Dining Out with Kids? Follow These 6 Tips So Others Don't Dislike You
Three of our four small kids were born in Italy, where eating out is practically the national pastime. That meant toting our tots to a lot of restaurants. Here are the tricks we learned along the way — and still use for our group that now includes one baby, a toddler, a preschooler and even a kindergartener.
1. Take a "Fun Pack." Our oldest daughter was a toddler when she started filling up a bag she called her “Fun Pack” for restaurants. Whatever she could fit in, went: toys, dolls, sunglasses. I also brought crayons and a coloring book, which weren’t automatically handed out in Rome. She may spend only a few minutes with each thing, but she’ll have enough stuff to explore during the meal to stay occupied.
2. Go early. This was a bit of a moot point in Europe, where dinner typically isn’t served until 8 p.m., but boy have we used it ever since we moved to the U.S. We are out the door by 4:30 p.m., trying to arrive at 5 p.m. or 5:30 p.m. The kids don’t get overly hungry, and the restaurant will likely be less busy.
3. Practice restaurant manners. For toddlers and preschoolers, role-playing ahead of time makes all the difference. (We did this before flying on planes too.) We physically sit at the table and explain what will happen at the restaurant. We tell them that a waiter will arrive to ask questions, there are menus, there is no getting up from the table unless you need to go potty — tell them whatever your family rules are. And we ask silly questions: “Any climbing under the table?” Which gives the kids a chance to yell, “No!” Yelling at home? Good. Yelling at the restaurant? Bad. Hence the dry run.
4. Offer kids two choices from the menu. Whether I'm offering them side dishes or items off the kids’ menu, my goal is to raise kids who make good food choices later on. If I pick two tasty and (fairly) nutritious ideas from the menu for them to choose from, they’ll have more experience when it’s their turn to read the menu themselves.
5. Plan an excursion. Maybe it’s going to the bathroom to wash hands. Perhaps there’s a fish tank. A little walkabout while you’re waiting for the food to come can make it easier to sit still when it arrives.
6. Bring a smart phone. This is our Hail Mary move. If we can’t keep everyone occupied during the meal — maybe there are a few courses, maybe the service is slow, maybe everyone is tired and crabby — a couple of kid-friendly apps can provide a few peaceful minutes to enjoy a meal you’re paying for. Monkey Lunchbox and all the Toca Boca apps for toddlers are the best places to start.
Don’t get me wrong: With kids under the age of 4 or 5, it’s not a no-stress operation. But eating together as a family has been one of the things I’ve loved most about parenting so far — especially when I don’t have to do all the cooking.
Charity Curley Mathews lives with her husband and four small kids in North Carolina. She’s the founder of Foodlets.com: Real Food for Babies, Toddlers & Kids and cannot resist a molten chocolate cake on any menu.