Let's Eat Out! 7 Ways to Save Money when you do

I love to eat out, and apparently I’m not alone. Americans spent 110 billion dollars on fast food in 2009. I don’t care if it’s sit down, or drive through, I just love not having to cook. Cooking at home can be discouraging when you spend time preparing a meal only to have a little person turn their nose up at your cooking. The beauty of eating out is that each family member gets exactly what they want and no one gets stuck with any of the prep work, or clean up. Unfortunately, eating out vs eating in is a no-brainer - eating out dramatically increases the food expenses each month. The good news is that there are ways to eat out, without spending so much. Let’s look at seven ways to eat out for less.

1. Kids Eat Free

Kids eat free nights are offered at many restaurants. Here in Florida, there are many chains that offer weekly kids eat free specials. I keep a list on my refrigerator of which places offer family nights. This way, when we do want to eat out, we make sure we visit one of the places when the special is offered. The savings on a kids meal might seem small, but when you routinely put this into practice, the annual savings may surprise you, especially if you have more than one child.

2. Drink Water

When you dine out, do you order a beverage other than water? Many families do. Ordering regular water, instead of other drinks, not only saves you money, but my also be a healthier alternative to sugary sodas. Before I began this practice, I explained to my children that by ordering water we would be saving the family money, and that saving money meant doing other fun things. After that, they rarely objected to having water with their meals. Now, after many years, we all actually prefer water.

3. Use a Coupon

From time to time, I receive coupons in the mail from area restaurants. I also hunt them down in my newspaper, Entertainment Book and on restaurant websites. My favorite coupons are the ones good for a buy one entrée, get-one-free offering. These are great! Save all your dining coupons in a special container, labeled “dining coupons”. When we want to eat out, and it’s not a kids eat free night, we try and visit a restaurant honoring a coupon. The trick to making this work is always putting your coupons in one place, and reviewing them before going out. A little organization can mean a lot of savings.

Try these organizers! They will help you find your coupons.

4. Make a Master List

My family enjoys a variety of places, some pricey, others not so much. I keep a list of each restaurant we enjoy, and approximately how much we spend there for a typical meal. Then when we want to eat out, I consult my list to see which places we can choose from, and still stay within our budget for the month. This practice allows me to stay in control of my spending, because I can compare the cost of eating out vs eating in.

5. Share the Goodness

The news media is constantly reminding us that we are an obese society. One of the reasons for this epidemic may be portion sizes, we may just be eating too much. Restaurant food is no exception. We have all been served a plate of food that was way too much. We knew it when we saw it set down in front of us. Keep a mental note (or actually make a note on your master list mentioned above) of which places serve large portions. When I dine out with little ones, at a place where I know the portions will be plentiful, I always ask for an extra plate, and share my entrée with one of my kids. We agree ahead of time on what dish we could like to share. I don’t like to waste food anymore than I like to waste money, and this food sharing offers a solution that works double time. If you don’t have someone to share your food with, ask your server for a container to bring your leftovers home and enjoy your free lunch the very next day.

6. Rearrange Meals

Lunch menu prices are less expensive than dinner prices, and the portions sizes aren‘t much different. Make your midday meal your big meal of the day, and eat at home for dinner. If you consider that many restaurants offer lunch up to 4:30, having a earlier dinner while enjoying lunch time prices can be a win/win.

There is another way to take advantage of the lunch menu prices. Some places offer lunch portions and lunch prices at dinner. To know for sure if your favorite places does this, all you have to do is ask.

7. Two is Cheaper than Three

On the weekends many of us like to sleep in, resulting in a later than usual breakfast. This offers the opportunity to eat at a buffet in the late afternoon, combining the usual three meals a day, to just two meals.

The whole point here is that it's fun to eat out and no one wants to have to give that up. By being creative, you and your family can continue to eat out without blowing the budget. Incorporate some of these small changes into your eating out routine. I estimate that in the last 15 years of eating out with children, my family of 5 has saved thousands of dollars by following these 7 simple ideas. If I can do you, you can too!

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