Of all of life’s little luxuries, eating out is one of my family’s favorites. Eating out together is a great way to teach young children dining etiquette. Grabbing a quick bite between activity drop-offs can provide valuable face-to-face time when eating at home is not an option. During especially hectic times, eating out can reduce stress and promote family unity. And best of all, eating out can teach kids how to splurge sensibly without blowing an entire budget.
Why not rotate taking each of your children out to eat, so you can find some individual parent-child time? Even if it’s only a spontaneous trip to the local sub shop, an impromptu meal out can be a real mood-booster when a child is in need of some extra TLC. Make a renowned restaurant the destination of a day trip for a laid-back family adventure.
But sometimes we simply crave a tiny taste of luxury without spending a small fortune. Letting someone else do the shopping, prep work, cooking, and cleanup can provide a much-needed break.
If you think eating out is a luxury your family cannot afford, perhaps this list of tips will help you reconsider:
Set a monthly dining budget. If you don’t have much money to put toward dining out, start with a small amount, like $20, and get creative using the tips here. If you have more to spend, see how much you can stretch your dollars to maximize your eating-out opportunities. Check yelp.ca to find out what others are saying about the quality and service of a restaurant you are thinking of going to before you go.
Look for kids-eat-free options. Some restaurants allow kids under a certain age to eat for free. Be sure you know about age limits and any other caveats before you show up.
Consider kid-friendly happy hours. Sometimes you don’t need a full meal with multiple courses, which can create boxes of leftovers. Sometimes you just want a quick, inexpensive bite to eat. Many pubs in my area, for example, offer happy hour menus in their dining rooms, where prices rival those in fast food restaurants. If I have time to sit down to eat, I’d rather soak in a little more atmosphere in a local pub.
Try buffet style. My husband fondly remembers frequenting an all-you-can-eat shrimp buffet at a local steak house with his father when he was a teen. If you’ve got growing tweens and teens with voracious appetites, an all-you-can-eat buffet or all-you-can-eat sushi restaurant may be ideal. Be sure to choose locations that offer foods your family enjoys eating.
Order a late lunch. We save a bundle at one of our favorite local restaurants by ordering from the lunch menu rather than the dinner menu. When the car-pool shuffle is especially tight, I grab inexpensive take-out lunches and we enjoy them as an early dinner between commitments.
Take it home. Pizza and Mexican food, for example, are easy to grab and go. Subscribe to email lists of local chains your family frequents to stay in the loop. Also keep your eyes peeled for local coupons. On the back of my grocery store receipts, I find money-saving coupons for our favorite burrito place. Our local pizza shop has their daily specials listed on their website. With a little forethought, you can make local discounts work with your family’s busy schedule.
Eat family-style. On special occasions, everyone orders their own meals. But you might have two eating-out modes: special vs. splitting. Splitting means getting only enough food for everyone. So if burgers or sandwiches are over-sized, why not cut them in half? If the pasta dish feeds two, why not split it? As long as you don’t incur splitting fees, you’ve got nothing to lose. Try ordering three meals for four people or two to split and see how it goes.
Restaurant-hop. Eat an inexpensive dinner at a lower-priced restaurant and then go somewhere fancier for dessert. That way, you can conclude the evening on a high note. Or better yet, have dinner at home and go out for dessert as a spontaneous after-activity reprieve.
Eat at a specialty grocery store. One of our favorite places to eat out is at our local organic grocery store. The quality of the food is excellent, although fairly expensive for shopping there regularly. But by pulling together an eclectic in-store meal, we can feel like we’re getting a taste of the good life without the extra costs of restaurant eating.
Request gift certificates. Instead of cash gifts, ask relatives to send gift cards to your favorite restaurants. Keep gift cards with your coupons for a planned outing or for a spontaneous bit of cheer on an otherwise gloomy day.
Eat Out Like a Pro: Create a coupon stash
I have a pocket in my purse where I stash all my restaurant coupons. To avoid overspending, I toss the junk food coupons and only save the coupons for destinations that I enjoy supporting. Sometimes store receipts have coupons on the back. Also, skim local newspapers and check the fliers in your mailbox.
Compare coupons. Buy One Get One (BOGO) coupons are the best values for your money. Buy one, get one half-price is only saving you 25 per cent, so don’t go that route unless you really long to order those items.
Sign up for loyalty programs. Cash in on those frequent customer royalty rewards and watch for annual birthday bonuses. Who doesn’t enjoy getting a free meal or entrée?
Purchase coupon books. Coupon books cost money, so make sure they contain enough savings to cover the cost of purchasing the coupon book. Then clip coupons and add them to your coupon stash. There is nothing worse than showing up somewhere to claim your discount and not having your coupon with you.
Author, journalist, and writing coach Christina is the queen of eating out for less. Not only does she excel at saving her family money, she also enjoys an occasional lunch out with colleagues, which she deducts in her taxes, of course.
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