Dining out with children need not be a stressful situation. Plan ahead and be creative.
Here are 25 tips to help make your meal out a night to remember!
Start at the bottom of the food chain. Consider starting with an outing to a fast food restaurant, a pizzeria, or a short-order diner, then work your way up to a fast-casual chain or a favorite family-run restaurant.
Choose carefully. While Dad has his heart set on the fancy new fusion bistro and Mom prefers Indian food, the kids will feel more comfortable at a diner or a fast-casual joint. Find someplace casual, with an environment that's loud enough to handle the noise of a few kids. Make sure they have a kids menu or a menu that appeals to kids and adults. Chains or homestyle buffets tend to cater to families, but you can probably also find a few local eateries that are kid-friendly, too. Ask friends or family members for suggestions.
Bring edible reinforcements. A few emergency snacks can save the day if service is slow or the restaurant's chicken nuggets aren't to your 3-year-old's liking. (Think crackers, raisins and cereal--anything that's portable and not very messy.) Kids are creatures of habit. Consider it flattering that your son won't eat his mashed potatoes because they're not like yours.
Make a reservation. Restaurants are likely to have long waits on the weekends and on special occasions. Limit your wait by making a reservation ahead of time. If that's not possible, make sure you have an emergency snack or a couple of quiet toys to ward off hunger or boredom. Instead of waiting in a crowded entryway (where one cranky kid can cause a chain reaction), leave one grown-up to wait inside while the other takes the kids to the car or for a walk outside.
Entertain yourselves. A few quiet and discreet diversions can help youngsters get through a meal. Go old school with your games to reinforce that sense of family togetherness. Use dice to teach math skills, play hangman or tic-tac-toe on the restaurant's paper tablecloths (or in a notepad) or bring a coloring or activity book.
Set the ground rules ahead of time. Tell the kids that going to a restaurant is a special occasion that requires they be on their best behavior, just like church or a trip to Grandma's house. Even if you're just going to the corner pizzeria, make sure the kids know that it's a time to keep elbows off the table, use indoor voices and be nice to siblings.
Order kid-friendly food. Unless your child likes trying new food or asks to try something new, stick with the old favorites. When kids like what they eat, they're more likely to clean their plates. Experiment with new foods at home.
Set a good example. Order something healthy to show kids that eating at a restaurant isn't an excuse to just eat "junk food." If your child sees you order a burger and fries after you made him get the fruit cup and grilled cheese, they likely won't be happy.
Help little ones order, but let them decide what they want to eat. Big kids like being able to choose for themselves. Encourage them to tell the server what they want, say thank you when the food arrives, and read the menu if they can. It's a great way for them to practice manners and interaction with adults.
Don't dawdle. Though grown-ups enjoy leisurely two- or three-course meals, kids' attention spans often don't last past the salad course. Order a kid-friendly appetizer for the table to share, ask for a bread basket, or skip the first course and head straight to the entrees.
Be considerate. Kids make messes. That's an unavoidable fact. But remember that your server will have to clean up all those broken Cheerios when you leave. Try to minimize the mess you leave behind, tip generously for the staff's attentiveness--and you'll ensure great service the next time you bring your brood.
Go early. Even children who are old enough to be excited about going to their favorite restaurant will get overtired and cranky if kept up past bedtime. If possible, plan rest or quiet time before meals. A tired or overly excited child may be less hungry at meal times.
Treat eating out as a reward. If you're going to a restaurant because you're too busy to cook, don't let the kids know that. If they think that eating at a restaurant is a special treat, kids will be more likely to behave. Remind them that eating at a restaurant is contingent upon good behavior.
Allow a treat. Consider letting your child have a food or drink that's off-limits at home, such as ice cream for dessert or a caffeine-free soda. Not only will the treat keep your child happy, it will reinforce the idea that dining out is a special occasion and motivate your child to maintain proper decorum.
Use dining out as a lesson. Set age-appropriate and realistic guidelines for the kids. Show younger children how napkins should be placed in laps or remind them to sit up straight. Discreetly point out other children in the restaurant who are well-behaved or use other children's tantrums as lessons of inappropriate behavior. While walking to the restroom, show your older child how to push in his or her chair and how to walk quietly and directly through a restaurant without disturbing other diners.
Try, try again. Even the sweetest, most well-behaved child can have an off day. If your child has a meltdown in the middle of dinner, calmly and quickly take him or her to the restroom or the car until he or she calms down. Don't let that discourage you from trying again. Your child didn't learn to walk on the first try, so don't expect him or her to learn perfect table manners on the first family visit to a restaurant.
Take it outside. When the weather permits, alfresco dining can be a parent's best friend. Noises carry in open spaces, spilled juice cleans up easily on a patio, and proximity to the exit means you can make an escape if needed.
Look for kids nights. Just because you've got little ones doesn't mean you should be relegated to burgers or take-out. A trend at upscale restaurants is to set aside one night or afternoon a month as "family night." If there's a restaurant you've been dying to try, call and see if they have one.
Be creative. Once your kids have graduated from burger and pizza joints, think of fun and innovative places, where eating is an experience. Try out a fondue restaurant, Korean barbecue place or Asian steakhouse where the food is prepared in front of you. If you want to introduce your children to ethnic food, try a Chinese or Indian buffet. That way they can taste a little of everything without much waste or excess cost.
Let's do lunch. Work meals around your children's naptime and bedtime. (This is especially important with infants.) Go out to brunch or lunch, when restaurants tend to be less crowded and when kids tend to be in better spirits. The food is more casual, crowds are lighter, and servers generally have more time to devote to your table.
Check, please! Ask the server to bring the check with your food. That way, your little ones aren't sitting around with nothing to do after you're done eating.
Have an infant? Here are a few more tips geared toward the parents of wee ones.
- Ask for a table that's close to an exit or the restroom. If your baby fusses, you are away from most other customers and can easily leave and come back.
- Move everything out of baby's reach. Shiny silverware, glasses and even tablecloths are tempting to the curious infant.
- Feed just before you walk out the door, and bring reserves.
- Order something you can eat with one hand. Easy-to-eat quesadillas, sandwiches and finger foods mean you can calm a baby and feed yourself at the same time.
Have your own tip for successful dining out with children? Post it in the comments section.