Out to Eat with Kids: Survival Tips


Sometimes going out to eat with your little ones is more trouble than it’s worth. Other times, your kids can be so well behaved it makes you look like all-star parents. The latter is probably more the exception than the norm, but with a few sneaky tricks, you can enjoy more meals out at restaurants without catching all the dirty looks for having a screaming child.

Don’t worry – you aren’t stuck going to McDonald’s, Burger King, and other fast food joints for the rest of your days. It IS possible to survive–much less enjoy–a dining experience outside of the home. Dining out at family restaurants and even the occasional special occasion restaurant is very possible for most families. Many parents will remove a disruptive child from the restaurant before the escalation hits the ceiling. Though it’s not always possible, wouldn’t it be far better to avoid the tantrums in the first place?

Here are our favorite survival tips for going out to eat with kids.

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Getting Picky Kids to Eat

What is the point of going out and paying for food and service if your child isn’t going to get anything in her belly in the first place? Most restaurants look down on you for bringing snacks or food into their establishments, except for young babies in many cases. You can usually sneak in your baggie of Cheerios or other small snack, but the point is, you want your child to order something he or she wants, and actually eat it. There’s the kicker.

When toddlers get older, say, preschool age, it’s amazing how they can suddenly order their own meals and drinks, knowing exactly what they want to eat. We had an experience like this at the diner the other day and it was just incredible. Now if only that was the case all the time, with different foods, instead of just “chicken and fries.” Honestly, I really did not mind her ordering pancakes at the diner for dinner one bit.

In the meantime, before kids become expressive enough to order their own food, what can we do? I try to get a handle on her favorites and try not to overdo it with the same foods at home. We have a book where our daughter gets a sticker and we write in whatever new foods she has recently tried. This has been effective in encouraging her to try new things. Of course, restaurants aren’t exactly the best venue for kids to try new things, unless it’s off someone else’s plate, or the buffet line.

You can try to make mealtime more fun for kids, talking about the shapes and colors of their food. You can ask the wait staff to substitute something you know your little one won’t touch for fruit or a similar choice. Even a small dish of grapes or orange slices may go far. If you have more suggestions for surviving any time you go out to eat with kids, please share them in our comments below!

Creating a Civilized Dining Experience

Good habits take time to form and stick. Try to teach your kids that mealtimes are family time and everyone eats together. This means no getting up and running around the table or the room. Once you instill this behavior, you automatically have more restaurant dining star power than you could even imagine. (Stop giving me that look – I never said my child behaves this way at mealtime at home or out to eat! I am just a little jealous of my friends’ kids who do. We are still working on it!)

Some other good dining etiquette to proactively teach your kids prior to the absolute need for it—

–       Using silverware

–       Speaking softly and politely

–       Not fighting with siblings

–       Asking nicely for something, not crying or whining for it

–       Taking careful bites and chewing thoroughly

Keeping the dining area relatively neat is another challenge most parents face when going out to eat with kids. Try as you might, they will still drop things, spill things, smash things, play with things they shouldn’t, and on and on. While you can’t necessarily control all of it, so you may just have to pick your battles.

As far as keeping a neater eating area when going out to eat with kids, you can try a neat product for your older baby or younger toddler if they still sit in a high chair. The Neatnik Saucer is a unique product that pops into most restaurant high chairs, giving your child his or her own eating space. This product is easy to clean and helps to keep a lot of the crumbs and mess contained.

For an added bonus, you can choose a Graffiti style Neatnik Saucer, which comes with dry erase crayons to keep your child entertained even if you forgot a coloring book and especially if the restaurant forgot to give you the little kid menu with crayons. This item provides lots of fun time you can recreate anytime you go out to eat, and also keeps the dining area as tidy as possible. (Disclaimer: I received one for the purpose of this review – the opinions expressed are my own.)

Keeping Kids Entertained so Parents Can Eat

Sometimes keeping your kids entertained at the restaurant is the real issue at heart. If children don’t get bored, they may be less likely to throw fits and cause issues at the restaurant. Sure, you probably have a coloring book and crayons tucked into a seat pocket of your car for these precise occasions, but here are a few other ways to keep your kids from climbing the walls at Perkins.

Invest a little bit in a LeapFrog LeapPad Kids’ Learning Tablet the next chance you get. This device is worth its weight in gold at restaurants, doctor’s office waiting rooms, during important phone calls, so you can shower in peace, in the car, and basically any time you need a few minutes to get something important done. We bought one for our daughter around the time she was turning two or a little bit child-with-milkshakebefore and it was the best purchase we could have made. You can download apps or purchase game and activity cartridges, or both—whatever your desired level of comfort and involvement. If you are concerned about the sound playing when you are out in public, check out these cool Minnie Mouse earphones we got Natalie! For the peace of mind (and peace in general) they give you, you really can’t beat the price.

You might also want to look into a few activities in case you need to mix it up. We have had great success with Melissa and Doug Water WOW! Books. These let you paint with water without any mess, and once the page dries, it goes back to being blank so kids can enjoy painting over and over again. Another item we really like is the Crayola Color Wonder packs that include coloring books and markers that ONLY work on the Color Wonder paper.

By the way, sometimes that milkshake really IS worth $4.99. (Not my kid pictured, but we’ve had our fair share of shakes this past year!)

What other ideas do you have for keeping kids entertained and on good behavior in restaurants? Feel free to share your best and worst moment in our comments below!

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