Easy Way to Save Money and Calories: Eat Before You Play

 photo by destinelee

There is no shortage of places to go out to eat in our country.  I’m continually amazed at how much food is incorporated into all forms of entertainment. You can’t go anywhere without a hotdog stand, a concession stand, or even a full-blown restaurant stuck inside a discount store.  We recently took our kids to a popular indoor play place (think of a gym for kids with inflatable equipment), but didn’t think to eat before we went.  Like all kids, it only took about twenty minutes of play and the scent of pepperoni pizza wafting through the building before they were begging for a snack.

Snack Savings

I think our lunch cost us about $12.00 that day.  It consisted of two pieces of thin-crust pizza for each of us, and three small drinks (my wife and I usually share, but kids and germs don’t mix well so they get their own cup).  We could have bought an entire pizza with all the toppings we wanted from our local Kroger grocery store, baked it ourselves, and had drinks at home for less!  Lesson learned.  When planning activities away from home it is a good idea to eat a small meal before leaving, else the activity is bound to cost significantly more with food purchases.  I recently wrote about the decision to sneak food into movie theaters instead of buying from the concession stand.  Assuming you simply ate a meal or snack at home you could easily survive a two-hour movie without buying a $5.00 tub of popcorn and a $3.00 drink.

Healthier Food Choices

Things made at home are typically much better for you than food purchased on the road.  Even the choices are significantly better.  It’s rare to find a grilled chicken salad on the menu at eateries tucked away inside amusement parks.  Most menus here resemble fast food restaurants where the most popular items are hamburgers, french fries and hotdogs.  Eating at home saves both dollars and calories.

An Annual Exception

I can easily live with this rule but for one major exception–the fair.  When the state fair comes to a city close to us once a year, part of the experience is fair food.  I’ve often joked that if a place opened and only sold “fair food” they would rake in money!  Funnel cakes, corn dogs, fried candy bars, turkey legs and homemade ice cream are all part of the experience at the fair, and we budget a stomach-ache-inducing binge into our entertainment budget just this once.  After all, what’s the point of living frugal if you can’t have the occasional treat?

How do you avoid food expenses while visiting entertainment venues?  Eat before you go, pack a picnic, or just budget in the food costs?


  1. Ha ha, I agree about the fair food. Except for me it is boardwalk food. I gotta have my zeppolies when I go to the beach (fried dough and powdered sugar).

  2. My parents drilled this one into us. We knew that begging for junk food once we got to our destination would get us nowhere. I’m sure feeding us ahead of time saved my parents a bundle, and once the expectation was set, we didn’t even think about it.

    But I like that you create exceptions–a treat that’s rare is the one that’s remembered and appreciated. And funnel cakes… Dude… I gotta find out when the fair’s coming!

  3. Hey hey, I actually did this today. We had a softball tournament that lasted through the entire morning, and rather than buying expensive convenience store food like most of my teammates, I ate a big enough breakfast at home and brought a granola bar to keep my appetite at bay til I got back home. Can’t beat healthier and cheaper.

  4. Absolutely right on the money here! Most places that serve food operate on a business model similar to the movie theaters. They make little to nothing on box office receipts, but make it up at the concession stand.

    This reminds me of my college days. We’d have a few drinks before going out to the bars.

  5. That’s a great tip! I’m just getting started with my more “frugal” lifestyle. I went to a baseball game yesterday. Usually I buy a hot dog and large soda during the course of the game. Now because they are the only ones selling, that costs quite a chunk of change: about 10$. Instead of doing that this time, I brought a bag of peanuts in my pocket and my girlfriend took a couple bottles of water in her bag. I’m sure that technically, that’s against the ballpark rules, but you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do I figure. Thanks for the advice.

  6. I always carry a stash in my giant purse/bag whenever we go anywhere. Not so much for the frugality of it (although it really helps!) but because “entertainment” food is so horribly bad for you. I don’t leave the house without some kind of wholesome snacky thing– popcorn, granola, home-made oatmeal cookies –that type of thing so they don’t really feel deprived. My kids are used to it. They don’t ask and seem satisfied with what I bring. Just looking at fair food makes me feel sluggish and gross. I haven’t eaten it in years. And the last time my daughter was out with friends and porked out on the fair food, she felt crummy for about 3 days afterward. Curbed her enthusiasm for next time for sure.

  7. Too bad you don’t live in Dayton. There’s a restaurant that just opened here that sells “carny food” all the time! Elephant ears, funnel cakes, cotton candy, you name it!!

    Tony’s. Its the best.

  8. I agree with you about “treating yourself” once in a while. Even if it’s something small… new nail polish or a magazine. The key is once in a great while for me!

    Fair food: here in Wisconsin it’s all about the deep fried cheese curds! Yummy! I think it has to be the most fattening thing on earth!

  9. Total agreement. Eat first, take portable/good snacks and water/juice for the kids in case it’s really needed.

    And yes, what’s the point of being frugal if you can’t splurge once in a while without feeling guilty. Our county fair is in 2 weeks…. Tillamook Ice Cream in a waffle cone, Debbie D’s Sausage rolls, elephant ears, and cotton candy in a bag to take home… All are like ‘buying memories’. It’s all budgeted for so I Enjoy!

  10. Fair food – however, when the kids were in 4H and at the fair all day with their animals, they packed a big lunch and several healthy snacks and drinks.

  11. We do try to do this as much as possible. One thing I have found is that my kids love to eat in the car and that is a special treat for them. If they eat in the car on the way to the destination (not regularly, just special times) that is still exciting without paying for an expensive lunch/dinner out.

  12. Well described article, totally agreed with fair food concept, even though i fall on my Sunday all time pan cakes at home, saves me money.

  13. Great article! Even if I don’t have time to prepare something to eat before I go out, I make a habit of putting a couple of pieces of fruit in my bag before I head out. At the very least, it’ll stave off the hunger until you get home for dinner!