10 Secrets to Saving Money When Dining Out With Kids

A mom of four shares her tips for keeping meals at restaurants affordable.

You've often heard that a good way to save money is to eat at home rather than at a restaurant. But sometimes that's hard to do when you have kids and you're shuttling them from one activity to another, and you don't have time to whip up dinner at home. Or sometimes you just want a break from the kitchen and are willing to splurge on a restaurant meal.

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Going out doesn't have to break your budget, though. In fact, I have a friend who has four children and manages to keep the bill for her family of six at counter-service restaurants at just $17 to $22. So I asked her what her money-saving secrets were, and she shared these tips:

Lay ground rules. Let your kids know before you go to a restaurant that eating dinner out is a treat and that they must follow some rules if they want that treat. For example, you might tell them that they can only have water unless their meal comes with a drink. Letting them know beforehand what they can and cannot order will help avoid meltdowns or arguments at the restaurant that could lead you to paying more just to avoid making a scene.

Go to restaurants where kids eat free. The best way to save money is to get free meals for your kids. My friend suggests using local publications -- rather than national Web sites, which tend to have incorrect information -- to find out which restaurants offer free kids meals and when. Or call your favorite restaurants to find out if they have kids-eat-free nights.

Know that the kid's meal isn't always the cheapest option. Some restaurants have better deals for kids than others -- such as a $2.99 or $3.99 meal that includes a drink and dessert. At places where the kids meals are $5.99 or more and a drink isn't included, you're usually better off ordering an adult entree if you have more than one child and splitting the portion. If you have two or more kids, you often can get the most bang for your buck at Mexican restaurants that have combination platters with several items that you can divide among the kids. This logic also applies to kid-sized portions for treats such as ice cream. For example, my friend orders a large Blizzard at Dairy Queen and divides it among her children because it's cheaper than ordering four mini-sized Blizzards.

Be clever about ordering. If you know your child won't eat all the sides that come with a meal, order the item he wants a la carte. Or you might find that ordering a couple side items is cheaper than ordering a meal. If you have a child who wants something a little more interesting than a basic kids meal, you might be able to pay a dollar or two more to customize it. For example, my friend says it's cheaper for her to order a kids turkey sandwich and add bacon than to order an adult version, such as a club sandwich.

Ignore the "order an appetizer" advice you might have heard. My friend says she always sees "order appetizers" listed as a money-saving tip when dining out with kids. But full-priced appetizers can be as expensive as an adult entree, but the portions can be smaller. The exception is during happy hour, when you can get appetizers for half price or less (and save even more by just ordering one and dividing it between two kids).

"Like" restaurants on Facebook. This will give you access to coupons and special promotions. Another option is to get on restaurants' e-mail lists so you can learn about discounts. This is also a good way to get access to birthday freebies (see 10 Great Birthday Freebies).

Ask about discounts for your profession or affiliations. Many restaurants offer discounts to teachers, students, military personnel and members of certain groups, such as AAA. They don't always advertise these discounts, so be sure to ask.

Use coupon cards. As fundraisers, schools often sell coupon cards that offer discounts and freebies at area establishments. The card can be worth the $15 or so you'll pay to buy one if it has discounts to restaurants where you regularly eat.

Use frequent-buyer cards. Some establishments -- particularly places that specialize in desserts such as cupcakes, ice cream and frozen yogurt -- offer frequent-buyer cards. There's no charge for these cards, and you get them stamped or marked every time you make a purchase. After so many stamps, you get a freebie.

Get discounts for bringing back cups. Some restaurants that provide sturdy plastic cups that you can take home offer beverage discounts if you bring the cups back for refills.

A final note: When standing in line waiting to pay, keep an eye on what other families are paying. If their bill is cheaper, look at what they've ordered or even ask if they used any special discounts. Learning from others who already have mastered the system is a great way to save.

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