If I had to count, I could probably count the number of times in a year that we went out to dinner when I was a kid. For good report cards, there was Pizza Hut. For Mother's Day, dad picked somewhere so mom wouldn't have to cook. And then maybe a few other random Sundays for dinner after church.
Flip the calendar to now, with me and my husband and our own children, and I would lose count how many times we eat out. Although I enjoy cooking, given our schedule, sometimes it's more convenient to grab dinner out while we're in between activities or order in when the day's been too busy to cook a good meal. But eating out with kids can get a redundant, a little lacking on the vegetables, and, yes, a bit expensive.
Here's a few ways we've found to make dining out with the family a balanced, more affordable, experience.
Have the kids split an adult meal. This does requires two children to actually agree on something, which in itself can be a small miracle and may involve some bribery. However, the adult menu generally offers a greater meal selection and vegetables are more likely to be included. Take a moment and do the quick math; I've found this is often cheaper than two kid's meal, or at least the same price for a better meal.
Split your meal with the kids. Some meals are too big even for an adult and these are perfect to share with a smaller person. Often when we go out for breakfast, I get an omelet that might come with a stack of pancakes. And what are my kids going to order? A stack of pancakes. They can have mine.
Order a drink and an extra cup. In some restaurants, even the "kid-size" is a 20-oz lemonade. Ask the waiter how big the drink is. If it's really huge, order one and have the kids share. Or better, let them drink water.
Know where the kids-night specials are. Many restaurants designate Tuesdays or Wednesdays for their family nights with special prices and free kids meals or desserts. A local diner makes it a big affair with clowns and face-painting. And don't forget the carryout specials, too, which are great for a family on the go. One of local grocery stores (the kind with the deli and hot food) has pizza specials on Mondays . Located across the street from my son's swim practice, this is a perfect fit into our back-to-back schedule.
Order the adult portion. Let them enjoy half their meal at the restaurant, then take half home for tomorrow's lunch or dinner. Not cheaper at the moment, but a little costs savings and work savings over the two days. That counts, too.
Eat a little bit earlier, around happy hour. I know we don't generally think "happy hour" and "kids" but in addition to bar drinks, food items are often cheaper, too. Consider the appetizer menu - for little kids you can sometimes make a whole meal right there. Chicken fingers/wings, flatbreads, and salads are often on there and generally what the kids are going to eat anyway. Dinner at 5 is early for us, but we've found when we eat dinner earlier, we're not as nervous about the kids having an ice cream for dessert and being wired up for bedtime.
Ask for a kids portion. There are some restaurants that actually do have a kids menu, if you read the fine print on the back of the menu. If not, some will make a kids size (and charge you accordingly less), especially if the kids are real small.
My last point, has nothing to do with cost, but instead the experience. Don't use the wait time to check your email or play Angry Birds or "like" your friend's posts on Facebook. Enjoy not having to cook or wash dishes, sit back, and check in with your family, look in their eyes, and have a conversation.