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Moms Talking Money: 7 Secrets for Dining Out With Kids on a Dime

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Blog Post by Catherine McManus

In New York City, there's no shortage of amazing new restaurants to try, but with a 3-year-old in tow, your options for dining out become narrowed based a set of criteria that goes something like this:

• Availability of plastic cups with lids and crazy straws
• Abundance of free crayons and table games
• Noise level that's just loud enough to cover your toddler's high-pitched wails when her older brother steals the last French fry off her plate

Sound familiar? Regardless of where you live, if you're not willing to give up an occasional meal out just because you're bringing along the little ones, try these tried-and-true secrets from our Moms Talking Money bloggers:

Check out the menu online before you go. A kids' menu may be a tell-tale sign that a restaurant is trying to be family-friendly, but look a little closer to make sure that there's really something for everyone. Does the children's menu offer anything that's healthy? If there aren't any options specifically for kids, are there appetizers that could double as their entrée? Meagan Francis from TheHappiestHome.com gets creative by "sharing meals, sides, appetizers (which can often function as a meal) and desserts. Dinner out doesn't always have to mean a gorge-fest." But she always makes sure to tip the server very well so they aren't penalized by her frugality.

Choose your time carefully. If you usually eat dinner at 6:30 p.m. at home, go to the restaurant at 6 p.m. to make sure that there's food on the table when your kids are used to having mealtime. Kate Hanley from MsMindBody.com is also a fan of being an early bird: "Whatever restaurant we go to, we go at 5:30, when we tend to be there with other families and seniors, who most of the time appreciate the jolt of energy kids bring."

Prepare your kids in advance. Young children have surprisingly good memories, so if they had an ice cream sundae the last time you ate out, they will start asking for one the minute you step foot in the restaurant the next time around. If you're not planning on ordering dessert, tell them in advance -- or use it as incentive to get them to behave. "Promise kids dessert at home -- this makes for a smaller tab AND gets you out of the restaurant even faster!" suggests Meagan Francis.

Don't waste time. You've already checked out the menu online, so know what you are going to order when you arrive. But when the server comes around to greet you and take your drink order, ask if you can place your meal order at the same time. "This step can save 10 to 15 minutes of waiting time... which means less time for the kids to get squirmy!" recommends Gigi Ross of KludgyMom.com.

Bring PLENTY of diversions. Most kid-friendly restaurants offer coloring pages and crayons, but don't take your chances -- your bag should be armed with enough little games and toys to keep them busy before and after dinner so they're not climbing the walls before you've taken your first bite. Kate Hanley recommends filling a small makeup bag with crayons and giving it a permanent home in your purse; and for babies, Kristina Sauerwein from Babycenter.com recommends this brilliant (and free) strategy: "When my husband and I went out to eat we'd put our squirmy toddler in one of those restaurant high chairs and turn our kids away from my husband and I and our table. We were old hat. Instead, we faced our kid toward other diners at the restaurant. This was wonderful at keeping our kids' short attention spans. It was like the restaurant was a fascinating movie for them."

Look for ways to save. Meagan Francis has a keen eye for deals -- both big chains and local spots offer them: "At one of our favorite locally-owned restaurants, for example, you can get a family-sized salad or pitcher of soda for $1 if you order a large pizza. That shaves quite a bit off our bill." Kelly Whalen of The Centsible Life suggests looking for places that offer free kids meals on certain days of the week -- "or use coupons or Restaurant.com gift certificates to stretch your budget." And make the dollars that you spend work harder for you. If you're using a credit card to pay the bill, consider a card that will earn you points on your purchases for dining at restaurants.

Don't forget manners. Regardless of where you are or what you're eating, when kids behave, it makes the experience more pleasant for everyone -- including your fellow diners. Niri of MommyNiri.com suggests instilling good table manners as early as 3 or 4 years old, asking kids to order for themselves, "to make it an experience for making eye-contact, speaking clearly and with manners as they make their request." She adds, "if bad behavior happens, we issue a warning to leave. If it happens again, we ask for our meal 'to-go' so as to send home clearly the message that eating in a community of restaurant guests is a privilege and we need to be respectful for shared spaces."

What's your secret to dining out with your kids without breaking the budget?

Women & Co., a service of Citi, is the go-to personal finance source for women. By providing financial content, commentary and community, Women & Co.'s mission is to get women thinking and talking about personal finance. Founded in 2000, Women & Co. is one of the longest running personal finance websites dedicated to helping women strengthen their financial futures.