Food: Try these tricks to make the most of restaurant meals

With two young children and a small business to run, Craig and Gena Kirby don't have time to cook every meal at home. But these owners of Mommy Matters, a parenting resource center in north Fresno, also can't afford to eat out often. They face the same problem many other families have: Higher food and gasoline prices limit their dining dollars.

The Kirbys try to go to restaurants "probably three or four times a month," Craig Kirby said. But events that disrupt their routine may prompt them to eat out more.

To stick to their budget, the two rely on tricks they learned in the restaurant industry. Craig Kirby is a former manager of restaurants such as Campagnia and Bernardus Lodge in Carmel Valley. And Gena Kirby was a manager at Max's Bistro & Bar and the Rio Grill in Carmel.

What to do

  • Eat out for breakfast and lunch — meals that are cheaper than dinner. "Generally, portions are a little smaller for lunch, but a lot of times it's only the side dishes ... that are smaller," Craig Kirby said.
  • At upscale restaurants, ask about specials. Examples include $2 Tuesdays at Flamenco Tapas of Spain at Friant and North Fort Washington roads ($2 off some drinks and most tapas) and the family-style meal at Giulia's Italian Restaurant at Shaw and Marks avenues ($18.95, $9.95 for ages 12 and younger, for salads, pastas, entrees, dessert and drinks).
  • Craig Kirby likes Campagnia's happy hours, which offer discounted beers and free appetizers, such as pizza. "You can have one cocktail and a couple of pieces of pizza, and then you can split an entree," he said.

  • Feel free to split, but tip as though you ordered full meals, Gena Kirby says. Your servers will treat you well on return visits.Or split food by creating your own family-style meal. At Mexican restaurants, ask for more rice and beans and fewer entrees. In Asian restaurants, you can order fewer entrees, then "plan on eating a little more rice or noodles with the meal," Craig Kirby said. "Starches are cheap."
  • Head south. "The further south you go, the cheaper food will be," Craig Kirby said. "They have to charge a lot more up \[north\] because they have double the rent."
  • Remember the common-sense ways to save. Drink only water, or choose between an appetizer or dessert, Craig Kirby said. Fill up on the bread basket, chips and salsa, or other complimentary items. And select the value menus at fast-food joints.
  • What to avoid

    • Buying a lot of groceries if you don't have time to cook. You'll just waste food and money.
  • Ordering the traditional restaurant dinner of appetizers, entrees, desserts and drinks. You'll overeat or waste food if you don't save leftovers for another meal.
  • Ordering sodas and alcohol while eating out. The longer you linger, the more you drink, causing the bill to creep up. Also, these items have a high markup.
  • To learn more

  • For restaurant coupons: fblinks.com/rkl and fblinks.com/b22. (Before buying a book of coupons, make sure you like the featured restaurants.)
  • For general dining advice from a community of frugal folks: thriftyfun.com
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