I write a lot about Disney restaurants and the dining plan, but the truth is, they’re not necessarily in everyone’s budget. And even if you’re on the dining plan, you’ll still have out of pocket expenses you’ll want to manage.  The good news is, if you’re visiting Disney World on a budget, you don’t have to suffer to eat less expensively.  You can still enjoy good meals and save.  Here are a few ideas for pinching pennies on vacation and eating cheap at Disney World!

1.  Avoid your buying food from your hotel’s gift shop since it’s almost always over-priced and the selection is limited, at best.  Instead, order groceries from a service like Garden Grocer or WeGoShop. Both are delivery services that bring your groceries to your resort. Since both of these companies have a relationship with Disney, your items will be safely stored with Bell Services until you pick them up. Order a few weeks ahead of time if getting a specific delivery time is important to you.  Options like WeGoShop are particularly useful for those with a restricted diet, as they will go to specialty stores such as Whole Foods for you.

If you have access to a car, the least expensive groceries I’ve found off site are at the Super Target on I-192.  The have a small selection of  gluten-free and dairy free foods as well.  The nearest Whole Foods is just down I-4 at the Universal Orlando exit.  You can also find Publix and Winn-Dixie just off property, but they are slightly more expensive than Super Target.

2.  Buffets aren’t always the best deal, so proceed carefully.  If you have big eaters, check out the all-you-can-eat buffets on International Drive, where you can eat a lot for around $15 per person.  Keep in mind that buffets on Disney property are expensive, around $40 to $45 for those ages 10 and up, so you’ll want to be careful if you decide to do one of those. You’re paying for meeting the characters, not the food necessarily and on a budget that’s not what you want to do.  You can fill up just as much at a restaurant like 50s Prime Time Cafe in Hollywood Studios for half the price.

3.  One of the best deals on-site can be found at Wolfgang Puck Express in Downtown Disney.  Wolfgang Puck Express is the type of counter service place that doesn’t feel like fast food. Part of it’s the food itself, which is inventive and healthy, ranging from tasty sandwiches to roasted chicken and salads, but it’s also the atmosphere:  Real plates and silverware, a big, airy, not-too-loud dining room, and servers who bring your food to the table after you order at the counter mean you won’t feel like you’re scrimping.

Get Park Wise:  If you’re on the dining plan, this place is a must-do, as it’s the best value for your quick-service credits anywhere on property.

4.  I don’t see any point in buying snacks in the park unless it’s a special treat that you can only get in Disney World.  Of course, what Disney relies on is that you’ll be so hot and tired that you’ll grab the first appealing snack you see.  Don’t fall into that trap:   You’d be surprised at how quickly your budget is completely blown just by buying bottled water every day.  Bring fruit, granola bars, bottled water, and other foods that won’t spoil in the heat.

5.  If you’re on the dining plan, learn how to make the most of your credits.  You can really maximize your use of the plan by taking small but smart steps like saving your snack credits for more expensive items or by asking for a water or yogurt instead of dessert at quick-service locations. Study menus and prices online to figure out what restaurants are the best deal for your money. Finally, keep track of your credits–you don’t want to leave Disney World without using them!

Get Park Wise:  I never recommend the quick-service dining plan to anyone because it’s almost impossible to break even, let alone beat it.  You literally have to order the most expensive item every time you order. Unless you get it for free or you’re the type of person who uses it strictly for convenience, don’t fall into the trap of purchasing this plan.  I do, however, like the plus (also known as base) dining plans.

6.  Want to see the princesses but worried about the cost of eating at  Cinderella’s Royal Table, where an adult pays around $65 for dinner?  Instead, try the Princess Storybook Dinner at Akershus, where you’ll pay less and see the same princesses.  You can also check out the character buffet at 1900 Park Fair in the Grand Floridian, where you’ll get to meet Madame Tremaine and the funny Stepsisters (they’ll flirt with your sons, be forewarned) as well as Cinderella and the Prince.

Get Park Wise:  Meeting your favorite characters at a character meal can save you time, but it’s not a necessity if it’s not in the budget. You can meet almost all your favorites at various greeting spots in the parks. See your daily Times Guide for details.

7.  Eating off site? Skip the fast food chains and try a some local favorites:

  • Texas de Brazil on International Drive is not inexpensive, but they offer buy one/get one birthday offers, 25% off for joining their rewards program, and 50% off specials throughout the year.  I’m not crazy about  chain restaurants, but even I can’t argue with Texas de Brazil, which is a carnivores paradise. Check it out if you have a coupon and a group with a big appetite.
  • Sonny’s Real Pit Bar-B-Q:  I love Sonny’s, a BBQ chain in the Southeast that tastes more like a mom and pop place than you might expect.  You can easily feed a family of four for under $40 here, so if you have a car and don’t mind a 15 minute drive, check it out.
  • It’s not a budget meal, but if you’re looking for a romantic dinner with great sushi at a lower price than you’d pay on property, check out Seito Sushi in Celebration.

8.  Many quick-service meals are huge, so consider splitting them. Consider buying an adult’s quick-service meal and splitting it between two younger children; it will often be cheaper.

9. Pack your lunch. It used to be, bringing your own food into a Disney World park was frowned upon. Everyone did it, but it made you feel a little bit sheepish, especially if security said anything about it.  A couple of years ago however, Disney did away with the “rule” that everyone ignored, so now you can bring in your lunch in a small cooler and not feel uncomfortable. There are lockers in the front of the parks where you can store your lunch until it’s time to eat.

10.  Finally, one of the easiest ways to save money is to eat breakfast in your room. Keep cereal, fruit and high-protein snacks on hand for a quick breakfast. Not only does this option save you a ton of money, but it also keeps you from grabbing high-fat and sugar-filled treats like muffins and pastries once you’re in the park and in a hurry.

How much you spend on food is one of the few costs you can control on your upcoming Disney World vacation, but no matter what cost-saving strategies you use, make sure you leave a little extra cash out for extras or even one special meal.  It is, after all, a vacation.  What types of tips can you offer guests?Do you splurge or do you stay on a budget?

Chris is the author of the Park Wise column here at Mice Chat. She also writes at her own site,  Everything Walt Disney World. You can also follow her on Facebook for daily updates on everything Disney.