Let's face it: Children aren't cheap. While the smiles, laughter and joy they bring are priceless, the doctor bills, clothes and shoes, toys, dental work and college tuition add up to a small fortune.
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. This mother of two has some tips on how you can 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.
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-size 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 for an overpriced corn dog.
CHECK KIDS-EAT-FREE DEALS
Take advantage of kids-eat-free deals at restaurants. For example, on Tuesdays at Super Burrito Factory in Modesto, a child eats free from the kids menu for every adult entree purchased. The same deal is offered on Monday nights at Buffalo Wings & Rings, which is in the same shopping center, Village One Plaza, at 3020 Floyd Ave.
Here's a sampling of other kids- eat-free deals in the Modesto area:
International House of Pancakes, 2098 W. Orangeburg Ave., Modesto, Tuesdays and Thursdays
Chevys, 1700 Standiford Ave., Modesto, Tuesdays after 4 p.m.
Sweet River Grill & Bar, Vintage Faire Mall in Modesto, 2600 Geer Road in Turlock and the Merced Mall, Tuesdays
Strings Italian Cafe, 2601 Oakdale Road in Modesto, 1501 Geer Road in Turlock, 1125 S. Main St. in Manteca and 731 E. Yosemite Ave. in Merced, Sundays and Mondays after 4 p.m.
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. Maybe if the child gets to spread the veggies on the pizza, he'll actually eat them. (We can dream.)
WATCH FOR EARLY-BIRD SPECIALS
Go for an early dinner out and hit up "early-bird specials." Small children are often hungrier earlier in the evening anyway, and 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). Want to bypass ribcage jabbing and exasperated cries of "Mom! She won't hand over the popcorn!"? Bring along a few disposable bowls or cups -- or ask for some extra cardboard trays at the concession stand -- and divvy out the snack during the previews. If candy is a movie must-have, dollar stores often have good deals. Juice boxes also provide a cheaper -- and healthier -- alternative to fountain soft drinks.
CLIP DINING COUPONS
Check The Bee and its Scene section, mailers and Web sites for restaurant coupons and deals. Frequent diner? Consider buying an "Entertainment Book," which has dozens of restaurant coupons, suggests Good Housekeeping's editors in "Good Housekeeping Good Deal & Smart Steals." Go to www.entertainment.com.
TRY SIDE DISHES
Have a finicky eater in your house? Pack something your child will eat and take it with you to the restaurant. Order the child a side of fries or vegetables so he can feel included in the dining-out experience.
SLICE YOUR OWN FRUIT
Skip pre-cut fruit in the supermarket. If your kids must have sliced fruit, the do-it-yourself method is cheaper and takes only a couple of minutes. Just cut up the apples, sprinkle on a little bottled lemon juice to keep them from browning, store in a zip bag and go. Pineapple juice also is said to keep fruit from browning.
PASS ON THE KIDDIE CART
Avoid letting kids use the child-size shopping cart to pick out their own snacks at the market, Good Housekeeping editors suggest. Doing so will help avoid sticker shock at the cash register (for you) and tantrums (for them).
Freebies at the supermarket can help ward off the "gimmies." Some Safeway and Trader Joe's stores will give children a free balloon. At Raley's markets, the bakery departments hand out free cookies.
"Our stores have a history of creating a family-friendly atmosphere," said Amy Davis, a Raley's spokeswoman. "We're glad to help busy families with their grocery shopping by making it more than just a chore, but an experience."
OK, it's not the kids who eat inexpensively here, but it is cheap fun: Head to the Oakdale Cheese & Specialties, 10040 Highway 120, where a quarter buys you a handful of food to feed ducks, geese, fish, sheep, goats, a llama, a donkey, calves or rabbits.
LOOK FOR HOTEL DEALS
Taking a trip? Check for hotels offering kids-eat-free deals or swag for kiddies. Holiday Inn offers free meals for guests' children, while some Westin hotels and resorts offer a children's club and even give goody bags to kids ages 3 to 12.
HAVE A FAMILY NIGHT
Have a family night at home. A trip to the movies and a midprice dinner for a family of four can cost upward of $70. A home-baked pizza and rented movie? About $15.