Tips for Eating Out with Little Ones—Enjoyably!

By April Van Scherpe

Eating out with young children is both enticing and daunting. On the one hand, there’s the pleasure of delicious food that someone else cooked, served, and cleaned up—a real treat for busy parents. On the other hand, there’s sheer unpredictability. Will your kids like the food, or will their meals go uneaten? Will they stay at the table or try to wander? What if you’re the loudest ones there? Will you all enjoy it…or should you just stay home?

Eventually, the lure of good cuisine will outshine those worries, and you’ll find yourself at a restaurant with your kids. Here’s a list of our best tips to increase the chances of happy dining:

CHOOSING A RESTAURANT

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Make a Kid-Friendly Choice: For an easy start, try a family-friendly restaurant with amenities for the kids (child menus, crayons, etc.). These places are often casual, come-as-you-are establishments with plenty of ambient noise and enough room to navigate your stroller. Some restaurants offer Kids Eat Free nights: a true “welcome mat” for families. If a sit-down restaurant is too daunting, consider cafeteria-style eateries where you can order and collect your food from the counter; you’ll get your meal even faster.

Scope Out the Menu: Check the restaurant’s website or Yelp listing for a preview of the menu. This ensures there’s something your kids will eat. It will also help you choose your own food faster—and speedy ordering means speedy eating!

Don’t Rule Out Unfamiliar Cuisine: A restaurant might be a hit with your kids, even if the fare is not what they’re used to. Many cultures and cuisines have starchy staples or simple soups that appeal to kids. Check out the menu ahead of time to find the most kid-friendly options. Meanwhile, parents can enjoy the different delicacies. There’s always the possibility that your child will want to sample from your plate, and then—bam! Palate expanded!

BEFORE YOU DINE

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Brief Your Kids: As with other new experiences, it helps your kids to know what to expect at the restaurant. Briefly describe where you are going, what will happen there, and any special rules you have in mind (e.g. “we will have to sit in our seats and keep our shoes on”; “you can pick your burger”). You may also want to discuss your game plan with your partner (e.g. “if Alex gets antsy, we can take turns walking him outside”).

Time Your Visit Well: Although it isn’t always possible to control, try to dine at a good time for your kids—and for the restaurant. Kids will have a better dining experience when not overly tired or hungry. Aim for non-peak hours (e.g. not 11 am Sunday brunch) to avoid long wait times and thick crowds. 

Pre-Game with Drinks or Snacks: If your kids are hungry before you even leave the house, consider staving off the “hangries” with a drink or small snack. A cup of milk or a handful of goldfish may give them the stamina to wait until the restaurant meal comes. You know your kids best and can judge what would kill their appetite vs. give them the strength to power through! 

Pack Your Survival Bag: This tip is the biggest key to success: bring a “survival bag” to support your restaurant experience. Include sanitizing wipes, small snacks or drinks, and restaurant-friendly activities (to keep the kids entertained and give you all a pleasant dining experience). Some families keep this bag in the car for on-the-fly dining (replenishing perishables as needed). See “Survival Bag” below for activity recommendations. 

AT THE TABLE

Involve Your Kids: Give your children an active role in the experience by talking about your environment, exploring the menu together, and encouraging them to order their own food. Kids can order at their own level of comfort and ability, whether saying it out loud or simply pointing to the menu.

Order the Kids’ Food ASAP: Order the kids’ food as early as you can, which is usually when you’re asked for your drink order. Explain that’s it’s OK for their food to come separately/early. Once their meals arrive, you’ve entered a new stage of entertainment for the kids—and (usually) peace for yourself!

Ask for Supplies: Ask for extra napkins and to have the kids’ beverages in cups with lids and straws (if available). You may also want to ask for to-go boxes in advance.

Get the Check Early: Ask for the check when your entrees come, so you’re ready for a quick exit if needed.

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Use Activities to Stretch Attention Span: Your kids may not be used to sitting for the length of a restaurant meal. Before the food comes, use the restaurant as a source of entertainment: talk about your environment, and explore what’s on the table. Eating the meal itself will be the next activity, and when the kids are done eating, bust out the activities in your Survival Bag. For children with energy to burn, grown-ups can take turns walking them around inside or outside the restaurant.

THE SURVIVAL BAG (Restaurant-Friendly Activities)

When dining out with kids, preparation is your friend. Having a Survival Bag enables you to meet any challenge (e.g. boredom, hunger) and enjoy a longer, more peaceful meal. You may want to include:

-Diapers, pull-ups, wipes, and any other typical “out with kids” supplies

-Sanitizing wipes for hands, tabletops, and highchairs

-Small snacks or drinks to stave off hunger, or to supplement if the meal is rejected

-Restaurant-friendly activities, i.e. toys and games that are quiet and have a small footprint. Reserving these activities only for restaurant time will increase their entertainment value when you need them! Here are some of our favorites:

  • Crayons and coloring pages (some restaurants even supply these)

  • No-mess coloring books. Water Wow brand comes with a water brush that reveals colored pictures, and Crayola Color Wonder does the same with a special marker that won’t write on other surfaces.

  • Stickers and paper

  • Washi Tape: Easily removable, this tape can be used to make shapes or games right on the table.

  • A small container of PlayDoh or homemade salt dough (depending on the age of your child and the potential for mess)

  • Plus-Plus blocks, or Plus-Plus BIG for younger kids: these colorful, linkable blocks allow you to create 3D sculptures. An open-ended toy limited only by your imagination!

EXAMINE YOUR EXPECTATIONS

It’s Not All About Food: Eating out is partly about feeding the kids, of course. But it’s also about learning the practice of dining in public, with all that entails. Don’t worry if the kids don’t eat a perfectly balanced meal. They are gaining knowledge—and so are you!

A Short Meal is OK: Learning to dine in public is a process, and it might take a few tries before you get the experience you’re hoping for. With very young children, your meals may be very short. Even 20 minutes can be a success with a wiggly toddler. Take the win, and look forward to 25 minutes next time.

A Break from Dining Out is OK: Even armed with all the best tips, you may decide that eating out doesn’t work for your family during a certain stage. It’s OK to say “that’s not for us right now” and stick to take-out or home cooked meals for a season. It will happen eventually.

As with any new parenting experience, eating out will get easier—and more enjoyable—each time. We’re proud of you for giving it a shot! After all, it isn’t just about food; it’s about enjoying another facet of life together. Bon appétit—and bonne chance!