By Emily Heil
Social media is rife with "hacks" for all of life's challenges. From separating eggs to cleaning toilets, there's a genius trick (or a hundred) for that.
A recent spate of TikTok videos have offered hacks for saving money at restaurants - and (spoiler alert) they are mostly people ordering from the kids' menu.
Late last month, TikToker Somer Agnor shared the $7 (about R130) full meal she picked up curbside from The Olive Garden, which included pasta and a side of broccoli, a drink, two breadsticks and a salad. The salad isn't normally included, she said, "but they always bring one out to me."
"I love this because sometimes I'm sick of drive-through food," she says in a video that has been viewed more than 1.2 million times.
A former Olive Garden server even posted a video that's been seen 3.7 million times offering an idea for getting even more food for your buck when ordering off the kids' menu (meaning it's a hack within a hack?): Order a fettuccine Alfredo with chicken, then choose the pasta side and swap the regular marinara for another Alfredo with chicken. "It's the same size as the adult portion, and cheaper," he promises.
@olivegarden How many 🥖 are you eating tonight? #dinnerideas #breadtok #foodtiktok #friday #olivegardenchallenge ♬ original sound - Olive Garden
Ashley Garrett describes herself on TikTok as a "kids meal connoisseur," and the Orlando-based influencer offers not so much hacks as a lifestyle.
Almost every night, she orders dinner off the kids' menu from one of the dozens of chain restaurants in her area.
Until earlier this year, her Instagram posts and TikTok videos had mostly focused on general lifestyle topics or Disney tips.
But when she posted about one of her kids' menu dinners in February, she was surprised at the reaction. "It really took off," she said. "I wasn't expecting it - when you do something that's as natural as showering to you, you don't realise that other people might be interested."
Since then, Garrett, who says the routine is time- and cost-effective, because it allows her to save on groceries and skip meal preparation - has collected millions of views for videos in which she shares her adventures in kids-menu dining.
She analyses restaurants' offerings, looking for quality and generous portions.
One of the most important factors that will garner a restaurant a good review is the ability to customize the order.
Adult diners ordering from the kids' menu isn't new, but the pandemic-borne ubiquity of online ordering and curbside pick-up has made it easier for grown-ups to skirt any side eye they might have gotten from servers sceptical of people ordering food designated for the 12-and-under set when there's not a kid in the party.
And there's more reason than ever for diners to look for ways to save.
David Henkes, a senior analyst at market research firm Technomic, notes that restaurant prices are rising, leaving cash-strapped customers eating out less frequently - and looking for bargains when they do.
Henkes says the restaurant industry is relying on higher prices to stay stable, while customers pay the price. "Consumers are changing their behaviours - frequency of visits is down and they're moderating what they do when they go out," he says.
But even if you want to and can order from the kids' menu, the question remains: should you?
"It's a little tacky," Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema says.
The topic comes up every so often in his weekly reader chats, where diners seek recommendations and counsel for restaurant etiquette quandaries.
"Restaurants are businesses and businesses need to make money," he says. "If someone is trying to spend less or eat less, it's better to order one or two appetizers."
He is a hard "no" on grown-ups ordering from the kids' menu while dining on-site, because it takes waitstaff just as much time to serve a smaller portion as it does a regular-sized one.