Does the thought of packing up the family and going out to eat at a restaurant cause you to break out in a cold sweat? Even at the most family-friendly restaurants, dining out with kids can be an adventure. But with a few tips and a refresher on restaurant etiquette, your kids will be restaurant-friendly before you know it.
- Timing is everything. Go on the early side.
Go early when there is less of chance you will have to wait for a table, the wait staff is not “in the weeds,” and no one has the hungry horrors yet. So, Dinner–before 7pm. Lunch–try to avoid the 12-1pm hour. Brunch–before 9:30. Weekdays are your best bet.
- Pick the right venue.
There are some restaurants that really should be reserved for adults only (and great for date nights). There are also a surprising number of family-friendly options for dining out with your kids. Some other factors to consider: Background noise can drown out kid noise. Eat outside if it is an option. Call ahead and ask if they have high chairs–whether you need one or not. (High chairs are a great indicator of kid-friendliness.)
- Check out the menu ahead of time (and order swiftly)
Your window of time is limited by the attention span of the little ones. Be proactive about your time constraints, such as: check out the menu online ahead of time, order swiftly, order the kid’s meals first, skip the appetizers or ask for the check when food arrives.
- Make a reservation whenever possible.
When in doubt–let them know you are coming. It makes for a smoother arrival, swifter seating, helps alleviate any awkward moments and limits wait time. Let the restaurant know if you have any special requests, including any high chair or booster seats or specific table locations. Even the most family-friendly restaurants appreciate the heads up.
- Bring snacks… just in case.
A bag of cheerios, a container of yogurt or another snack may be your best friend if you find yourself with a hungry child while waiting for your meal to arrive. You never know when service may be slow or your kid doesn’t like what’s on the menu that day.
- If your kids need to be busy, bring toys/distractions.
Unless you’re dining at a quick-serve spot (taqueria, dim sum parlor, food truck), chances are you will have to wait for your food. Coloring books and crayons, books, quiet toys, travel board games, tablets, and smartphones are great ways to pass time.
- Introduce new flavors and cuisines.
Don’t be afraid to try that new noodle house or Asian street food with your kids. They’ll never know if they like jiro ramen or crispy chicken hearts if they never have the opportunity to try. Something you’ve never tried either? Make it a first together.
- If a meltdown occurs, take your kid outside or get ready to pay the bill and leave.
If you do find yourself dealing with a meltdown/unacceptably bad behavior while dining out with kids, don’t be afraid to call it a day. Ask your server to wrap your food to go and enjoy your meal at home. The restaurant staff–and other diners–will appreciate you taking control of the situation, and it reinforces acceptable restaurant behavior for you child.
- Try to clean up and leave a nice tip.
When dining out with kids, always be mindful of your surroundings and the mess you leave behind. Most family-friendly restaurants are prepared to deal with a basic level of baby mess. Some crumbs under the high chair and on the table are fine. An entire plate’s worth of food on the floor–not cool. Make an effort to clean up what is in reach, and always leave a little extra in the tip (aim for 20-30%).
- Practice makes perfect.
The best way for kids to learn restaurant etiquette is to experience eating out first-hand. If dining out is new for your kids, explain to them ahead of time appropriate behavior when dining out at a restaurant. Keep in mind that every kid can have an off day–just because you have one bad dining out experience doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try again. Practice makes perfect, not to mention a great excuse to eat out.
Sharon Sprague is a mom to two hungry boys and has been taking them out to restaurants before they could hold a menu. Sharon is one of the co-founders of KidNosh, an online restaurant review site for parents. When she is not scoping out the Boston dining scene, she can be found blogging about her quest in raising adventurous eaters at umommy.blogspot.com. For more dining tips, follow KidNosh on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.