We eat out. Often. On average we eat out as a family at least once or twice a week. We eat out at a wide variety of places, from sports bars, and diners to fancy Italian restaurants. We don’t tend to eat at big chain restaurants. We take our kids to the same places we enjoyed eating before becoming parents, and this doesn’t usually involve balloons, candy or clowns. What I’m trying to say is we on a regular basis take our kids to “real” restaurants, ones you might think of skipping with little ones. And it works. We often get compliments from strangers and waitstaff on how well-behaved our kids are when eating out.
March Break is almost upon us and whether heading out of town on a special vacation, or enjoying a staycation at home, I’m guessing eating out at a restaurant or two is probably part of your holiday plans. So I thought I’d share some of my sneaky “how to keep young kids happy in a restaurant” strategies with you.
|My toddler happily waiting for her food while dining-out.|
1. Pick the place.
I have two ways I judge whether my kids are welcome or not; is their a kids menu? and do they have highchairs? You can do a little cyber-sleuthing, check out the menu online and see if there are any kids options listed. This doesn’t always work though, as many places hand out paper colouring sheet menus to the kids. I find the one sure-fire method is to call and ask, “Do you have highchairs?” A positive answer means little kids are definitely welcome there.
2. Timing is everything.
Plan your meals out for off-times. Walking into a “fancy” restaurant with two little ones in tow on a slow Tuesday afternoon will get you a far better reception then say Friday night during the dinner rush. The other timing factor I always try and keep in mind is the all important nap-time. When my kids don’t sleep they are miserable. I time meals out around their sleeping schedules, and try not to head out when I know they are cranky.
3. Use the buddy system.
Whenever possible we pair off, one parent per child. This way one of us is always available to pay each child attention and to give a hand if they need help with their food. This works because I have an awesome husband who doesn’t mind spending half of his meal cutting up someone else’s pancakes.
|Baby-G enjoying attention from her Dad while we eat out at a local sport’s bar.
A minimum of one adult per child seems to be the ideal formula.
4. Forget the kid’s menu.
Occasionally I’m surprised to find a really rockin’ kid’s menu. One that includes juice or milk in the price instead of fountain pop. One that contains food I myself wouldn’t mind eating. More often the kids menu is a huge disappointment, heavy on the french fries and questionable chicken nuggets. So while I’m happy to see a place with a kid’s menu, as I know it means my little ones are welcome, I rarely actually order from it. Instead we either ask for substitutions, or skip the kids menu all-together.
A regular menu item split between the two girls is usually a cheaper and yummier choice. Or sometimes we order appetizers for their meal. My daughter loves the handmade fishcakes at one restaurant we frequent, hummus is another solid choice. Ordering additional items on the side of your adult order also works well. For example one place we go to offers marinated pork loin on their breakfast menu. For a dollar something you can add a piece to your order. Which I cut up and serve to the toddler. Voila, breakfast is served.
When we do order off the kids menu I often ask for substitutions. Why, oh why, has every restaurant decided that the secret to keeping my kid happy is french fries?? For example there’s this great Mexican place just down the road. Their kids menu has all sorts of fantastic options, like fresh tacos and quesadillas , but everything is served with french fries. Fries aren’t available anywhere else on the menu, yet they serve them with the kids dishes. I’ve learnt to ask for the Mexican rice or refried beans instead, and they happily substitute at no additional cost.
5. Have a fall back food.
When our first child was a baby we happened on a really great strategy that we used from when she was about 11 months old until she was two. We ordered her eggs. Absolutely everywhere. Regardless of the time of day. Regardless of whether or not eggs were actually on the menu. Restaurants always have eggs on hand and no one ever said no to our somewhat odd request. Which also had the happy side-effect of being dirt cheap.
6. Bring your own drinks.
Because my girls are still in the sippy cup phase I find we can get away with bringing outside drinks into most establishments. I’ve been doing this for over four years now and so far no one has every said a peep. This is great on so many levels. Yes it saves us a couple of bucks per meal, but it also means I know what my girls are drinking. At home I buy 100% fruit juice and water it down by about half. When I buy juice in a restaurant often enough it isn’t really juice but rather fruit cocktail. Also, trying to water down their drinks at the table is messy and annoying. Finally, even some of the most kid-friendly restaurants fail when it comes to drinks. They serve the kids beverages in glass containers that are not only breakable but often too heavy for little hands. Straws are too tall and not bendy, which means I end up stuck holding the drink off to the side of the table so my little one can have a sip. I realize as they’re getting older that I am going to have to retire this strategy soon, so sad.
|Cranberry cocktail served in breakable glassware at at an awkward angle,
a good argument for why I always try and remember to pack pre-filled sippy cups.
