Photo by John Matychuk on Unsplash

Need a night off in the kitchen? On the road for a family vacation? Regardless of the reason, eating out with kids can be a bit of a challenge at times. Keep reading to learn my best tips and tricks for eating out with your kids.

Keep it Short & Sweet

Go for an early lunch to avoid the rush and a toddler who wants nothing more than food followed by a nap. Lunch is a great option as the kitchen tends to cater to those with a quick lunch break. An added bonus? The lunch menu is usually less expensive than the dinner menu. If dinner out is a must, go early to avoid the long wait just to get a table. Arrive to the restaurant by 4:45 to get seated and ordered before the dinner rush.

Family Friendly Options

Just because you have a young family, you are not destined to eat burgers and fries from fast food joints. There are lots of great options that are delicious, nutritious and speedy. Some of my favourites are Indian cuisine, Mexican inspired bowls, burritos & tacos (Holy Guacamole, Bar Burrito) & Kara’s Market Cafe & Freshii.

Toddlers and fine dining. I’m not sure that those two words belong together. It definitely can be done but it usually means added pressure on you to keep things to a dull roar. Where is the fun in that? There were a few instances where we went fancy with the kids for special occasions, however given the choice, I would rather save fine dining for date night. I remember when my husband and I went out for our first fancy dinner after our son was born. A lot of effort went into getting him to grandma’s – I probably wrote out all the emergency numbers I could think of, gave my mom a detailed list of how to take care of an infant – you know, in case she forgot after having 3 babies of her own and nursed him right before heading out the door. We had a solid 2-3 hours before I figured he would need me. We arrived at a very fancy fine dining restaurant only to be seated right next to the table with two small children with noisy electronics to keep them occupied. If I knew that I would need to listen to, ‘Old McDonald,’ during my meal…repeatedly, I probably would have chosen a different restaurant.

Avoid the Kid’s Menu

Most kid’s menus leave much to be desired. If you were new to our planet and you looked at restaurant menus to find out what humans like to eat, you would assume that children have very limited palates – french fries, burgers, pizza, chicken fingers and mac & cheese. Childhood is the perfect time to introduce your child to a wide variety of flavour experiences. Skip the kids menu and order off the adult menu. Most times, you can just order an extra side of veggies and let your child share your meal.

Order Food ASAP

Look ahead at the menu and decide what you want to eat before you arrive at the restaurant. You will save precious time before ordering and extend your enjoyable eating time. If you aren’t totally sure what you want, order a healthy side dish to let the kids nibble while they are waiting. Skip the bread basket and try a side salad, soup or baked potato to get started with.

Bring a Bag of Tricks

My first trick to eating a meal out with the kids was to put them in their booster chair for eating. While it was a bit of a pain to cart the chair around, it was totally worth it. We eventually just kept an extra booster chair with a tray in the vehicle all the time. This way we were always prepared. Having the kids sit in their regular chair defined expectations around eating out. Even though we were in a new place, their chair was the same and so were our expectations at the table.  Also, restaurant highchairs do not get the same kind of cleaning that you would do at home after even once use, let alone multiple uses. If you do use a restaurant chair, wipe it down first with a disposable wipe from your diaper bag.

My second trick was to have a bag of goodies that the kids only got to play with when we were out for dinner or at church. The contents of that bag changed as they got older from board books, rattles, puzzles, markers and such. I also would put in a favourite snack to nibble on in case the wait was longer than expected. Avoid giving your child your phone to play with. While it will likely keep them quiet for a while, it is not reinforcing family connection or helping them learn how to behave in public. There is a mixed body of research on childhood use of screens. In my humble opinion, I believe that we tend to rely on them too heavily – put off the introduction to children as long as possible.

Our First Meal Out

Our first family of 4 meal out was actually breakfast. I figured that we were all fairly well rested at that point in the day. Breakfast is usually a pretty quick & efficient experience. We were close to home and if something went sideways, we could make it home quickly. It was a fantastic experience! The kids were a dream and I remember thinking that this parenting a family with 2 children under 3 years old just might work. The cherry on top was that when the time for the bill arrived, we were told that it had been taken care of by another guest. They told our server that they enjoyed watching our wee family and wanted to bless us. The whole experience still brings tears to my eyes.

While every experience out hasn’t been perfect – we have had marvelous fails along the way too,  it is all part of the parenting journey! Care to share? Tell me your favourite strategies for eating out as a family in the comments below.