When you’re traveling, part of the adventure is trying out new food or partaking in a local specialty. But, as we all know, the cost of eating out adds up pretty fast and may eat into (pun intended) your travel budget very quickly. Followers of @themamatravels on Instagram and Facebook may view our food trip pics and think that we eat out a lot. Yes and no. We like to try new places to eat but we also find ways to lower the costs of eating at a restaurant. Here are some of the ways we do it:
Most of the food ordered at Chinese restaurants are meant to be shared. An order of sweet and sour pork and salt and pepper shrimp is enough to feed the adults in my family and two little kids. It already comes with rice so I usually split one bowl for the two of them and if you are watching your carbs anyway, you can split the other bowl of rice with the other adult in the party. Not only is this more cost-efficient (once you divide by the number of people in your group) but you also have the option of trying a new dish you would not usually order for your self. Sometimes, my kids need variety because they could get bored chewing on the same-flavored chicken piece (think law of diminishing returns!) after some time. But when offered a variety of dishes, they may actually eat more as they try different things.
It’s Okay to Cherry-Pick
I got this tip from a fellow Chinese-Filipino mama when I was still in the Philippines. When she eats out with her brood of 4, she doesn’t order her own entree. She knows that at some point 1 or 2 or all 4 of her kids will not be able to finish their food, and that’s where she swoops in. My version of this is to look at what other patrons have ordered (especially if it’s a new place for our family) to assess portion sizes. If I see that the servings are huge, then I know I can easily share these with the kids. We will just get extra bowls or plates and divvy up the food. When you’re on the road, you can’t keep leftovers anyway so this will solve that problem.
Cut the Drinks
If you can abstain from ordering that overpriced soda, do so. Before the kids came along, my husband HAD to have a soda with his meal, but he has since learned that if we are eating at a place that’s a little pricier than where we normally eat, he refrains from ordering his soda of choice. I usually get water with a slice of lemon, and the kids can just get water (unless the kids’ meal comes with a drink). Some traditional Asian restaurants may offer complimentary house tea. Be sure to ask if they have it.
Mix It Up
My travel planning includes scouting out where to eat. It includes trying out the local specialties and delicacies. After all, you may never pass that way again. With that in mind, I adjust the meals around it so we still stick to the budget. We usually try to get hotels that offer free breakfast, so that takes care of that. But if we know we are having a slightly pricier dinner at a well-known local establishment, then we may either go somewhere cheaper and convenient (a.k.a. fast food) for lunch. It’s important to have a specific daily dollar amount per person you are willing to spend on food and work around that number.
Fast food = Not Always Bad
Fast food places often get bad rep for serving fatty and greasy food. But with more and more people looking for healthier options nowadays, fast-food establishments have also moved with the trends. Grilled chicken is offered if you prefer that to fried chicken; salads are offered at burger joints; and for the kids, I always get a side of fruits or yogurt for a more balanced meal. Admittedly, when you’re on the road, you may not always have the luxury of time, and fast-food restaurants become the more logical places to eat. So no need to beat ourselves up for taking our children to McDonald’s.
Places like Chipotle or Panda Express are other options where you can get variety and healthy eating options without being waited on hand and foot. One new trend related to this would be the recent emergence of food halls. A food hall is one large common area shared by various restaurant kiosks. Think of food court but on a different level. These food halls serve food freshly prepared and are a little bit on the pricier end. Depending on where you are, you may want to check out which stall serves the more delicious food or offers the better value. The upside to these food halls is that they will almost always have something for everyone in your hungry party because it offers variety. The downside is that it is not necessarily cheap. Check out the reviews and see which food stall is the one to hit up in these communal eating spaces.
Get it To-go
We’ve done this a few times mainly because we have two very cranky Kindergarteners who may not necessarily be on their best behavior for a sit-down restaurant after a long day at a children’s museum or running around the grounds of a presidential home. Many supermarkets like Wegmans and Whole Foods have a hot foods section where they sell freshly cooked food by the pound. Divide the cost by the number of people in the group, you still save a pretty penny. We bring it to the hotel where we can be a little more relaxed and go at it at our pace. You definitely save a few $$ when you get your food to go if you’re okay with your hotel room’s ambiance.
Pack a Snack
One surefire way to avoid spending a lot of money on food is to pack your own snack and bring your own refreshments. A portable cooler bag similar to this accompanies us on our road trips. We fill it up with fruits, blueberry or raisin bread, cookies, and cheese snacks that we can easily hand out during those long car trips. We then pack some in one of the boys’ school backpacks when we go inside theme parks, museums, etc. that allow snacks and drinks. For longer road trips, we just buy a case of water which we leave in the car. We then put enough water for the next day inside the hotel fridge so we can have it slightly chilled. Buying a drink or snack at a vending machine also adds up because the price per unit on those items would be jacked up.
Sign Up for Email Lists
Not all restaurants have coupons or deals available at the many online marketplaces that we subscribe to. So one of the more effective ways to get a free appetizer or dessert is to sign up for the targeted restaurant’s email list a few days before your planned trip. Getting a free appetizer means you won’t be as hungry for a full dinner plate, so you can either order the lunch portion (cheaper!), order another appetizer (or sampler) for variety (appetizers are usually cheaper than the entrees), or you can split a dish with another member of the traveling party since you have that extra food to share. No matter how you do it, that free appetizer could defray partial costs of one entree.
So no matter where you are headed, we cannot avoid the fact that a big chunk of our expenses will go towards food. It does not mean that we simply eat cheap and unhealthy for the rest of that trip Part of the adventure is finding good places to eat within a modest budget. Hopefully, these eating out hacks work for you the way they do for our family. What’s your eat-out hack? We’d love to hear from you. Comment below and share your tip with other mama travelers.
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