If I could eat out every day, for every meal, without going completely broke, or gaining 100lbs, I probably would.
I do not like to cook and greatly enjoy eating out at a sit down restaurant with my family where they bring me delicious food, clean it up, keep my glass full, and allow me to enjoy talking with my husband and children without worrying about one darn thing in regards to the meal.Sometimes I think my husband and I are odd in that we enjoy bringing our kids with us to restaurants (and I mean the sit-down variety). Yes, even with infant and toddler twins we enjoyed taking our entire family out to eat, and continue to do so now as a family of six.
While I do have great tips for managing the little ones while eating out (and not one of them involve entertaining them with any sort of electronic doodad) I will save that for another day. The other big negative to taking the whole family out to eat is the bill at the end of your (hopefully) pleasurable dining experience.
It’s part of the reason my husband and I have actually gone two months (or more) without eating out at all!
There are several things we do to save money on food at restaurants so we can enjoy great food with our great kids.
How to Save Money on Food When Dining at a Restaurant
1. Only eat at restaurants that offer free chips or free bread
When you have hungry little people, freebies that come out immediately, especially freebies that a lot of kids love like chips and salsa or bread and butter, is a must! Plus, if they offer free refills your kids can just eat free chips and bread for the entire meal, especially if they don’t usually end up eating what you order for them.
2. Don’t order appetizers or desserts
Don’t waste the money. Splurge on the main dish. And since you’re going to a place with free food to start, you won’t need an appetizer.
3. Go at lunch time
Lunch time usually means lunch specials, which means savings!
4. Only drink water
Drinks, whether juice, soda, shake, malt, smoothie, Icee, or alcohol, are always more expensive than ordering water – the free beverage of choice for frugal restaurant goers. We (almost) always order water for ourselves and for our children, even when there are free refills.
5. Kids Eat Free and Free Meals
Some restaurants offer free meals for kids on certain days and times. Check out My Kids Eat Free and see who participates in your area. Be aware of other times food is being offered for free, like at Chick-fil-a, IHOP, and Krispie Kreme (okay, two of those aren’t sit-down restaurants really, but they totally offer free food often, especially for kids).
6. Split a meal.
If you don’t mind, split an entree with your husband or with your kids. Chances are it will be more than enough for one person, especially if you make sure to fill up on the free bread and chips.
7. Don’t order kids’ meals
I don’t know about your kids, but ours don’t really like a lot of traditional “kids meals” and I hate forking over $5 for a grilled cheese sandwich when I could make one at home for $0.50. We have frequently either shared our food with our kids, let them just eat the free bread/chips, or ordered them a side plate of fries. Seriously, we’re just that awesome of parents. But, hey it saves us money, and the kids are very happy and full.
8. Buy gift card packs from Sam’s Club
One of the great things about Sam’s Club is that they sell Gift Card packs for less than the full value of the gift cards! And with a large selection of popular restaurant chains, you can score some decent savings, especially if you know you usually spend X amount when you eat out. Plan ahead your dining and save money on food.
9. Stock up on gift cards during Holiday Season promos
Many restaurants, even smaller and local chain ones, offer gift card promo deals during the holiday season. If you love a certain restaurant, take advantage of their gift card promotion, and instead of gifting one to a friend, just pocket the freebie one for yourself.
Did you know Groupon (and other deal sites) offer discounts to many local and some regional/national chain restaurants? Sometimes you can snag a great deal that’ll save you $5+ on your next dining out adventure.
I’ve had friends score discounts to IHOP, Orange Leaf, and others. Right now you can also snag $7 Groupon Bucks for free by simply buying a burrito (details here). Plus, Groupon also frequently has promo codes for 10-20% off local deals, which can save you even more. Combine that with 3-10% cashback savings from ShopAtHome.com, Ebates, Upromise, or TopCashback and Groupon is a great way to save money on food from restaurants!
Similar to Groupon is Restaurant.com gift certificates. You buy a certificate to one of 22,000+ restaurants (mostly local ones) and you’ll save up to 50% off the final bill. There is usually fine print on the certificates though, like minimum purchase requirements, so make sure to read them before buying. But, basically, you’re paying a few dollars for a gift certificate of larger value.
An example would be spending $4 on a $10 gift certificate, but the fine print states you need to spend $20 at the restaurant. In the end, you save $6 on a $20 bill. The great thing is that there is no expiration date and you can make exchanges. They also frequently run promo codes! Spend $10 or less for a $25 Certificate at a local restaurant!
Periodically, the money saving phone app iBotta will offer a rebate on your restaurant order. I’ve seen a few for Chili’s (where we like to eat out) where we’ve been able to claim $5 back by scanning our receipt. Super easy and a great way to save on food there.
13. Loyalty Rewards & Mailing List Coupons
If your favorite eatery has a loyalty rewards program, sign up! Discounted or free meals are awesome, and so are bonus appetizers or desserts. Sometimes you can receive coupons in your email inbox by signing up for a restaurant’s mailing list. However, be warned that some make you wait a day to get that first discount coupon (which totally stinks if you are like me and look up places to eat the day you dine out).
14. Have Your In-Laws or Parents Treat You
Of course, you can always enjoy going out to eat when it’s on someone else’s bill. It may be wrong to say this, but it one of the perks of having our parents come to visit is the opportunity to go out to eat and have them pay for it (doesn’t always happen when they do visit and the visits are rare).
Tell me your favorite way to save money on food at restaurants in the comments.