Monday, February 7, 2011

Restaurant Wars

It's 12:05 p.m. And I hear the almost daily battle cry of Little Diva ready to negotiate the terms of todays's peace treaty, "Mommy, can we go OUT to lunch?". You see, she is almost maniacal in her desire to dine out on an almost daily basis. We did not intend to groom her for this, but I can see where it all started.

When she was a young and impressionable toddler, Mommy worked full time and was often too wiped out at the end of the day to even think about cooking anything. And with her daddy, the chef, working late into the night, our little twosome spent plenty of suppers at the plethora of dining spots within a two mile radius of our house in suburbia. Besides, mommy and daddy have both been in the biz for a long time, so we like to eat out just as much. We are foodies and going out to eat is a big part of our lifestyle.

So it should come as no surprise to anyone that Little Diva prefers a restaurant to the comforts of home. And she is a fantastic little diner, too. She loves to show off her best manners and impress those around her with her ability to order articulately. But it should also not come as a surprise that out ability to afford such an extravagant lifestyle is non-existent thanks to my current payscale as a stay-at-home mom. On top of the financial burden, there is also the small matter of having a one year old added to the mix. The Baby, by contrast, is not the model restaurant patron.

So I have devised a series of strategies to help us a) keep our costs low when we eat out, b) make the dining experience as pain-free as possible for all those involved, and c) have fun in-the-house alternatives to avoid the restaurant scene altogether.

I am also planning to start a Tab on this blog where I feature various restaurants, and provide family friendly reviews and tips. Stay tuned for that!!

Saving Your Pennies
1) Try some place with a salad bar. This has become a favorite of ours.  When Little Diva was a baby, we could just give her some beans, cheese and veggies from our salad plate and she was happy. Now she likes to order her own, but will make a whole meal of it. She feels like such a "grown up" picking out all of her food and is almost tall enough to actually get it herself! Still keeps our costs low, and saves us money for beer for Sweet Hubby.  Usually a requirement of getting through the meal with both kids in tow.

2) Choose your Kid's Meal wisely.  Especially if you have more than one child.  The typical kid's meal at any restaurant, is usually a portion large enough to feed at least two kids, and top off an overly hungry mommy who nibbles at the French Fries from time to time (who me??) What you miss out on, is usually the extra drink. So I always make sure I bring The Baby's sippy cup, full of milk.  Most places don't have Whole Milk available, and that is what she drinks anyway. And even if your kiddos don't always eat the same thing, you can make this work.  When we go out to our favorite pizza place, I order one chicken fingers kid's meal and one slice of pizza. That way, Little Diva gets her pizza, and gets the drink and carrot sticks that come with The Baby's meal.

3)You may consider skipping the kid's meal altogether if you are paying extra to get a junky toy that will be buried under the car seat before you get home, or the ice cream sundae that will have them hopped on sugar just in time for bedtime.  The most frugal of mamma's can save the containers and toys from previous "happy" experiences, and "refill" them with items off of a dollar menu for less than the cost of a single kids meal. Believe me, the Ronald McDonald police are not going to be on duty to bust you for that move.

4) Find free food!  Many places offer "Kids Eat Free" night.  Usually you have to order one adult meal per free child meal, so plan ahead.  Locally, I use the list on Playground Buzz as a guide.

5) "Like" your favorite places on Facebook.  You will find out about special promotions that will save you a ton.  Our Chick-Fil-A always has something going on - "Dress Like a Cow", "Eat Like a Cow" whatever.

6) Look for deals on Living Social or Groupon or clip coupons to save money.  I subscribe to the Never Pay Full Price philosophy.

Saving Your Sanity
1) Bring your own crayons and paper.  Just in case.  Bring a few little toys and books too.  But don't pull them out until everyone needs a new distraction.

2) Get bread right away.  Little Diva always likes a little bread to go with her butter, so we make sure we ask as soon as we sit down.

3) Arrive before the rush.  Having to wait for the table is the kiss of death for us.

4) Choose places that have something interesting to look at. We just found a spot near us that has a gigantic fish tank right next to the booths. This was a fantastic distraction.

5) Let your little charmers go to work.  Nothing smoothes over a little frustration on the part of your fellow diners, like a happy hello and big smile from an adorable child.  Let your little one charm the pants off that group of ladies who scowl at you as soon as you sit down.  They will be all warm and fuzzy before you know it.

6) Keep your expectations in check.  Dining out is usually a special occasion (we, err, usually just have a lot of special occasions) so you can let some of the rules go and not get too worried if your child doesn't eat all their veggies or drink all their milk.  In fact, I am just happy if they don't throw all their veggies and spill all their milk.

7) Don't go when you are super hungry.  When I don't eat, I get grouchy.  When I can't eat because my kids are acting like maniacs at a restaurant, I get REALLY grouchy.  Enough said. Just eat a banana in the car before you go in.

Chez Nous
Though I am the first to want to ditch the cooking (and especially the clean up), I must admit that it is easier on everyone and the budget to just stay home to eat. Here are some ideas to make eating at home more of an "experience."

1) Theme nights - Sometimes we do Mexican Night.  Little Diva loves to make her own tacos, and actually eats them. We set the mood with the Mexican channel of Music on Demand. We dim the lights and light candles.  Mommy washes down her meal with a shot of Tequila and all is well. (I made that last part up, but it kind of sounds good. I might try it next time)

2) Pint Size Salad Bar - I set up a low table with little bowls of all of Little Diva and The Baby's favorite salad bar options.  This is just as good as being at the restaurant, according to Little Diva, and even better for me, because I don't have to worry about her dumping an entire plate of food on the way back to the table.

3) Make Your Own Pizza - I have said it before, kids love to make their own food.  You can pretend that you have your own pizzeria and start using funny accents and twirling your Bobolis around in the air. We set the table while the pizza is in the oven and pretend that we are getting ready for the dinner rush. If your family likes toppings on your pizza, you can save some money by visiting the salad bar at the grocery store and filling your container with a little of everything you need. This is much cheaper than buying a whole package of pepperoni, an onion, olives, etc. Plus it is all washed and cut already. Bonus!

4) Playing server -  Little Diva loves to take orders.  Well, actually I think she prefers to give orders, but when we pretend that I am the customer, she likes to write down every word with meticulous detail.  This is best suited to the days when I have a casserole in the oven or a roasting chicken, because that is about how long it takes for me to spell out of every word of the order for her to write down. But, hey, it is a learning experience, right?

With a little luck and creativity, I am hoping to limit our restaurant visits to reasonable amount, keep the kids happy when we are there and try to stay on task financially speaking.  I have a hard, hard time saying no, so I will need to work extra hard at sticking to the plan, but I am hoping we can make it happen.

Do you have any tips or tricks that help you control the crazies when it comes to eating out?


  1. My kids are 15 and 13 now - but I still always have a deck of cards in my bag to keep us all distracted and entertained.

    We too eat out a lot (I am just trying to be a good American by helping to spur the economy along) and making sure you have lots of stuff like little toys and crayons and paper was always the way to go.

    Favorite tip (good for toddlers) for when there is no salad bar - ask the server to bring your child some shredded cheddar. They all have it, and no one ever charges for it. My kids were always pretty happy and they were little enough to be entertained by trying to pick up the little shreds.

  2. what is the restaurant with the big fish tank near us? love the blog!

  3. Glad we are not the only ones who eat out more than we "should". We always order the kids food first and have them bring it first. That way, the kids are well into eating by the time we get our food and we may be able to eat at least part of our meal hot. I have other tricks, but those are not likely to help you and most people since they all revolve around my daughter's reflux issues.


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