I have always loved eating out with the kids. Yes, there have been stressful times as Alicen threw up a LOT when she was two and three years old. And yes, occasionally we’ve had to cut things short over behavior or exhaustion. That said, eating out can be a very pleasant experience with children at any age.
There are several basic things to consider when choosing a restaurant with young children.
- Kid friendly – Some children need more practice than others at learning to speak quietly and sit at a table. The idea is to start at very kid friendly restaurants. With little ones, we go to restaurants like Chili’s where it is okay if they are occasionally loud.
- Kids’ menu – It may be helpful to check out menus online or to call ahead and ask about menu options. The best kid’s menus we’ve seen are at Legal Seafood and Firefly. Other times we just order them extra plates, and then split off our own.
- Things to do – It can be so helpful when a restaurant offers some activities. Bertucci’s offers kids dough to play with, Macaroni Grill lets them draw on the paper table cloth and Cracker Barrel has the peg game and five page coloring book menus.
- Things to look at – In our area, Mango Mikes has a huge fish tank that children can see from the dining room or up close if their parents walk them near the bar. The National Gallery of Art Cascade Café has a waterfall outside a picture window to look at and moving walkway for something to do. The Rainforest Café has an amazing amount to look at.
- Kids’ area – Some restaurants go as far as having a kids’ area. This can be a play area like at IKEA or Generous George’s, or a seating area like at Paradiso. Paradiso has a kids’ room where children sit at small picnic table and eat while watching Disney movies on a big screen TV while parents have a nice meal in the next room. While this defeats the social piece and learning to sit with parents, it’s another fun option.
- Kids’ trinkets – Mango Mikes has a wall full of party favor type toys for children to pick from. Stardust gave little plastic figures on their drinks. We grew a collection of their mermaids and elephants.
- Plan to walk around – Sitting through the meal itself can be a long stretch for little ones. If you go in planning to walk around the restaurant or even outside with them once before and once after the meal, it may help them to sit longer and make the experience less frustrating.
Activity bag – It can be helpful to carry a “restaurant bag” in your car at all times. This is a bag that has small notebooks and pencils, stickers, small Playdoh and a few party-favor toys. This bag only comes out once menu items have been chosen, goes away when the food comes and can be available again once they eat. The trick is to not have it available at other times like when you are stuck in traffic. If they get to play with it other times, it likely won’t hold their attention in the restaurant.
Conversation WITH them – This is probably the most important point, spend your time speaking with your children. At any age, include them in the conversation. Ask them questions and share your time. Teach them that meals are a pleasant and social time.
Contribution during – Contribution in general is giving children jobs related to a transition or other daily function. At home, this includes them matching cups to lids or taking drink orders when you are making dinner. At a restaurant, this might include them folding and refolding napkins, buttering rolls, passing food or putting food on a fork for you.
Sit at a booth – If your kids are often up and down from the table, a booth might be helpful so you can box them in.
Sit outside – If it’s available, sitting outside tends to give kids lots to look at and others may be more forgiving of noise.
Plan dinner on the early side – Eating late, children are more likely to be tired and hungry which is a recipe for disaster. It’s better to go early when everyone is fresh.