Is eating out cheaper than eating at home these days?

I haven't done thorough scientific research on this topic. But one thing I've concluded this summer -- albeit, a self-serving conclusion given that I am not a big fan of cooking -- is that going out to eat with kids can often be just as cheap as eating in.

Let's consider a sample meal at, say, Red Lobster. I went there for lunch recently with my three kids.

First let me mention that they serve these delicious cheddar cheese biscuits that are "free" with most meals and quite filling. My girls scarfed them right up and the waiter was kind enough to bring more. Their appetite was then ruined, of course, for the $5 kids' meals they ordered. That meant plenty of leftovers.

My fish entree was just $7.75 and came with those incredible biscuits, a salad and a side dish. My one-year old shared my meal with me and we still had lots of leftovers. Hence, dinner at home with Dad was taken care of with the addition of a few supplemental noodles. Our total bill plus tip for lunch came to about $25 and amounted to nine meals, or about $2.70 a meal.

Of course, a home cooked meal is often much healthier and can be more relaxing and intimate. So I want to be clear to everyone getting ready to write a nasty comment -- I don't recommend you do this every day.

But if you have cut meals with the kids at casual dining establishments from your budget as a way to save money -- and many people have -- you can make a case that a meal out now and then is actually a pretty good deal.

Could I beat those economics by cooking at home? Certainly, but for fresh fish, veggies, salad, it could be a close call. Throw in the energy costs of cooking (including cooling the kitchen down with air conditioning after cooking and running the dishwasher), plus my time (believe me, I don't have a lot to spare), and that meal was a major bargain.

That doesn't even consider the entertainment value for the kids of lunch out with mom (beats the cost of a zoo any day).

I've replicated this sort of meal at several diners in our neighborhood and think the economics work out (at least if you have kids small enough that they rarely finish their kids' meals).

Here are the basic rules:
-- The restaurant must serve large portions, including sides, salad and bread, at cheap prices.
-- It must have either cheap kids' meal or let kids share entrees.
-- You can't order beverages or alcohol
-- Lunch out may be your best bet
-- Adults can not eat the kids' leftovers themselves
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