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Dining out on a dime

By Jessica Keddy, Special to the Pioneer Journal

Since we have five children, we were scaling back on the number of meals that we eat out. But I figured out how to do it without going bankrupt.

Surprisingly, there are a limited number of dining establishments that welcome our clan. The restaurants aren’t unwelcoming, but I can see the look of horror come across their faces as we all pile in and they realize how many high chairs and kids menus that we need. Most of the time, it is the other patrons who are trying to enjoy a meal that make us feel awkward.

Rarely do we manage to go out without the following: someone asking us if all those kids are ours, random people commenting on how well they eat (not only variety but amount!), at least one melt down, three trips to the restrooms and something being spilled. We know every “kid-friendly” restaurant in the tri-state area, which leads me to my topic of the week: how to feed a small army on a budget. I’m also going to give some tips on how to save money while dining out, even if you are by yourself.

My kids claim I’m the meanest mom ever because when we go out I make them order something that I don’t like to cook or can’t easily make at home. I encourage them to not order mac and cheese (or Kraft Dinner, as their Canadian father calls it) or hot dogs. They have it so rough. They haven’t caught on yet, but the real reason that I do that is to encourage them to expand their food horizons and to help them pick out the healthiest options.

I rarely serve normal-kids meal items (mac and cheese and hotdogs) at home, so I’m not letting them eat such things while we’re out.

A couple of weekends ago, we went to the Twin Cities to do a campus tour at the U of M for our oldest son. The first thing we did after we checked into our hotel was ask the people at the front desk where they like to eat. Then I asked what was on the menu, if the restaurants were family-friendly (I had all the kids with me, so they knew the level of craziness the restaurants would be dealing with) and what the price range was. I find that the best tips come from people just like us.

Later that afternoon while at Target, I asked the cashier where she likes to eat. She told us about a fantastic malt shop that was perfect for kids. If I wouldn’t have asked her, we never would have found that place on our own. Sure, we had to be seated at two separate tables, but the kids loved it.

Wherever we go, we try to find the Chamber of Commerce or visitor’s center and talk to the people working there and look at brochures. People want to show off their town and restaurants, and they sometimes have coupons to sweeten the deal! They can also assist with hotel recommendations and other activities and festivities going on around town. Really, they are a plethora of information.

If you have a membership to AAA (American Automobile Association), you can order these really cool books called TourBook Guides for free. The books and maps are a member benefit! When I was little my mom used to get them before we would go on vacation. My husband jokes when we go on trips that we need a trailer for all my maps and TourBooks. He can make fun of me as much as he wants. I’m a visual learner, and like to be prepared! Plus, because of the TourBooks we’ve visited some really interesting spots, and their restaurant reviews are usually spot on.

Also, we try to find hotels that offer breakfast. The kids love it because they can have all their breakfast favorites in one sitting. I love it because it’s less money out of pocket, one less in and out of the van and car seats, and relatively healthy.

One of the funniest dining out tips that I have comes from my dad, Ed Bruns. Last winter he went down to Arizona for a month to get out of the frozen arctic. He called me one night and told me that he and a bunch of people had gone out for dinner. I asked him where they went, and he said Costco. I said I wasn’t familiar with that restaurant and he said it wasn’t a restaurant, but the store! Everyone ordered a hotdog and soda combo for $1.61 (that included the tax!) and then ordered an 18-inch pizza for $10.68 (again, tax included) to split between the four of them. Their big night out cost $4.28 each! Considering they are all old, they were probably really eating dinner at 4:30 p.m. Sometimes you can find good deals like that in unexpected places.

My best tip is to simply pay attention! There are a lot of restaurants in the area that have “kid’s night” or daily specials. I have a little chart where I write this information down. Sometimes kids eat totally free or sometimes it’s greatly reduced. Either way, those are the nights you want to go.

A few of the other deals that I’ve learned about in Wadena are two-for-one burgers, a taco buffet, deals on appetizers, loyalty cards, lunch specials, free birthday meals/desserts/drinks and senior discounts. Another nice thing about “kid’s night” is that there are other families there, so we don’t feel out of place and restaurants are ready for us.

I’m a dork and plan our nights out around this. Trust me. The food tastes the same and it just costs a lot less. And that, my friends, is what I am all about.