I love food. If I had a day with no distractions, I'd spend it cooking. Cooking is hands-down my favorite pastime. Cleanup, on the other hand, totally drains me! So even though I love to cook, my kitchen and I both benefit from a break in the never-ending cleaning cycle. Our family probably goes out to eat between two and four times a month.
But going out to dinner with a hungry toddler can be expensive! And although ordering off a children's menu provides us an opportunity to save a few dollars, I am frequently disappointed with the options. So we've developed a few strategies for going out to dinner, without breaking the bank, while also sneaking in a few veggies and new foods too!
Bring His Drink with Us: It would be unseemly to bring your own iced tea to a restaurant, but most places won't bat an eyelash if you bring a child's sippy to the table. One time we forgot to do this and were shocked at how much milk costs. There's a zero-waste benefit to this as well; at many restaurants, child drinks are served in a plastic or Styrofoam cup, which is often a single-use item.
Order family style, or split an entree: We don't get special meals for Scribble; instead he shares with us! At chain Italian restaurants he gets parts of my salad and DH's salad, then he gets part of our entrees. At chain Mexican restaurants, we order fajitas for two for the three of us, and usually still can't finish everything that comes with the order!
Go multicultural: Burgers, wings, and other American foods usually come with a load of fries or chips on the side. This makes it harder for us to share a meal; I know I am still hungry if I give half of my burger away to my son! So when we go out with Scribble, we are more apt to pick ethnic cuisines. If you go Indian, you'll have rice and naan or lentils to share along with your curry; with Thai food you will frequently have a soup to share along with your entree. Mexican restaurants are our go-to because Scribble loves avocados, beans, and tomato! Plus you can usually get lean meats there, like grilled chicken.
Scribble at a Greek-style diner in metro Atlanta. The place serves huge portions, and each meal comes with spanikopita, a salad, and soup! On this trip, Scribble sampled spanikopita, olives, feta cheese, tomatoes, seafood bisque, matzo ball soup, chicken Florentine, and mashed potatoes! And we still took home leftovers!
Supplement with sides: If you get your entree and realize you won't have enough to share with your child, supplement with a side! This is a great way to get extra veggies in. At diners and steak restaurants we get sauteed spinach or green beans to supplement Scribble's portion of my entree.
Split an adult sized meal between two-- or more-- children: A cousin passed this idea onto us. Having only one child, I haven't tried this yet, but I can see that it would work if you went to a place with large portion sizes. Again, this would work really well at a Mexican restaurant since a lot of the combos come with two or more items. Then you could supplement with a side of avocado slices to make a well-balanced meal.
Check out the appetizers: Appetizers often feature a restaurant's most interesting and fun menu choices. We almost never splurge on an appetizer when it is just the two of us, but it is fun to order something for Scribble off of the starter menu as an entree. For example, a hummus plate with olives would be a huge hit with him! Or you can never go wrong with a Greek salad.
Try Something New: I've noticed that my son is more likely to try a new food when he is out in public than he is at home. He is usually so captivated by all the sights and sounds of the restaurant that I can get him to eat almost anything! I take the opportunity of going out to a restaurant to introduce him to new flavors. If he's not into it, that's ok; between my entree and his dad's entree there's usually something he is willing to eat, and he can always have something else when we get home.
Picnic: If you want to get out, but don't want the additional cost of restaurant dining, consider getting food to-go and taking a picnic. If you get creative you can find a lot of affordable, healthy options. A few days ago we were running errands and decided to get lunch. Going to a sit-down place was not in the budget or the timeline, but we wanted to avoid fast food. So we got a sub sandwich and a container of salad from a nearby grocery store and had an impromptu picnic. Find a deli close to a park and try it sometime! This also works well with pizza from takeout places; you can bring your pie to the park!
Scribble is too young to want to make his own choices at a restaurant, and does not have a big enough appetite to require a whole meal to himself. I'm not sure how long we'll get to enjoy these luxuries, so we are taking advantage of the savings and flexibility while we can!