Fried twinkies, fried cola, fried snickers, fried bacon. Are you salivating yet?

Last weekend, my husband and I took our two kids to a springtime fair in our town. The menu choices were endless: turkey legs, pizza slices, fried veggies, gyro sandwiches, pulled pork shoulders – you name it, it was there. Unfortunately, each option also came with a heaping helping of calories and a dose of sticker shock on the side. $8 for the turkey leg? $3 for an ear of roasted corn? $5 for a loaded baked potato. Really?

While it’s nearly impossible to find healthy food options on the summer festival circuit, it is possible to stick to your family’s dining out budget. You just have to know the rules of eating cheaply at the fair.

Portion Control

Let’s re-evaluate the staple of any fair food lunch: the turkey leg. I remember the first time I saw someone eating one of those things – it was 1996, and I was at Walt Disney World with my parents. We kept seeing people – everyone from great, behemoth men to pint-sized girls – walking by with these enormous turkey legs.

Did you catch that? The word “enormous” – that’s a clue to eating cheaply at the fair. Why? Because those turkey legs – and just about every other main course you’ll find, from a pulled pork sandwich to a loaded baked potato – are gigantic. In fact, I once asked the turkey leg vendor exactly how big those legs were. The answer: a whopping two pounds. Take into account the parts you won’t eat, like the bone and tendons, and you’re still looking at nearly a pound and a half of turkey. That’s as much turkey meat as my entire family eats for a week’s worth of lunchtime sandwiches! And it’s more than enough turkey to feed two adults – and maybe a child or two – at the fair.

Discounts Abound

A lot of fair food vendors offer discounts on their products, just like you’d find at your local grocery store or family restaurant. At our festival, we found a $3 ear of corn to be a little over the top – especially when we’d just seen corn selling for $0..33/ear at our local farmer’s market a day earlier. My three-year-old daughter was just about to throw a fit over not getting her corn (it’s her favorite food) when the vendor told us we could get one ear for $3, two for $5, or three for $6. Score!

Bring Your Own Drinks

As a general rule, my husband and I never order soft drinks at restaurants. Why pay $1.95 for a glass of Pepsi when we could buy a pair of two liters at the grocery store for the same price?

We try to apply the same rule of thumb to dining out at the fair. However, there’s a key difference: at the fair, vendors aren’t going to give you a glass of ice water for free. That’s why we bring several stainless steel water bottles full of ice cold water from home. That way, we’re able to save money while still staying hydrated.

Ask About Children’s Sizes

My favorite fair food is, hands down, a crispy, sugary funnel cake. Just thinking about it makes my mouth water. The funnel cakes at our local festival were running $7 – and they were monstrous. Too monstrous for me to eat alone. Unfortunately, my husband and my daughter don’t share my affinity for this deep fried dough, and I couldn’t justify spending $7 on a dessert just for me.

So, I asked the vendor if he had any children’s sizes.

I first learned this trick from a friend – a fair food aficionado – a few years ago. Since then, I’ve been able to use the same approach with moderate success. Sometimes, vendors simply laugh at me, sending me away feeling slightly embarrassed. Other times, they either have a smaller (usually unadvertised) size for children (or portion-conscious adults), or they’ll make up something especially for me.

In this case, I managed to get a funnel cake of about half the normal size for $4. Sure, the value wasn’t as good as it would have been for the larger size, but I also didn’t end up paying an extra $3 for a stomach ache.

Food You Can Take With You

Some fair food, like the aforementioned funnel cake, doesn’t keep well. You let that fried dough sit for more than a few minutes, and it’s going to get downright chewy. Other foods, though, are perfect to have a little here, a little there, and take the rest home. That’s why I rarely say no when my daughter wants a bag of cotton candy. For $4, I’m able to buy the bag and divide it up into portions small enough that she won’t immediately go into a sugar coma. Usually, we end up with enough for her to have some the next day – a little reminder of the fun we had at the festival.

Our Budget Breakdown

Here’s how we spent our $25 weekly dining out budget on fair food:

  • Turkey leg: $8
  • Three ears of corn: $6
  • One child’s-sized funnel cake: $4
  • One bag of cotton candy: $4

Total? $22! And because we didn’t have to pay tax or tip on our purchases – like we would have if we’d gone to a restaurant – we managed to pocket the remaining $3, which we’ll put toward our dining out budget for another week.

Reader, are you a fair food fanatic? How do you watch your budget during summer festival season?