Cincinnati Family Magazine

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May 23, 2024

Dining Out With Kids

It was a few years back, but I recall the immediate anxiety I had when we loaded up our son to dine out for the first time as a family of three. I remember worrying about him waking up, screaming at the top of his lungs, wanting to eat, forgetting a pacifier, having a massive blowout, or even worse projectile vomiting everything in his system thanks to his horrendous acid reflux. I didn’t want to go. I just wanted to stay home and eat in the comforts of my own home, but my husband talked me into it. We went to one of my favorite restaurants and I was hoping I would be able to show my face again there in the future. My son ended up sleeping the entire time. It was a dining out miracle!

That first trip out made me overly confident. I was ready to tackle our next trip out, but unfortunately it was not as smooth. Once my son started sitting up and sitting in a high chair, it was a whole new ball game. He wanted to touch everything, put everything in his mouth, and serenade the entire restaurant. We began planning our trips out to make the experience as positive as possible. In the last five years we have had some great dining out experiences (now as a family of four!) and some not so great ones, but luckily the great outweigh the ones I’d like to forget. After lots and lots of practice and tag teaming time outs in our car, my husband and I both feel confident taking our kids out to eat by ourselves … which always ends up with everyone crammed into one side of the booth snuggling!

Some dining out tips that can make the experience more pleasant:

  • Pick a kid-friendly restaurant – Ones that have menus/crayons for kids and where the atmosphere is more laid back, and loud enough that your family blends in. Places like Panera, Noodles and Company, and Red Robin are great places to practice before heading to that five-star restaurant with the candles on the tables.
  • Preview the menu – If you have a picky eater, check the menu before you go to ensure there will be something he/she will eat.
  • Make a reservation – Make a reservation or go early to avoid the rush and having to wait to be seated … which could lead to antsy kids.
  • Arrive early – Mom Blogger Angie Spanhak (check out her Blog ) recommends, “Going before your normal lunch/dinner time, that way if it takes a while your child will not be starving.”
  • Pack snacks/order an appetizer – Kids love to snack! At a restaurant is no different, sogive your kiddo something to munch on while you wait for your food order. Ordering the kids’ meals first is also helpful. Their meals will then come out first so they can graze while your food cooks and while you eat.
  • Special treat – Reserve something special just for dining out. This can help reinforce that dining out is a special event. For my kids we have reserved lemonade as this special treat. They get excited every time we go out because they know they can ask the server for lemonade … which then I ask for it to be diluted with water!
  • Use the restroom – Take your kids to use the restroom after you order and before your food arrives. This way they can go potty and wash their hands before your hot food gets to your table. I am still learning this the hard way!
  • Pack activities – Pack crayons, coloring books, play-doh, small toys, cars, electrical tape (to make a car track!), and busy bag toys to keep you child busy while you wait for your food. Keep a shoe box tote packed in your car at all times so you are ready for those unplanned stops for food. For kids that have sensory processing disorders, pack noise canceling headphones, an iPod with calming music, and a few favorite and calming objects.
  • Bring wipes – I swear every time I go out to eat with my kids I am wearing white and they eat something saucy and messy! Sometimes the napkins are just not enough.
  • Pre-plan consequences and rewards – Set and enforce rules at home and then carry them over to when you dine out, but keep realistic expectations. Eating out is very different than eating at home. Will there be ice cream for great behavior? What will be the consequence for throwing food, crawling under the table, or screaming? We have found (thanks to some great advice from my friend Sara!) that car time outs work well. Believe me … it is not fun carrying out a screaming child to the car, but it works! It is a great way to help your kiddo calm their body in a not-so-public place. Once they are calm they can rejoin the table and eat their food. (This works if there are at least two adults dining out and you can share the parenting duties!) My daughter was a quick learner … three trips to the car at Uno’s and she has been an angel since!

Dining out can have quite a few teachable moments. You can teach your child to order their own food, request drinks, and practice patience while waiting for their turn to order and waiting for their food. You can teach them to use their manners and to be considerate of wait staff that are bringing them their meal and who will be cleaning up your table after you leave. Of course, the more you practice appropriate behavior while dining out, the easier it will get! Short term discomfort with a few not-so-fun restaurant trips can equal long term happiness with some wonderful restaurant experiences.


About the Author

Tina Pratt

Tina Pratt is the mom of two littles. She is a former PreK- 5 special education teacher that now works as a behavior coach. She enjoys being a tourist in her own town and finding ways to embed lessons into everyday fun!