Hubby and I have always loved eating out at restaurants, and we knew that when we started our family, we didn’t want to give up that hobby, simply because little ones would be joining us. In fact, we wanted our kids – from an early age – to learn how to behave in various social situations, AND we wanted to expose them to as many different kinds of food as possible.
While nothing in life prepares you for what mealtime with babies and toddlers can be like, we were determined that having children would not ground us at home for the next 18+ years. We wanted our children to acclimate to our family culture – doing things that were important to us – and when it comes to eating out, that’s exactly what we’ve done.
Has it always been easy? Oh my, no. Have my very best tips and tricks gifted us with smooth experiences out every time? hahahahaha! Absolutely not. But there have been a few things that have definitely helped make it possible for us to continue venturing out to restaurants – even though things while eating out might look a tad different than they did when David and I first got together.
My best tips and tricks for eating out with kids? Here we go!
Tip #1 – Choose wisely. There are some restaurants that are kid-friendly and others that simply are not. When hubby and I are out on a date alone, we like quiet restaurants. When choosing a family-friendly restaurant, the louder the better. I’m sure you can relate to why. However, our definition of kid-friendly restaurant seems to differ from that of some. We will pretty much take our kids anywhere…unless there are white linens and candles on the table, then we deem those Date-Night Spots. ha!
Tip #2 – Eat early. We do our best to specifically time our eating-out adventures to where we are one of the first family’s in and out of the restaurant. What time does the restaurant open? See ya then! This also seems to help fill our kiddos up BEFORE tiredness and hunger overtakes them later in the evening. Anyone know what I mean when I say hangry? *Hand Raised* Sometimes, that’s our crew summed in one word. ha! If getting to a restaurant early doesn’t work, try making reservations or taking advantage of “call-ahead seating” – both have been lifesavers for us at times.
Tip #3 – Carry the necessities. When we go into a restaurant, I always make sure I have a pack of wipes and a few small snacks for the youngest in our group (The older kids have to wait on the food! ha!). There have also been times when I’ve brought along these Melissa & Doug Mealtime Sticker Scenes:
Hello, my name is Elizabeth, and I carry a big purse!
Tip #4 – Be specific. Our mealtimes out go smoothly if our crew is in a booth. I don’t know why, it just seems to work well for us. So when we are making reservations or checking in with a hostess, we will specifically request a booth, and usually, they are more than happy to take our crew to the big booth in the far, far corner. I think we overwhelm people sometimes! ha!
Tip #5 – Keep it simple. When ordering, we try to make it as easy as possible. Waters all the way around, please. OR Five Chicken Quesadillas, please. This seems so crazy when I type it out, but honestly, there are times, when this approach is quite the sanity saver. We don’t always do it, but depending on the situation, it’s been a helpful trick: like at the super jam-packed seafood hut we like to visit at the beach.
Tip #6 – Set high expectations. From the time our kids are little, they are expected to remain seated at the table for the entire meal. If they struggle with this during that stage where they’re transitioning from a high chair to a regular seat, all we have to do is threaten to put them back in a high chair, and they usually sit down. If the issue escalates (and there have been times when it has), hubby or I scoop them up and leave the restaurant until they’re ready to do what was expected. We really, really, really, really try to teach our kids to be respectful of others around them, so if you’re in a restaurant with us and our kids start going crazy, I promise we will try to do everything we can to keep them from ruining your meal. This whole high expectations thing takes a lot of practice, unwavering consistency, and an understanding that sometimes things may not go as planned, but don’t give up on your kiddos. Let there be a next time…and a next time…and a next. Kids will test our boundaries and we will get frustrated, but they will eventually catch on – and the in the end, it’s worth the energy to do the training.
Tip #7 – Encourage Manners. Hopefully your children will see you model kind manners toward the restaurant staff. “Please”, “Thank You”, etc. is so important. It is also important to teach them how to interact with the server. As soon as they’re ready, let them order. Don’t do their talking for them – give them a chance to practice how everything works. Side Note: Please – for the love of all that’s good and right – don’t allow your kids to hang over the back of the booth – interrupting the family seated on the other side. This drives me crazy, but I might still be harboring angry feelings toward the toddler who pulled my hair that one time.
Tip #8 – Interact as a Family – Part of the experience of eating out is learning how to interact with those you are with at the time. I find it so sad to look over and see families completely disengaged – all interacting with their phones and not each other. Talk with each other! We have had some of the best conversations while eating out together, and I’m always glad my phone wasn’t in my hand…or theirs.
Tip #8 – Pay in advance. There is nothing worse than sitting…and sitting…and sitting…while waiting on the server to bring the bill to the table. Oftentimes – as soon as we order – we go ahead and provide the server with our chosen form of payment. I typically say something like: Since we have the little ones with us, I’ll go ahead and take care of our bill. This usually cuts out the entire “check-back-for-dessert” step and gives a very strong hint that you would like to move things along as quickly as possible. This may sound like it awkwardly rushes things along, but at this point, we’re in a smooth habit of doing this, and honestly, it helps us to relax a bit more knowing the bill has been paid and we can simply leave when we’re finished eating.
Tip #9 – Clean up. Did your baby throw his puffs all over the floor? Did your toddler spill milk all over his chair? Did your child spread the sugar packets out all over the table? Please, please, please do not leave these things for your server to tackle. Depending on the age of your kids, get everyone involved in helping! I have never been in food service, but I can imagine that waiters/waitresses are extremely appreciative of families who clean up after themselves.
Tip #10 – Be prepared. Even with all the best tips and tricks up your sleeve, eating out with kids is going to be stressful at times. There are oftentimes things that happen that are outside of your control: like when it starts raining at the outdoor pizza place…or when your toddler starts throwing up – mid-meal…or when your baby decides they’re going to have the bathroom event of a lifetime – in the highchair…or when you have realllly slow service, but if you enjoy eating out, don’t give it up altogether. Use eating out experiences as a training ground for your kiddos and as an opportunity for quality time together as a family. Your efforts will be rewarded – I promise.
Disclaimer #1: These tips and tricks have been born out of personal experiences of our own. You may find a different approach works better for your family.
Disclaimer #2: There have been seasons when we have taken a little break from our eating out hobby: like when I had a newborn that wanted to eat every 16-17 minutes…or when we went through that one stage where one of my babies liked to practice their screaming technique out in public…or when we went through that other stage where one of my toddlers started wanting to pull fire alarms…you get the idea. At times – in order to save our sanity (and the mental health of others out in public) – we have stayed home, and if you’re in a season like that now, it’s okay. Order take-out, fire up the grill, toss a freezer meal in the oven, serve everyone a bowl of cereal, but as soon as you think everyone is ready, let’s go out to dinner! I’ll bring the baby wipes!
Want to read more?
If you enjoyed this post, you might also like to read a little bit about Why We Hardly Ever Order from the Kid’s Menu.