Everyone knows that eating in restaurants can add up to a large expense and is one of the first, best areas of your budget to cut when you’re looking to save money. But this is even more true if you have children, and it isn’t just about having extra meals to pay for either.

I’m talking mostly about full service, sit down restaurants, where you select from a long menu of choices, and have your food served to you at your table. This isn’t just high end restaurants either, but also the moderately priced ones.

As much as we as adults might like to go out to dinner, it isn’t usually the best situation for kids. Bringing them into restaurants can be a huge waste of money.

Kids don’t always eat what they (or we) order in restaurants

Restaurants typically have kid’s menus with meals aimed at kids—sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t. McDonalds does an excellent job with this, in part because the entire operation is set up to be kid-friendly, but also because they’ve virtually institutionalized Happy Meals (and the all-important toys they contain), Chicken McNuggets and other kid favorites. Kids know what they are before they even get there, and that’s half the battle.

Full service restaurants do their best on this front, but few of them have child oriented meals that anyone immediately recognizes. Kids, it seems, are more susceptible to the power of marketing than we assume. If they don’t recognize it, if they didn’t see it on TV or hear that their friends had it the other day, they may not want it.

Kids don’t generally find food to be entertaining. We may find an oriental restaurant, a seafood restaurant or a steak house to be just what we’re looking for in a quiet, relaxing dinner, but kids prefer the chaos and finger foods of Chuck E. Cheese.

Kids get bored

Small children usually can’t sit still for more than a few minutes, and that’s exactly what they’re expected to do in full service restaurants. Boredom can lead to resistance, rebellion or even tantrums, which can result in a meal not eaten. End result: money wasted.

Fast food restaurants have this concept worked out. They understand that with kids, eating is tied to activity and often provide indoor or outdoor play facilities to make it happen. Kids will run around, get hungry and eat enough to justify the parents buying them at least a Happy Meal. Everyone is happy!

None of that is typically available at full service restaurants. Once junior gets bored, the meal is over and mom and dad spend the rest of their dinner time trying to keep him happy. Failing at that can mean an early departure, with mom and dad eating suddenly left-over restaurant food out of a Styrofoam container a couple hours later.

The kiddy discount disappears earlier than we think

So far we’ve been talking about small children, but the restaurant situation doesn’t necessarily improve as kids get a bit older.

When kids are little, they get the often drastically lower-priced kids meals and that helps. At moderately priced restaurants these meals are often priced at levels comparable to adult meals at fast food restaurants. So far, so good.

But well before they turn 18, those discounted meals disappear. At certain restaurants they’re gone as soon as a child turns 10! They’re hardly adults at that age and don’t have adult appetites, but poof—no more kiddy meals–or their budget friendly prices.

At that point the whole game changes. You’re no longer paying for two adults and, say, two “children”. When your youngest comes “of age” in the restaurant world, those $40 quick dinners out rise to $60. If you do that once a week, you’ll spend over $3,000 in a year.

Kids like going to restaurants, just not the same ones we do

I’m not plugging for them, but let’s face it, fast food restaurants are much better suited to kids. No, the food isn’t healthy, and they aren’t the kind of places for parents to relax and enjoy a leisurely dinner. But prices are a lot lower, kids can have fun and they’ll usually eat what you buy.

As much as we might have the best of intentions in bringing them into full service restaurants, kids may not like the food and refuse to eat it. But an hour or so after you leave the restaurant, they’re hungry! Now you have to either feed them at home or head for the nearest golden arches. Result: two meals paid for one child.

When our first child was born, my wife and I found that our restaurant wings were clipped. It was either fast food joints, or stay at home. Anything better cost more than it needed to. We learned quickly that kids and restaurants are a budget-buster.

If you have (or had) children, what has your restaurant experience been? What can you recommend to parents who want to eat out, but don’t want to spend a lot of money>

Kevin Mercadante

Kevin Mercadante

Kevin Mercadante is professional personal finance blogger, and the owner of his own personal finance blog, OutOfYourRut.com. He has backgrounds in both accounting and the mortgage industry. He lives in Atlanta with his wife and two teenage kids and can be followed on Twitter at @OutOfYourRut.