Top 10 Tips for Dining Out With Kids

by Samantha on April 20, 2011

How to Dine Out With Kids – Tips For Parents

Your blissfully child-free friends looked upon you with pity when you told them that you were expecting.

“I guess you won’t be going out to dinner anymore, huh,” was a popular phrase that was echoed once you told them the news of your expanding family. As a matter of fact, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that your life as you knew it would ride off into the sunset, never to be seen again.

Apparently dining out and small children are mutually exclusive.

dining out with kids

Wait, let me rephrase that – one can dine out, but there is a certain caliber of restaurant..um..how shall we say…a “family” restaurant that one seems to be relegated to once they have kids. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. As a parent of young-uns, there is a quiet comfort in knowing that your child’s screaming fit or similar meltdown will be tolerated – even accepted, in some instances – by the other restaurant patrons, almost all of whom are in the same parental trenches as yourself. What is that old saying? That there is safety in numbers? Or perhaps misery loves company…Which is fine and dandy if we are talking about eating establishments that are geared towards families. You know the ones – they often have oversized mascots who entertain the children while eating and, can we say “buffet?”

If you’re like myself, you love food. All kinds of food. The food that I love extends well beyond the realm of these types of restaurants, or my usual child-friendly fare that is made at home, consisting mainly of chicken fingers, pizza and grilled cheese sandwiches. Sometimes, just sometimes, it’s nice to have a real meal, one that doesn’t consist of carbs soaked in butter (read plain pasta without “stuff” on it) or apple juice. Every so often you may want to go to a restaurant where none of the entrees include “orange” cheese or”nuggets” of any kind.

To that end, following is a list of tips for parents who dare to venture into uncharted and sometimes hostile territories:

Top 10 Tips for Dining Out With Small Children

1) Be Prepared – Bring whatever you need to soothe the savage beast. That could be a favorite blanket, a stuffed animal, a special toy or my personal fave – candy to be used as bribes! Whatever it takes to keep them quiet while you enjoy that gourmet dish that you’ve been craving.

2) Feed ‘em First – I’m not kidding. really, feed them something before you get to the restaurant. Most of us parents know that young kids have a penchant for not liking practically everything that is put before them, and complaining about it when you try to get them to eat. In the worst case scenarios, the meltdowns occur, with full-out tantrums and screaming fits being experienced by not only your family, but the whole restaurant. You will not be looked upon positively in these situations, so spare yourself and feed Johnny before you step out on the town. You can always get them a dessert or something when you’re there, if they start acting up and demanding food.

3)Be a Family of Early Birds – Go early. You will have less traffic in the restaurant, more attention from the staff and less of an opportunity to annoy a large group of people. If you can coordinate an early evening dinner or early lunch, do so and you will feel a lot less stressed.

4)Bribery, Negotiation and (sometimes) Threats – I wrote about these tactics before. I use them often. I use them in restaurants. You should too.

5)Plan Your Getaway – Similar to when traveling on an airplane, you should always know the locations of the emergency exits. Having small children and red wine very close proximity may necessitate an emergency exit. Accordingly, plan your course of action and hope, like being on a plane, that you won’t have to use it but be assured that you can if you have to. And quickly.

6)Diversion Tactics – Can you say iPhone? Okay, how about any similar device that will keep your kids occupied and rapt while you dine in peace? I’m all about TV-watching (or smart-phone watching in this case) if it will keep the kids quiet for a little while. Load up some of little Johnny’ favorite programs on your device and make sure the battery is charged.

7)Team Huddle – Whether you are going with your child’s father, your mother, a favorite aunt or close friend, you should use the “team” philosophy and plan ahead what the play-by-play strategy should be. Huddle before the big event, make a game plan, delegate who’s doing what and be ready to rumble…if need be (the rumbling might be with a three-year-old, mind you, but be ready nonetheless).

8)Wait Staff Allies – Be very friendly with your wait staff. Very friendly. They can be your allies or your adversaries while you attempt to have a bit of a life by eating at a decent restaurant. They may even help you entertain your kids – your choice. You set the tone as soon as you get there, so you might as well make it a positive one since you’ve taken the jump and brought along the family. Oh, and be prepared to leave a very substantial tip, one that will compensate for the crème brûlée that’s ground into the floor.

9)Bring  Restraints Seating – If your kids are small enough, do not forget the stroller or booster seat. When the going gets tough, the tough sit down…and make their kids sit down as well.

