We have gone with the dining plan many times (when it was free) and have gone many times without it. We do change where we are eating when we don’t have the dining plan!! The better, cheaper table service restaurants are:
Magic Kingdom: The Plaza (great club sandwich and homemade chips)
Epcot: Via Napoli (we get a family size pizza and share it); Rose and Crown (pub grub with a great view of Illuminations if you time it right); we love The Coral Reef for the aquarium and always go there (the trout is amazing!)
Hollywood Studios: the best place for cheaper, good restaurants–> we love 50s Prime Time Café (smaller eaters could easily split the fried chicken platter & their milkshakes are the best!); Sci Fi DIne In Theater has a great atmosphere of the indoor drive in and their burgers and Oreo milkshakes are the best
Animal Kingdom: we love the counter service at Yak & Yeti so much that we usually just eat there (great honey chicken)
Disney Springs: Wolfgang Puck Express and Earl of Sandwich are not table service, but fast casual (you order at a counter and sit down and they bring the food to you)- amazing pizza, pastas and salads at Wolfgang Puck and turkey sandwiches at Earls
When we figured out what we had spent on the dining plan (I kept all of my receipts and added them up), it was less than what we would have spent if we had bought the dining plan. For that reason, we never buy it. But we will take it free anytime! I like the thought of having everything paid for ahead of time, so when we don’t have the dining plan I figure out how much we will spend at each place (menus on the Walt Disney World site), and then do one of four things. 1). I will make little individual cash envelopes for each table service restaurant (with the tip) and more for snacks and counter service meals. I always slightly overestimate so that we have extra left over just in case. But I know my family well and can predict what they will order. OR 2). Instead of carrying that cash around, I will use my magic band to charge everything to the room and every few days I pay off the balance with the cash that I would have brought to the restaurant. OR 3). I buy a Disney gift card (or multiple cards) and use those to pay for our meals. OR 4). I figure out the total cost of food and tips and put that amount on my credit card before I leave home. It saves from having a shocking bill when we get back.
For us, using the cash envelopes or the cash to pay off our room balance every few days worked the best. The advantage of paying off the room balance is not having to carry huge wads of cash around.
It’s kind of freeing not having the dining plan, as you can order what you want and not worry if it’s on the plan. If you have kids 9-12, a lot of times they don’t like what’s on the adult menu and want to go the with the kids mac & cheese or pizza. If you’ve paid for the dining plan, you have to pay the adult price for kids over 9, which is a huge waste of money as the kids meals are much cheaper. I would never pay for the dining plan if we had kids in that age group unless they were adventurous or big eaters.
Oh- another tip we found was that we liked trying the food courts at different hotels. The Contempo Café in The Contemporary is small, but while you’re eating you can watch the monorails whizz by. And the food is not bad either. Art of Animation and Pop Century have huge food courts, with AoA having some different stuff that you won’t find anywhere else. Pop has nightly TV dinners that are actually very good. Fort Wilderness campground has the Trails End Buffet, which was already mentioned, but that same restaurant offers take out. You can get amazing fried chicken dinners with a variety of sides. Or you can takeout a one trip buffet dinner. The containers are big and you could easily fit enough food for 2 people in them. There are a few picnic tables and a playground to eat at, and you can wander over to see the horses and ponies at the stable. They also have the nightly Chip N Dale campfire singalong. You can meet the chipmunks, roast marshmallows (I think its $2-$5 for sticks and marshmallows), sing to fun songs and then watch an outdoor movie. They have a small popcorn wagon and I think they have hot dogs there too.
Have a wonderful trip!! We love WDW and can’t wait to go back!!! :o