat, I scoop out half of the bowl amount onto a tortilla and set aside the rest for lunch/dinner the next day, while rolling my own tortilla. It costs me a bit more, but I get 2 meals out of it. The bill comes around $9 – 10 dollars for one bowl (with the extra chicken. they don’t charge you for the rice or tortillas) but splitting it – gets me $4.50 – $5 for two meals!

    Another tip I learned recently was to just order a side of rice. My kids LOVE the rice, but are not fans of the beans, and the small quesadilla with the kids meal just didn’t cut it for them. We finally found that we could order a side of rice (1 – 2 scoops, you can always ask for a bit more if needed) and 1 lg cheese quesadilla per 2 kiddos! The side of rice is just $.80! Throw in a bag of chips, ask for a water cup (their smallest size) and you have a pretty inexpensive lunch (Split the rice and quesadilla between 2 kids, 1 bag of chips for the whole family) for many people with kiddos. If my hubby and I really wanted to cut down our costs we could order 1 bowl with the extra rice and chicken and split it between us! That makes $10 for dinner for the two of us πŸ™‚

  2. We often share meals as well, being that the 2yr old will never eat a whole meal by herself. The reason I am comenting is that at the bottom of your article you mention Chipotle. I had never eaten at Chipotle until a couple of months ago when out with a couple of moms on a errand for cubscouts when one mom generously bought us all dinner from chipotle. It was soooooo good!! But I am a budget mom so being able to eat out again there would probably not happen anytime soon. One way we like to save money is to recreate our favorite restaurants meals at home, and on a whim I looked up Chipotle recipes and found a knockoff for the Barbacoa Beef, it was so easy, I didn’t have a pressure cooker so I cooked mine in the crockpot, invited those same moms I had originally dined with and they agreed it was delish!! I had spent not a whole lot and had TONS of food, so it really was economical and we all agreed that was awesome that the crockpot did all of the work!! I put the Barbacoa beef recipe in one crockpot, dry beans to cook in another crockpot and 20mins before we were ready to eat I made the rice while another mom chopped up the lettuce, tomatoes and made pico de gallo. Sooo good!!

  3. There was a time when we could use these tips . . . but then my kids grew into teenage boys. There is no cheap way to feed teenage boys. πŸ™‚

  4. So strange reading this post because WE DO THE SAME THING! We’re a family of 4 and we aim to spend $20 or less when we go out. Chipotle, Rosines (a local place) and Costco are all places we hit up regularly. The kids usually split something (and/or share with us) and we choose places where we get big bangs for our bucks. Great post!

  5. I second everything you said. We have also found eating at IKEA to be pretty inexpensive for a variety of foods. I know not everybody has an IKEA nearby, but they have deals in their restaurant pretty frequently for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We don’t eat out very often, but sometimes we go to IKEA just for a cheap dinner (and we don’t shop while we’re there…cuz then the savings on food goes out the window with the $ spent on other things I don’t need).

  6. if its just me and my two boys, drive through, I’ll do one adult meal with chicken nuggets/tenders, and then get a separate burger for me. I don’t eat the fries and just want the drink, haha. eating out, I love sweet tomatoes (KIDS EAT FREE!) and Ihop(Kids occasionally eat free!) Date night I like Applebees where we can get an appetizer and two entrees for 20 bucks!

  7. We don’t get to eat out much. When we do, it’s because I’m so exhausted, I just can’t handle making a meal. Or else it’s getting late and preparation for dinner hasn’t even begun, and there’s nothing to “whip up” in a hurry – although I do my best to always have a plan. But we still rarely eat “out” (unless someone blesses us with a gift card), we bring it in, instead. So, we scour whatever coupons we have, come up with a game plan of who gets what and what the best deal is while still catering somewhat to preferences, and one of us goes through the drive thru and brings it home. All drinks at home, unless it’s part of the coupon deal. We will also occasionally do pizza (like domino’s and papa johns), we get the carryout 2 mediums for $6 each, and that feeds us, but usually with no leftovers. Usually we are talking $10-15 for a family of 5 (soon to be 6), and that’s where we like the bill to fall, anything over that and we rethink ever eating at that particular restaurant again. We love Taco Bell, because we can all eat for under $10 sans coupons, but only if we can control ourselves (AKA not give into the huge ad on the front and sides of the building for whatever new steak burrito or whatnot they are pushing). Yeah, my kids are 5 and under, but no one is a little eater in this family. Wish we had the great portion control that everyone else seems to have, but we are a tall family, and the kids keep going through these crazy growth spurts and some days I feel like they are already eating us out of house and home, I can only imagine what it will be like when they are teens!

  8. I like all of your suggestions and sometimes these ideas work really well for me, my husband and our family of 4 kids.

