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Tips for Dining Out with Kids

Christie J.
For most parents, dining out with kids is an 'always-on-the-edge-of-the-seat' experience. That is why many of them prefer to call in a babysitter whenever a plan for dinner outings is made, or go only to kid-friendly restaurants.
Why do that when you can follow a few tips for dining out with kids and introduce your kids to new culinary tastes while giving yourself a much deserved treat?
Just like your kid needs to be taught how to speak, walk and eat, he/she needs to be taught how to behave when dining out. Leaving them at home or waiting for them to grow up before you introduce them to the world of fine dining and restaurant dinners, may not be a very good idea.
Going only to the kid-friendly restaurants is not much better either. More so, if the 'kid-friendly' restaurant offers only burgers and fries and you are trying to teach your children healthy eating habits. To make your family dinner outings more fun and less stressful, here are some tips you can follow.

10 Handy Tips to Dine Out with Kids

An important factor to keep in mind when you decide to go on a dinner outing with kids is that, kids are very apt at picking up signs of nervousness from their parents, no matter what the age. If you are restless and constantly nagging them, they are not going to enjoy themselves and you know what an unhappy kid entails better.
So, relax even if things don't work out the way you want them to. (The floor is not going to crack if kid drops a fork.) Your kids are still learning and the things that are embarrassing now will amuse you later. Kids grow up and all you will have is memories. Do you really want to remember yourself as the anxious parent, ready to punch holes in the wall?
1. Table Manners at Home:

If your kids follow acceptable behavior during dinner time at home, it will be easier to teach them restaurant etiquette before you leave home. Table manners begin at home, so start early. You can have a 'pretend restaurant night' once in a while.
Set the mood by having everyone dressed up like they are going out, bring out the cutlery and show them how it is used. Ask them to tone down their voices and behave like 'ladies and gentlemen'. It is not necessary that you cook an elaborate meal, but make something that will make the night special.
If you are planning to expose your children to fine dining do it at home first (or at least as far as you can). Have everything ready but take your time in setting them out. Start with an appetizer - anything simple will be just fine. Then bring out 'main course' followed by 'dessert'. Make sure everyone is seated at the table (properly) for the entire meal.
This will give them a feel of what will be acceptable behavior in a restaurant.
 2. Choose the Right Restaurant:

Deciding to take your kids out for dinner on the spur of the moment is never a wise decision, more so if it is your child's first dining out experience. Plan the outing well in advance.
Don't restrict yourself to kid-friendly restaurants, but it is a good idea to take your children there initially (especially if your kids are fussy or cranky). Unless you expose your kids to different places, they are not going to learn how to handle themselves there.
Call in advance and ask for things kids need for dinner outing (like a high chair, changing table) and if possible, make reservations. Though this rule cannot be generalized, in some places where high chairs are not provided, it is a sign that kids are not very welcome.
Taking your kids out for fine dining can be a great experience, just avoid very upscale and uptight places (people go out to expensive restaurants on special occasions and you sure don't want to spoil their mood even unintentionally).
3. Decide the Outing Time:

As a parent, you know your children's routine well, try not to interrupt it when you plan a dinner outing. If your children are better behaved during the day, take them out for a lunch. For a dinner outing with kids, reach the restaurant early. The ideal time to take kids out for dinner is 5 to 5:30 p.m.
The reason is that it is before the rush hour at restaurants. This means there will be less crowd, you will be able to sit where you want, the service will be quicker and the restaurant staff will have a little free time, which means they will be more helpful.
Besides, going out early will give you more time to linger on your food and will allow you to return home before your kid's bedtime. For the same reason, you might have to avoid places that have very slow service and meals which take a very long time.
Restaurant Etiquette for Kids

  • Sit up straight - you will look good.
  • Speak softly and play quietly.
  • Be Polite - say 'please', 'sorry', 'thank you'.
  • Don't disturb others or move around too much.
  • Be careful with condiments and objects.
  • Don't speak with food in your mouth.
  • Close your mouth while eating.
  • Respect the cook and the food before you.
  • Food is for eating, not playing or throwing.
  • Eat slowly - food will taste better.
  • Use a napkin to wipe your face and hands.
4. Make the Dinner Outing Special: 

Kids are more fun and easygoing when they are excited about something and if that 'something' is an occasional treat, they become more pliant and willing to obey instructions. Just like you did for the 'pretend restaurant night', get them to wear special clothes.
Make them realize that eating out is a privilege and that if they want a repeat, they need to behave themselves. That said, bring some quiet toys you can carry in your personalized restaurant kit to keep them engaged. But make sure that these toys will not create disputes or make too much noise.
Make these games and toys 'exclusive' by using them only when you are eating out with kids. That way, they will not be bored very soon.
5. Pep Talk on Restaurant Etiquette for Kids: 