7. Bring snacks.
Bringing snacks to a restaurant may sound weird, but carrying a sandwich bag full of small crackers or cereal pieces has saved me from many a toddler melt down. Sometimes the food just doesn’t come quick enough for my two year old. Sometimes the grown-ups at the table get salads and soups that are served before the kids meals. I’ve yet to find a restaurant that would prefer watching my daughter have a fit, vs. me sneaking Cheerios on to her breadplate.
8. Bring your own silverware.
My four year old will often use regular adult size silverware at home. The two year old on the other hand is still getting the hang of it, and prefers toddler sized cutlery. Yet when eating out I try to have kid-sized silverware on hand for both of them just in case. My preschooler loves eating at Japanese and Chinese restaurants, and one of her favourite parts of the meal is the soups they serve. However the giant porcelain spoons they serve the soup with just aren’t made for little mouths. She also hasn’t quite mastered chopsticks yet, and would definitely prefer if I can hand her a fork. Finally, some restaurant cutlery is very large and very heavy. One of our favourite family-friendly diner’s uses forks that are sized for giants. I myself find them big and clumsy to use. For the kids they’re just impossible. The hardest part here is remembering to clean it off and put it back in your purse before you leave. I’ve had to chase down the bus-boy to get my kid’s silverware back on more then one occasion.
9. Leave the toys at home.
I know some folks are going to disagree with me on this point, but for the most part I expect my kids to sit quietly, chat and keep company with others at the table, and enjoy their meals. When they were very young babies I used to bring small quiet toys for them to play with. As each child has gotten old enough to join us at the table while eating, we’ve set the toys aside as I think bringing toys sets a tone that this is a place to play, which is not what I want my kids doing while we’re in a restaurant. Some restaurants do offer the kids crayons to colour with and that’s an added bonus. I also do sometimes carry crayons in my purse, and I’ve been known to break out the iPod to keep a fussy kid occupied, but I try and keep it to a minimum. I’m really trying to teach my children that sitting at the table at the restaurant is a wonderful time to talk to each other.
|Chatting with my preschooler while having breakfast at the local diner.|
10. Be willing to admit defeat.
My kids are great little restaurant go-ers 99.8% of the time. That other 0.2% of the time, well I’m willing to get a to-go box if need be. Sometimes you discover that you’re kids just aren’t in the right mindset for eating out. I would rather head home and finish dinner there then spend the next forty-five minutes to an hour stressing out over questionable behaviour. We’ve only had to actually follow through on this once or twice. My kids know when I explain that they need to behave quietly and respect the other folks at the restaurant that are there to enjoy a nice meal I mean business and I really will just leave if they’re misbehaving.
11. Pace yourself.
My four year old eats like a snail. A snail that’s really taking it’s own sweet time. The two year old on the other hand inhales her food and is often done before anyone else. This has a couple of effects upon our eating arrangements. First, we know that eating out with our four year old daughter is going to take an hour minimum. She’s a slow eater, and trying to speed her up just doesn’t work. So it’s best to just acknowledge the fact and flow with it. Sometimes this means if we don’t have time for a leisurely meal we don’t eat out. Other times this means getting three-quarters of her meal boxed to go and letting her finish up once we’re at home. It also means that the two year old will almost always finish first, and sometimes be upset that her sister is still eating. Which brings me to my final strategy…
12. Bring dessert.
Often the fancy restaurant deserts aren’t really that kid-friendly. My kids prefer simple cookies to rich cakes, and they don’t really enjoy ice cream. Again, suggesting you bring in outside food may sound like a horrible plan but having something on hand to give the kids for dessert is never a bad idea. Particularly if any of the adults at the table are planning to indulge. Sometimes this is as simple as setting aside some of what they liked best from dinner. Baby really digging the cauliflower? Then I set a bit aside to break out when everyone else starts in on the cheesecake. Or sometimes this means bringing back out that bag of cereal or crackers for an end of meal snack.
I know some of you are going to think I’m either crazy or rude for suggesting folks bring outside food into a restaurant, but it’s what works for me and no one has ever complained. Quite to the contrary, I’ve had servers and restaurant owners compliment me for thinking ahead.
Now, I haven’t tried this one yet, but next time I’m thinking of smuggling in Kinder Surprise eggs as the perfect desert time distraction. Chocolate plus toy, should equal more then enough peaceful time for mom and dad to enjoy their own treat.
Have any tips to share? I’d love to hear your thoughts on eating out with small children.
Disclosure: I’m part of the Kinder Mom program and I receive special perks as part of my affiliation with this group. The opinions on this blog are my own.