    When I was a child, my parents were on a super tight budget. They would take us out to the Ground Round where the 4 of us kids ate free and you could throw your peanut shells on the floor. They were very strict about water-only and no desserts. While I appreciate their efforts and understand their thinking, I developed serious eating-out issues! As an adult, I’ve had to work hard at enjoying eating out without feeling constant financial pressure and montinoring every expenditure. Once on a date in college, I ordered only water – no food or drink. Needless to say that guy never invited me out again.

    These days I find myself preferring to go out (albeit infrequently) either with or without kids, to a high-quality restaurant, relax, enjoy a glass of a new wine I haven’t tried and savor each pricey bite haha!

    1. I can totally get that. We try to mix up our splurges versus our more trimmed eating, so that it isn’t all one way or another. But, you raise a good point. I struggled with that at different points in life, too. I think one of the things that helped was having a budget that was big enough that we felt freedom to splurge or freedom to spend less.

  9. I love Chipolte’s kids meals. My 3 year old and 9 month old share. Big boy eats most of the quesadillas, the rice (his fav) and shares the chips with me. Little Miss loves the black beans and some quesadillas.

  10. We use kidsmealdeals.com to see what deals (kids eat free or other specials) are available in our area (it is by zip code).

  11. Great Tips! I should try picking dinner when I make the trip to Costco.

    I know restaurants in our area have kids eat free nights which I need to investigate.

    I liked Chik-Fil-A, too! The play area was nice, and the service was absolutely wonderful though we were there at lunchtime, not dinnertime.

  12. Such great suggestions! We love to go to Chili’s on the “kids eat free” nights. They allow up to 2 free kids meals per adult entree, so all three kiddos can get their own meal. Hubby and I do the “2 for $20 deal” and get 2 meals and 1 appetizer. It is a TON of food, probably more than we need, but not bad at all for $20 plus tax and tip (tip on the full value amount, of course!) We never order soda/milk/juice when we’re out– mostly just water. If I’m going to PAY for a drink, it’s either wine, a margarita, or a fancy coffee drink. πŸ™‚

  13. We always – ALWAYS – share. Even if it’s just my husband and me, we’ll get an appetizer and entree and share the food. We always drink water. As a family, we tend not to eat out unless it’s for a birthday, but we, too, have our standbys for those crazy nights, and our favorite is Chipotle. Our go-to order is to get burrito bowls with extra rice/beans and eat them with chips. One bowl with extra rice easily feeds the three youngest kids on its own. (Does your 7yo not eat the black beans? We are black bean fans around these parts.) πŸ˜‰

  14. I second the Chipotle. My family of five can eat there for $24 – including soft drinks. My three kids get a kids meal and so do I – it’s the perfect size for me.
    Drinking water and sharing food are the best tips. These practices help and make any restaurant more affordable.
    Another word on Costco – we have often filled up there just on the samples they hand out! A fun, free snack.

    1. Chipotle is proving not to be such a great deal for us! Three boys are at the point where they could eat whole burritos! 5 burritos plus 3 kids meals takes us out of our range.

  15. We try to go where kids eat free and never order drinks. I also look on the daily deal sites. I found one the other day for a pizza place down the street. $30 worth of food for $15. We will plan to keep that meal close to $30. Love the article. We do all we can to save $$, too.

  16. Chipotle kids meal is the best idea! – even for adults. There’s no age limit so on the rare occasion I’m out alone at lunch time, this is my go-to meal.

    We eat out exactly like you. People often ask how we can eat out once a week, but it’s almost always $10 for our family of four. Sometimes we hit $15. We always share meals and drink water. For me it’s about the experience. I tell the kids it’s not about eating as much food as we can and feeling sick later. We can always get a bed-time snack at home if someone is really hungry πŸ™‚

  17. We always order water when eating out, drinks really add up the cost! And I think ordering less than you think is another idea – at least for me I always order too much – especially for the kids…You can always go back and order more if it’s not enough, but I rarely do because we rarely need to and it saves money and waste!

  18. Got Panda coupons a few weeks ago for free kids meals with 2 entree purchase…..that’s what we’re doing for Valentines Day!

    Water is the biggest trick…and ordering off the dollar menu. Wendy’s is a favorite after church. It’s the only meal we out during the week which was one of my food/budget goals last year.

    1. We did the Panda thing, too. It was a little bit less than a Panda feast, and everyone got to order what he wanted. But, they made us do four transactions which was kind of a pain. Seemed odd, really.

  19. Familiarity with the menu helps! We’ve found there to be a big range in kids’ meals and how we feel about the relative value. We’ll eat at Steak n Shake on weekends or Bob Evans on Tuesday nights when kids eat free. But a few years ago we would go to Macaroni Grill and I would order a meal that came with 3 pieces of chicken, some pasta, and broccoli. Both of my preschoolers was happy with a piece of chicken, I still had plenty to eat and there was bread too. Everybody was much happier not ordering kids meals. Drinking water is the best tip! Asking for restaurant gift cards for holidays is good too. And signing up for restaurant emails or birthday clubs sometimes nets fun extras.