When you are on your way to the restaurant - not in the car though (kids will already be distracted by then) - take some time out to gently tell them what behavior is acceptable and what is not.
Kids as small as 2 or 3 years old are capable of understanding instructions and following them, if done properly. You can promise them a reward for good behavior to reinforce your words. At the same time, don't put them under pressure - a dinner outing is meant for enjoyment, not stress.
6. Sit Comfortably:

If you have followed the tip of starting early, you will have many choices of seats to choose from, so choose wisely. Sitting in a booth or on a corner seat near an exit is recommended because, you or your kids will not get in the way of the hotel staff and other restaurant patrons while moving around or settling.
Choose seat near an exit so that you can easily take child out if he/she has a meltdown or take him/her out for a short walk while waiting for the food to arrive. An added benefit of this arrangement is that, you will find it less embarrassing to make a quick exit if your kid refuses to be calmed down and you are forced to leave the dinner halfway through.
7. Keep Kids Engaged:

In the beginning, your kids will be busy taking in the new atmosphere and will be quiet for some time. You can introduce them to the hotel staff to foster a kind of attachment between them. The staff will be more obliging to help your kids settle and enjoy.
Once the kids have become acquainted with the surroundings, they will become fidgety. Give them a little freedom to look around, go to the patio or walk in the lobby, as long as it does not disturb others. After sometime, get them and bring out the 'restaurant games' you brought along.
Make sure to keep the noise levels in check all the while and see that their behavior is not inappropriate for an outsider - NOT from your parental point of view (like jumping on the seats or questioning someone at the next table incessantly).
The key here is to let them enjoy without making anyone (including the staff), seem like an unofficial babysitter or intruding on someone's night out. Another thing to keep in mind is to include kids in a conversation. Use this time to strengthen your bonding and create lifetime memories.

Checklist for Children's Restaurant Kit

  • Pacifier and bibs
  • Light snacks (Cheerios, cut fruits, etc.)
  • Plastic drop cloth (to put under baby's chair)
  • Plain papers or color books
  • Booster Seat (if needed)
  • Crayons or color pencils
  • Quiet toys (like magnetic writing board)
  • Baby wipes (plenty of them)
  • Sippy cups and small forks (if needed)
  • Camera (to capture the cute moments)
8. Food Choices:

Ordering from a 'Kid's Menu' may seem hassle free, but those who have actually seen some, know that they have nothing much to offer. There are some exceptionally good ones, but majority of them will offer the American staple of cheese and fries. Instead, you can order from the main menu and share.
This will broaden the culinary tastes of your kids and make the dinner all the more special. While you are placing an order, don't order food for your kids before yours. If the kids finish their food before your food arrives, they will want to leave before you finish yours. Order an appetizer or two and split it up.
One important point is to mention any food allergy or restrictions that your kid may have before ordering without presuming anything (different people use different recipes, a cook might use some ingredients that are normally never used in a dish).
Discussing how and what all is required to make a particular dish is a nice way of giving an impromptu food education without evoking boredom. Encourage questions and opinions to keep the dinner table conversation on, and their interest alive. When the food arrives, taste everything that's served before dishing it out to your kids.
To reinstate good behavior, treat your kid to dessert or juice he/she likes (that is, if there is enough time before a breakdown).
9. Restaurant Rules for Parents:

Use baby wipes to wipe a high chair before putting your kid in it - they may or may not have been cleaned after the last use. Place a small plastic cover under the chair of your small kid so that even if your kid spills anything, the carpet or the floor will not get stained.
While leaving, clean up after your kid if things have been soiled more than what is normal in a restaurant. If there is any mistake on the part of the restaurant staff, try to keep your fuse in check. Most restaurants are more than willing to rectify their mistakes and an over-the-top reaction from you will embarrass your kids.
Besides, the key to make your kids behave is by behaving yourself.
10. Tip Graciously:

Even when your kids behave as adorable as angels, the restaurant staff will have to work more at your table than anywhere else. Chances are that he/she had to leave a table with less work and more tip, to wait on you and your kids.
While it is enough to tip 15% when only adults are present, 20% of the bill is what you must tip if you are eating out with kids. If your kids have been fussy or the service was exceptional, give more if you want. You might even receive a happier welcome and better treatment the next time you visit that place.
Kids are adults in the making and like in every other instance, exposure to culinary treats will help develop their taste buds and culinary knowledge. Eating out not only enhances their love for food, but they will also learn to appreciate the food you cook at home. Besides, dining out with kids is a great opportunity to hone their social skills.
If your kids learn to enjoy a good meal at a restaurant without a meltdown (or breakdown!), you can assume that they have learned to behave well at any social gathering, at least to some extent. Respect their food choice (those within reason), and you will soon be looking forward to try out a new restaurant or cuisine with your kids!