When you’re a busy parent, going out to eat can be a godsend. There are just some days when you don’t feel like cooking dinner, you don’t feel like cleaning up the subsequent mess, and you don’t even feel like getting take-out; after waiting on other people all day, you’d like to sit down and be waited on yourself. Going out to eat can be a nice way to kill some time with your kids and relax as a family.
If, that is, your kids are well-behaved and everything goes smoothly at the restaurant. Otherwise, a dinner out can be just another thing that adds to your stress.
So below we offer tips for taking your kids out to eat and not only keeping things copacetic for you, but for the restaurant’s staff and other patrons as well.
A Preemptive Rule to Start: There Are Some Restaurants You Shouldn’t Bring Your Kids To
There are some people who hate seeing small children at nicer restaurants, and even as a parent of little kiddos myself, I certainly sympathize with their gripe.
When people pay for a nice meal, they’re not just paying for the food, but for the experience — the ambiance, the service, the break from their ordinary lives. These are not extras beyond the meal, but factored right into the price of the food itself. When you then bring babies or small children into the mix, and they end up crying/whining/causing a scene, you disrupt the atmosphere and essentially rob other patrons of the experience that they’re paying their hard-earned money for. It’s thievery by a thousand wails. It’s like wearing a sombrero to a movie theater. It’s not cool, and it’s not polite.
So you generally shouldn’t bring small children to restaurants where they run the risk of violating the reasonable expectations other patrons will have for their meal. Where they’re expecting class and calm, and a night that’s not like all the others they spend at Target or Cicis Pizza.
How do you know if a restaurant is too nice to bring your kids to? If it keeps the lights low, and doesn’t do to-go orders, that’s a sign. If they don’t offer a kids’ menu, that’s an even surer sign.
The younger your kids, the more conservative you should be in your judgement. There’s no such thing as a well-behaved or predictable baby, and their cries are actually evolutionarily designed to burrow into your brain and spike a dump of cortisol (so you feel alert and motivated to soothe the dependent creature’s woes); nobody wants a side of stress hormones with their meal. If your kids are older and very well-behaved (and predictably so), you have more leeway as to which restaurants to take them.
10 Tips for Taking Your Kids Out to Eat
1. Fast casual restaurants are your friend. Fast food restaurants are cheap, but make you feel like you’re contributing to the childhood obesity problem. Full-on restaurants are expensive, and keep junior waiting a long time for his gourmet mac ‘n cheese. Fast casual establishments — e.g., Chipotle, Panera, Zoës Kitchen, Pei Wei — sit at just the right nexus for families: they’re reasonably affordable; they don’t offer full table service, but enough to make you comfortable; and the food is a little higher quality and healthier than fast food, while still coming out with a speed that doesn’t severely tax your toddler’s limited attention span.
2. When possible, opt for restaurants with kids’ menus that include activities. Being able to do a little coloring and tic-tac-toe really does wonders for a child’s ability to wait for his food to arrive. Pro tip: Pei Wei’s got a great kids’ pack that they don’t give you automatically, but will offer if you ask.
3. Know some entertaining, tech-free games to play with your kids. In the absence of an engaging kids’ menu, or if they finish its activities and the food still hasn’t come, you ought to have a few tricks up your sleeve for keeping your children entertained. Instead of just handing them your smartphone, and teaching them to be a screen-addicted zombie, play an easy tech-free game with them; we have 9 ideas to try here.
4. Have a special “restaurant bag.” For a young child, there’s no better toy than a new toy (or at least one they haven’t seen in a while). In addition to having an arsenal of non-smartphone activities, you could try having a dedicated restaurant bag. This is something that only comes out when going out to eat and includes small, noiseless toys/activities. Think cheap happy meal toys, sticker books, etc. If used only sparingly (or even weekly), your child will gleefully re-engage with even the smallest toy simply because they haven’t seen it in a while. Kids have short attention spans, and sometimes coloring on menus or games of “I Spy” don’t last through an entire meal.
5. Order the kiddos’ food right away. If you’re at a sit-down establishment, it’s a good idea to order food for the little ones right off the bat. There are a few benefits here: 1) when kids need to eat, they have very little patience (more on that below), 2) it gives time for their food to cool a little bit; if you wait to order everything at once you might be digging in while they’re moaning about food being too hot, and 3) kids are slow eaters — we find that even when ordering 10 minutes apart, the kiddos finish their meal about the same time we do.
6. Always, always put lids on their cups. A must for the little ones who will somehow find a way to spill their drink as surely as the sun rises in the East. But even as they get older, and can probably refrain from knocking it over, it’s still a good idea to put a lid on it.
7. Bring emergency snacks/drinks. While you shouldn’t bring an entire meal with you in your bag, bringing a sippy cup of milk or an applesauce for a small kid is sometimes necessary. When a toddler needs to eat, they need to eat now. And while it’s good to teach patience at home and live with a tantrum every now and then, eating out is not the place to do that. The staff generally understands this, and if they seem annoyed, rest assured that they’d rather have some peace than a table of wailing children.
8. Utilize the opportunity to teach good etiquette. Going out to eat is a great opportunity to reinforce good lessons in manners; make sure your kids say please when asking for something and thank you whenever the waiter brings them something.
9. Do your best to control the mess. We serve others so often that it can sure feel nice to be served instead. But don’t fall into the temptation of using a restaurant meal as an excuse to let it all hang out — allowing your kids to make a huge mess and then just getting up and leaving it all for the staff to clean up.
Even relatively well-behaved tykes can make an outsized mess at the table. Do your best as a courteous patron to keep things in check — wiping up spills and picking up debris that falls on the floor. Alleviate the burden for the waiter/bus boy as much as you can.
10. Always tip at least 20%. Even when you try to corral the chaos, waiting on and then cleaning up a table at which a family with small kids has sat is typically more burdensome than waiting on/cleaning up a table of adults (at least the well-mannered ones!). Your tip should reflect this extra work — always give a gratuity of at least 20% when dining out with the toddler set. If you can’t afford the extra tip, you can’t afford to eat out with your family.