  20. We usually get the food to go and I order kids meals for myself and my 11yr old. I’ve never had an issue with it when ordering to go. My favorite (before being gluten free) was the kids meal Chicken & Dumplings from Cracker Barrel with a side of biscuits ($3.49) and includes a drink, I would get the raspberry lemonaide. And my son would get the same meal with chocolate milk. Also Bob Evans has wonderful kids meals, I like the Turkey Lurky comes with a large slice of turkey, gravy, carrots (I change these to greenbeans), and stuffing/dressing and a drink again for under $4.00 and the portion size if just right and filling.

    (who is no hungry for some gluten!!

  21. I’m talking about saving on dining out today too on my blog. Some similar tips to yours although I think you do a particularly good job of keeping costs low since we spend about the same as you for a family of 4.

  22. We don’t eat out often, but when we do, we almost always share meals. My kids will split a kids meal, and my husband and I will split an entree. We just remind ourselves that if we are still hungry we can always order more food. In nineteen years of dining this way (seven with kids), we have NEVER ordered more food – never needed to!

  23. something that is implicit both here and the photos you take of your own plate, but i don’t recall you ever mentioning – is that you guys are very good at portion control. Sometimes i see your plate and think that is SO tiny, where’s the food? Then i realize that it’s enough and better for your waistline and your wallet. You could do an entire post about portion control and saving money! We go out for lunch once a week at costco – mom & dad split the salad, our kids split a piece of pizza and a churro or a hot dog and a churro. We actually get two drinks to go with our salad – we ALWAYS eat first (who wants to do a costco shop hungry and then have all the food sit there while you eat?) and get our money’s worth – we refill once or twice while shopping and refill before we leave. Turning costco into an enjoyable experience for our entire family helps us not feel guilty about not dragging the kids around to costly activities that are more hassle than helpful.

    1. Well, that’s really interesting. I hadn’t thought about the portion angle. I try to control my plate because Mother Nature is catching up to me. And I pretty much let the kids eat as much as they want. But, perhaps it isn’t as much as other people eat. I dunno. Thanks for pointing that out.

    2. Totally agree. My husband is a garbage disposal and has a fast metabolism. He wants to eat twice as much as I do, twice as often. I often times feel like i’m feeding two grown adults feeding him and its not cheap πŸ™

  24. When my husband and I eat out, we ALWAYS split a meeal. He doesn’t like leftovers, and the servings are almost always so huge neither of us needs to be eating the whole thing. So, we can go to a pretty decent, sit-down resturaunt and get out of there for under $15 including tip.

  25. Since cooking more at home I have found that when we do go out to eat the meals rarely measure up to what I can prepare at home, especially with fast food. Personally, for this reason, I would rather save up a little extra and take my family to a nicer restaurant (sometimes chain sometimes not). We do this once a month and allot ourselves $50. We are a family of 4.

    Another tip I would add that we do to save money is to view the menu online first. This way we can pick out and budget our meals accordingly. I have found this really helpful not only keeping us within budget but keeping my calories under control πŸ™‚

    I agree with the water tip. We only drink water at home so really that is all my kids know and prefer. SO that is a money saver. However, I will confess some times I do get a glass of wine πŸ™‚

    Lastly, we share dessert. Money and nutrition wise I think it is always best to share a piece of cake then for everyone to get their own.

    – Tammy

    1. It’s true. Eating out isn’t as much fun now that I know how to cook things we like!

  26. I love your ways of saving. You’re right, most of the cost is in the extras. We avoid those, too.
    We very rarely go out to eat. When we do go, I always call ahead to ask if I may take my own food (I need to be fanatically gluten-free, and our family cannot afford gf restaurants), and my husband and the kids splurge on an all you can eat Chinese buffet. It’s not cheap, but then we’re feeding 4 huge eaters as well as a little one…and they get all the delicious tidbits and icecream anyone could want.

    My kids like to set up restaurants at home. They get to make all the special foods we rarely eat (jello, fries, etc), prepare several kinds of meat, minimize vegetables, type up a fancy menu, and deorate the home. It’s so much fun!

    1. My kids love going to buffet restaurants, but I find those so expensive. I was thinking about doing something similar to what you describe. They would love that.

  27. We are a family of 5 and we rarely spend more than $25 on dinner out as a family. If my kids are really craving soda, I order the food to go, and pick up a 2 liter of pop from a store where I know its always $1 and share it. However, they only get soda once to maximum twice a week. I also clip all sorts of coupons for local and chain style restaurants we enjoy that further drives down the cost.

  28. For me, eating at a non-chain restaurant is priority #1. If they also source from local farms, that is a huge bonus. I might be spending a bit more but for me it’s worth it to support my local economy and feel more comfortable about what’s in my food (more importantly, what’s NOT in my food!)

    1. I think that is a great concept. The trick is to find a good place to go. We’ve tried several and not yet found one that we enjoyed eating at.

  29. Great tips! We rarely eat out but have found that we save quite a bit, just by drinking water. We always skip dessert because we don’t eat gluten or dairy which also saves money.