The following is a guest post by Shane of Beating Broke, a personal finance blog about frugality, saving, spending, and all the other elements of beating “broke”.

 If you’ve been to any restaurant lately with your kids, you know how terribly expensive it can be to go out to eat with the whole family.  It’s not bad enough that they charge you $20 or more for a steak, but then they charge $5 or more for a bowl of macaroni and cheese!  It stands to reason, then, that any frugal family will quickly realize that eating out is something best done as infrequently as possible.

 I’m not sure what it is with kids, but they seem to latch on to those eating out experiences and are always excited for more.  It just doesn’t connect with them that the bowl of macaroni and cheese that I just paid $5 for can be had at the grocery store for $1.29 in a blue box.  It took me a while to figure it out, but I think I nailed it down.  It’s not the food that they are so excited about.  It’s the experience.  And, because we try and live frugally, the experience is actually made that much better by its infrequency. 

I can be weak when it comes to the kids.  After a long day at work, the last thing I want to listen to on the way home is a couple of kids screaming about not wanting to go home for dinner and about how they want to go to this restaurant or that restaurant. So, I sometimes give in more than I should.  It’s a bad habit of mine, and a bad habit of theirs to want to go as often.

 The first lesson in getting rid of any addiction or bad habit is to find a replacement for the habit or addiction.  If you’re a smoker, you can drink a glass of water every time you get a craving for a cigarette. Or, you can suck on a mint.  Over time, the new habit of the glass of water, or the mint replaces the old habit of smoking and makes the effort of quitting that much easier.  What we need to do, is replace the experience of eating out with something that the kids will want to do more.

Obviously, replacing that habit with something that costs money isn’t really a valid replacement.  Neither is replacing it with something that doesn’t give the end result of full stomachs, because we all know how much fun kids are on empty stomachs.  The natural replacement for eating out is eating at home.  But, making it an experience that the kids will enjoy is a bit more difficult. 

Kids are like sponges.  There are few parents that don’t have a story about a word said once that was soaked up and repeated by the kids at an inopportune time.  They learn at an incredible rate.  After all, how many of us could learn to speak a language, while learning a few new sports?  They do that!  By the age of two, they’ve learned quite a bit of their native tongue.  Enough to be considered semi-fluent, at least.  And they’ve learned the sports of walking, playing, and feeding themselves.  All of which required daily practice!  The only thing they like better than learning things?  Spending time with their parents! (This is when they are young, mind you.  Teenagers are another story altogether.)

Why not combine the two, and let them help out in the kitchen.  And, what a wonderful experience for them.  You’ve taken an already enjoyable, although expensive, experience and replaced it with one of their favorite things. 

Pull in a chair so they get to a comfortable level and involve them in every step.  Yes, every step.  Don’t want them to use a sharp knife?  Give them a butter knife and something softer to cut.  Letting them do the activities while reminding them of the dangers helps them learn the activity and they’ll make fewer finger threatening mistakes later.  Same goes for the actual cooking part.  We’ve been telling them that pans are hot and the oven is hot, but our only instruction has been to stay away.  Take the time to teach them how to properly handle a hot pan or to properly open the oven and pull a pan out. 

Obviously, your two year old probably isn’t going to be coordinated enough to cut with a knife, or strong enough to pull a pan from the oven safely.  But, my five year old can do both.  With proper instruction and supervision, he can probably cook the entire meal.  And, by including them in the preparation of our meals, we’re giving them some much needed experiences with you, as well as teaching them a life-skill that they’ll be able to use the rest of their lives.  Not to mention, you save all that money on those restaurant bills.

Melissa’s Note:  My son loves both going out to eat and helping with the cooking.  He is continually coming up with new recipes (not that I would want to eat all of the odd concoctions he comes up with though).

Do your kids help out in the kitchen?  What are their favorite dishes they help make?

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