Smart shopping can save family-dining cash

FROM THE SUPERMARKET to the movie theater, going out with children can be expensive, but it doesn’t have to burn a hole in your wallet. Keep some of that hard-earned cash in your wallet without sacrificing fun.

Skip the kid’s meal. Forgo ordering a child’s meal at a restaurant. If your meal includes elements your child will eat, just ask for another plate and portion out some of the food.

Think small. Order appetizers, or an appetizer sampler, instead of entrees. It’s cheaper, gets to the table faster and chances are you’ll wind up with something that will appease even the pickiest pint-sized palate.

Pack and carry. Brown-bag it when heading to family venues. Meals at zoos, ball games and other venues can cost a lot; some places allow customers to bring in packed meals. Bag a few homemade sandwiches and some drinks, call it a picnic and have fun with your family instead of waiting in line.

Check kids-eat-free deals. Many restaurants offer free meals for kids on certain weekdays.

Grab take-and-bake pizza. Go for take-and-bake pizza instead of takeout. Pizza you bake costs about half of what pizza chains charge. Better yet, buy ingredients at the store and make pizza as a family activity.

Watch for early bird specials. Go for an early dinner out and hit up “early bird specials.” It will help you avoid crowded restaurants and hunger meltdowns.

Share movie popcorn. When heading to the movies with a gaggle of children, order one large, refillable popcorn instead of the child’s box (which typically includes a child-size popcorn, candy and soda). Bring along a few disposable bowls or cups and divvy out the snack during the previews.

Clip dining coupons. Watch mailers and Web sites for restaurant coupons and deals.