Dining Out With Kids Doesn't Have To Be A Slog

Tips and tricks for enjoying a family meal at a restaurant with young children.

I am the exhausted mother of two children who have a whole lot of spunk and two very distinct dining styles. My fourth-grade son loves food and devours a wide range of dishes quickly and eagerly. My first-grade daughter, meanwhile, is far less interested in mealtime. Even favorites like pancakes or mac and cheese are often picked at, then discarded in favor of cartwheeling or asking about dessert. In short, dining out at a restaurant as a family often feels daunting—but it doesn't have to be.

It must be difficult for childless diners to understand the predicament of the modern parent. I've seen these carefree consumers throw a judgmental side-eye my way as I frantically punch in an iPad code, my overpriced Pasta alla Norma turning limp and lukewarm in an untouched heap.

A proud member of a generation of gentler parents, I strive to trust my kiddos to speak their minds, act their ages, and be their authentic selves. Gone are the days when we force children to sit quietly at the dinner table or face our angry wrath—and that's a good thing. But where does it leave families who want to dine out in way that works for everyone, including parents, kids, the staff, and other customers?

While I won't pretend that every restaurant outing with my children earns a five-star rating, I have developed some tips and tricks that have helped my family relish a meal instead of regret it. Perhaps these will help you, too.

Tip 1: Pick a place with a stimulating atmosphere.

When dining out as a family, my husband and I know that the only way we will properly indulge in our dishes is if our kids are occupied for a portion of the meal. This means we often choose restaurants that serve more than just food—they also serve up something for children to do.

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Some of our favorites include a trendy Mexican restaurant with a large outdoor space and yard games like cornhole and Connect Four, a brewery with (free!) arcade games, and a local establishment that's equal parts restaurant, comic book shop, and pinball arcade. Of course, this level of kid-friendly fun is not the norm, but finding a place with a small outdoor space or one or two playful diversions will suffice. We once ate on the outdoor patio of a bar and grill with a hook and ring nailed to a tree that kept our kids occupied for over an hour.

Tip 2: Revisit restaurants that respect your kids.

There is nothing worse than being at a restaurant where you, or those you've spawned, are not made to feel welcome. There are some obvious places to avoid dining with kids, like high-end establishments or stuffy bistros that cater to an older crowd. But I suggest further taking note of restaurants that proactively cater to families by respecting their child patrons as those with taste and valid opinions.

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An eatery with a children's menu that includes smaller portions from the main menu, even if they're alongside such beige standbys as chicken fingers and fries, is a great find. You want a place where servers look to the child, not the parent, when they take their order. These small gestures can be big to a little person, helping them to join in on the dining experience, instead of feeling like an accessory to it.

Tip 3: Let your younger diners order first.

I always carry along a small tote bag of age-appropriate distractions like coloring and activity books, travel-sized games, fidget toys, or books when eating out. Then I let the kids order first while the adults get drinks and wait to order our meals until theirs have arrived.

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After we've cajoled, encouraged, or even (embarrassingly) spoon-fed our kids to ingest a portion of their meals, they turn their attention to the bag of tricks I've brought along (or the restaurant's entertainment, per tip 1). This allows the adults to eat in peace, or something close to it.

Tip 4: Find ways to kick-start conversation.

This tip works when dining out or eating in. Instead of expecting kids to naturally engage in conversation with you over a meal, arrive at the restaurant prepared with a stack of kid-friendly conversation starters, or kick off a discussion with an icebreaker like "Two Truths and a Lie" or "Would You Rather?" These games can be geared toward the specific day, the season you're in, or a vacation you're on. By guiding the mealtime banter, you set your family up for a lively dialogue that just might last through dessert.

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Tip 5: Try to go with the flow.

The reason we dine out is to change up our environment, appreciate new foods, or simply take the work out of brunch, lunch, or dinner. Try to remember what made you venture out in the first place, even when your kids are acting antsy. Maybe they just need to take a stroll around the restaurant or go outside for a breather. Perhaps their sibling really did snatch their last French fry. Whatever the disruption, don't let it ruin a special meal. Try to take their behavior in stride by worrying less about those around you and more about the experience of your own tribe. If you can laugh off your discomfort and redirect their behavior, everyone wins.

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One thing you shouldn't do is let the unpredictability of dining out with your underage underlings stop you from doing so. The only way they'll learn the rules of restaurants is by frequenting them.

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