- Go out for lunch instead of dinner. This strategy will not only help your budget, it can help with weight-loss goals as well. The portions at dinner are often larger and more expensive than lunch dishes. The food and the atmosphere are the same at lunch time, but the price tag is much smaller.
- Drink water. Drinking water instead of soft drinks, juice or cocktails (for grown-ups) can save money and help you get in your daily eight glasses of water. Drinks are usually marked up rather steeply, which adds quickly to the bill. Resist the urge to pay for flavored or bottled water. Instead, ask your server to add lemon, lime or a slice of cucumber to make your water a bit more special. You can save 20% on your overall bill simply by making this one small change.
- Have dessert once you get home. Many restaurants charge a very high price for a slice from a boxed or frozen dessert that can be picked up at the grocery store on the way home for much less. If you really love homemade desserts, try eating dinner at home and going out for dessert and coffee at a restaurant with a reputation for great desserts. This saves even more money and can be a fun way to change things up.
- Select restaurants without tipping requirements. However, there are many casual dining restaurants that do not require tipping. Places like Panera Bread, Chipotle Grill or McAlister's Deli are a step above fast food, and you don't have to pay additional money for a tip. They provide wonderful food and great family atmosphere. Visiting places like this allows you to save the 20% you would tip at a table-service restaurant. (Of course, you shouldn't ever short a server to save money on your bill. )
- Use an Entertainment Book. If you enjoy trying new restaurants, you might benefit from purchasing an Entertainment Book for your area. These books cost between $15-$25 and provide hundreds of dining discounts and other money-saving opportunities. With $1,000 worth of savings in each book, you could save big if you are good with coupons, willing to shop around for deals and are interested in new dining and shopping adventures.
- Plan to split an entree. One of the best ways to save money AND maintain portion control is splitting an entree. Sharing dessert and appetizers is common, but sharing a main dish with a child or even your partner is perfectly acceptable. Since some restaurants tack on a "split plate charge" (up to $6 at some places), check with your server before ordering.
- Use coupons from the local paper or websites. Many restaurants run great coupons in the newspaper, such as buy one meal, get one free, or save $10 on a $30 meal. Be sure to read all the fine print as these types of coupons tend to be quite specific. There are several online coupon options as well. Restaurant.com, Wow Coupons, Free Mania and Coupon Surfer are just a few.
- Go where kids can eat free. An increasing number of restaurants offer free kids meals, especially during the week. Most of these types of savings are found by word of mouth, so the website My Kids Eat Free might be a good place to find opportunities in your community.
- Pack a picnic or plan a potluck. Enjoying time with friends doesn't have to mean reservations at a white linen restaurant. Suggest everyone pack a picnic and meet at the park on a nice day. Offer to host a dinner at your home and have others bring a dish to share. A progressive dinner with several other families is another cost-saving and fun dinner idea. Each family prepares a different course, and guests travel between houses for each round of food.
Being creative and thinking outside the box can allow you to save money and enjoy eating away from home. Try some of these suggestions the next time your family goes out for a meal.