10)Check Yourself – Ask for your bill as soon as you order. That way, if you have to make a speedy escape (see tip #5), you can do so more quickly.

So, you see, dining out with kids can be done. You just need a clear plan of action and a few deep breaths to get you on your way.

I’m sure that many of us have very strong feelings about kids in “adult” restaurants, so I’m curious to what the responses will be to this week’s questions

How do you feel about parents who bring their young children to restaurants that are not specifically geared towards families?

If you have small children, do you feel comfortable taking them to these types of eating establishments?

Should parents of children under four take their kids to “nice” restaurants or just stay home?

To read this article on LIFEHACKER, click here.
VIDEO: How to Dine Out With Kids

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{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

Grumpy Grateful Mom April 20, 2011 at 3:12 am

Great list! I am all for bribing and diversion tactics.

My current method is “Keep feeding them so they don't have time to cause any trouble.” I don't think this would work too well for most kids, but it usually keeps my toddler occupied. :)

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Samantha April 20, 2011 at 3:35 am

@Grumpy Grateful Mom Yes! I always have lots of food in my purse – from cheese sticks to cheerios (sometimes they are scattered at the bottom of my purse, but oh, well!). As long as there's something to distract them with (often food) it seems to work!
Thanks for commenting :)

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CharmandHappy.com April 20, 2011 at 5:45 am

You forgot to include taking the kids to a Family Friendly restaurant on Kids Night once in a while. Balloon art, Face painting and Magic are commonly offered as entertainment in restaurants nationwide. You can either check out DinnerWithaTwister com. or contact your local balloon artist on BalloonHQ com. The restaurant who HIRE the entertainers understand your pain.

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Samantha April 20, 2011 at 1:46 pm

@CharmandHappy.com Great idea! Thanks for the tip :)

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katlupe April 20, 2011 at 7:44 pm

You have to learn to be the one in control of your children wherever they are. I took my son to upscale restaurants all the time. You know what? That is how he learned what was expected of him in those places. I carried items in my purse for him to draw with and that kept him occupied if he got bored. We always ordered an appetizer for him and told them to bring it out as soon as it was ready. Waiting for the food is the hardest part for children.

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Cathy April 20, 2011 at 9:56 pm

I relish going out to a restaurant and observing a family with crying kids – just makes me feel so much better. We always went out to eat. My comment is that it's okay to get up and go walk around outside, trips to the restroom – anything to bide the time.

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Samantha April 21, 2011 at 2:29 am

@katlupe Good point and definitely one that I should have added – getting the kids' food first! As well, setting up expectations of the child before you get to the restaurant. Of course, that can only be done with kids that are old enough to be reasoned with!
Thanks for your comment.

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Samantha April 21, 2011 at 2:31 am

@Cathy
Thanks,Cathy. What is it about the comfort in knowing that others are going through the same thing?? I feel relieved as well when I see that I'm not the only one dealing with a meltdown.

And yes – walking around often distracts the kids enough to get them calmed down again.

Thanks for your feedback.

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Laila April 21, 2011 at 3:27 am

Very important list!! thanks so much for this.

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Samantha April 21, 2011 at 3:38 am

@Laila
You're very welcome! Glad it was helpful :)

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Mry Jhnsn April 21, 2011 at 4:39 pm

As a former server… Thank you! These are all wonderful, wonderful tips! As a server I would always serve the kids first even if I was not asked to do so because experience had taught me to do so and I didn't even have kids then much less like them lol

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Samantha April 21, 2011 at 4:43 pm

@Mry Jhnsn Thank-you, Mary! I'm sure you have a wealth of tips of your own, being a former server. Would love to hear about any other advice you may have!

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Melanie April 21, 2011 at 7:33 pm

I'm all for kids in restaurants as long as they are well-behaved. I think people don't like it when kids are running around like crazy in nice restaurants. It's very off-putting.

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Samantha April 21, 2011 at 8:49 pm

@Melanie @Melanie It definitely is! And it makes us parents really stressed out when the kiddies start throwing a tantrum. I personally take them outside, or leave if it's really bad..though other parents have been known to “stick it out” with a screaming child – and angry diners – in the same space. Brave souls…

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championm2000 April 22, 2011 at 3:08 am

Love the tips!

Our twins are 10 months old and wetake them everywhere. We have learned to order, ask for a box, and get our check all at the same time :-)

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Samantha April 22, 2011 at 1:46 pm

@championm2000 Yes! Time and efficiency are the order of the day when dining out with kids! Get in, eat and get out!
Thanks for commenting.

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JDaniel4's Mom April 23, 2011 at 10:15 pm

Stopping from Mom Loop! This tips are awesome! I have started taking my iPad with us!

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Samantha April 24, 2011 at 2:46 am

@JDaniel4's Mom You re not the first one to say that the iPad has saved them! Whatever it takes, right??
Thanks for stopping by!

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Susan (5 Minutes For Mom) April 25, 2011 at 5:37 pm

Great suggestions… especially feed them BEFORE going to the restaurant.

When I had just Julia we used to go out to eat rather often BUT it was only to two family friendly restaurants.

With 2 of them now, it's rare we go out.

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Samantha April 25, 2011 at 8:34 pm

@Susan (5 Minutes For Mom) Thanks, Susan!
We rarely get out either, but when we do, I want to be prepared!

Thanks for commenting :)

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Anna April 26, 2011 at 2:29 am

As a fellow foodie, this was my biggest lament about becoming a parent… no more “nice” eating out. I've found it is totally possible though, and shared our tips.

I will say that I tend to differ on opinion about when to bring out the actual kiddie meal. I hate when it comes early because they finish fast, and we get no peaceful eating time! We always order salads to bide our time. :)

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Samantha April 26, 2011 at 2:41 am

@Anna
Hi Anna,
Yes, it depends on a few factors, doesn't it? It might not always be the best decision to take the kids with you, I also take it on a case-by-case basis.

I like the tip about salads! Will try that next time :)

Thanks for commenting!

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simplywebly April 26, 2011 at 6:15 am

Great tips. I resolved to using my iPhone loaded with all kinds of educational and fun games for my son for when we go to a restaurant. That keeps him behaving for about 1 hour after that he wants to play with the forks, plates etc…
I prefer a loud restaurant this way he blends in. lol

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Samantha April 26, 2011 at 9:32 pm

@simplywebly
Technology saves the day – again! You have to wonder what parents did before the digital age ;) I wrote about this very thing here as well: http://bit.ly/dPtL28
Thanks for commenting!

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Carrie June 7, 2011 at 2:30 am

YES. These are great tips! It's getting more challenging to eat out now that I have a 1 year old and a 3 year old, but following those ideas keep it about as smooth as possible. Thanks for sharing!

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Samantha June 7, 2011 at 2:56 am

@Carrie Thank-you for the kind words! I'm so glad that these tips are helpful to you :)

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Yashy Murphy (@YashYanthi) May 25, 2012 at 1:39 am

Great post! I’m with you.. all about dining out and enjoying some fine cuisine. I have a ‘newborn’ and we’re now hitting the tough stage but here’s a list of places I like to visit in Toronto! http://www.babyandlife.com/eating-out-with-baby/

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Samantha May 25, 2012 at 3:27 am

Thanks, Yashy!Don’t give up on eating out, just because you have a newborn. All it takes is a little planning and some ingeneuity and you’re good to go. After all, appreciating a good meal out doesn’t stop just because you have kids! :)

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Sue Atkins September 26, 2012 at 8:13 pm

I love these really great down to earth tips and super suggestions !
Sue Atkins
Author of “Parenting Made Easy – How To Raise Happy Children”

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Samantha September 26, 2012 at 8:15 pm

Thanks, Sue! I really appreciate it :)

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Julia March 21, 2014 at 1:50 pm

I have taken my now 5-year-old out to restaurants since she was an infant. She can conduct herself in “nice” restaurants because she has had lots and lots of practice. We go early, we bring something small and quiet to amuse her and we were always prepared to haul her out if things got out of hand. We’re doing the same now with her baby brother, exposing him to family-friendly restaurants now so we can all dine out as a family later. After all, *I* enjoy fine food and great company. I want to share that experience with them.
Julia recently posted..Vicks Starry Night Humidifier #ProductReviewMy Profile

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Samantha March 21, 2014 at 2:28 pm

So nice to hear that your experience of dining out with your daughter has been positive, Julia. It just goes to show that with a little planning, there’s no reason why families can’t enjoy a meal at a restaurant without worrying that the child or children will act up. It’s all about preparation and having activities for the kids to do. Also, about teaching them at a young age what is appropriate behaviour when they’re in public. Thanks for commenting :)

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