One of the biggest things that I have gathered from reading Janet Lansbury’s books (find them here on my parenting resources page), is that we should always try to set our kids up for success. Eating out is one of those activities that can be really hard with (and for) children.
I also believe dining out is something kids actually need to learn how to do over time, just like going to church or participating in an extra-curricular activity. It takes time and practice to understand how this works, and so plopping them down in a noisy Applebees with screaming music and 30 flashing t.v.’s when they’re tired and totally overstimulated is not a great way for them to learn how to eat out.
(edited August 2021 – our big girls now do great at restaurants pretty much all the time. We don’t need to use most of these tips anymore with them at this stage. They really did help them learn how to go to restaurants! I am sure we will be reusing lots of them with Felicity here soon!
First thing is first, unless we have to meet someone to eat at a certain time, we always go out for either breakfast first thing in the morning, or for lunch/dinner after the girls have napped so they are fresh and happy.
This alone can make a huge difference in the meal – I mean, how would you like to be plopped in an unfamiliar environment with general social expectations when you’re exhausted or in a terrible mood? Add in little to no impulse control since you’re two and no wonder dining out can be a disaster with kids. Trying to go out when they’re fresh helps them be at their best as they learn how to eat out.
Here Is The Lo-Down
We make sure to remind the girls about the restaurant and what will happen before we arrive – something simple like, “We are going to go eat at the restaurant in a minute. You will get to have your own water and color while we wait for the food. Daddy can take you on a walk if you need a break, but at the table we need to stay in our seats.”
Give Them A Break
After we order at a restaurant, Ethan follows through and takes anyone needing a break for a walk around the restaurant or outside for a little bit. An impatient, flailing toddler is often times a much more calm and content eater after a quick break from the table.
Somehow no matter how amazing the wait staff is, they mysteriously vanish for what feels like an hour when you’re ready for the check; with antsy children, they disappear for two.
When we receive our food, we always ask if they wouldn’t mind bringing the check at their convenience. Having everything paid for takes such pressure off of us if one of the girls hits that wall of “I’m totally done and about to meltdown if we don’t get out of here.” We know we can get up and go without trying to get said “done” child out of the restaurant while one of us hangs back to pay for the meal.
Location, Location, Location
Finally, we have three different favorite ways of eating out that are a touch outside the box that work really well with our kids. We love places that are on the quieter side (re: no music/t.v.’s blaring), places that are not totally slammed (re: Olive Garden on a Saturday night at 6:00 p.m.), and places that don’t take as long to receive your food but still aren’t fast food. Our three unconventional dining ideas are:
One thing that works well for us is to go to the hot bar at Whole Foods and to dine at their tables. Hot bars are becoming pretty common at higher end or natural grocery stores. They also usually have ingredient lists posted with the items which is nice for an allergy family like ours (Philomena can’t have eggs or peanuts).
When we do the hot bar we don’t have to be restricted to pre-set meals on a menu or long waits. We just go in, fill our plates, check out at the regular registers, and go find a table right away.
(This is also very budget friendly because we aren’t having to tip wait staff or order more food than we need – restaurant meals are often too big. For instance, at $8.99/lb for the hot bar at our Whole Foods, Philomena’s little plate is usually about $3, and that always includes some fresh produce, protein, and a carb, in whatever quantity of each item we decide. Kids meals at most restaurants are usually totally junk “kid” food, more than she would eat at one sitting, and often $7 or more.)
Another easy way to enjoy eating out that the girls handle well is just going out for appetizers at a regular restaurant.
Usually appetizers come out very quickly and they aren’t that expensive to get one or two.
We enjoy going to a local restaurant that has super indulgent (albiet kinda junky) beef nachos every once in a while. They come out within 5 minutes of placing our order and are easy to share.
There is a caveat with this… we ONLY go out for appetizers when it isn’t a peak time for a restaurant – think 3:00 p.m. on a Saturday. Going during a crazy time means longer waits, more noise and chaos that gets the girls riled up, and its annoying for wait staff to have you taking up a table with a $10 nacho order, meaning they’re making a lot less money and tips during the craziest dining hours, while people planning on ordering a whole dinner are sitting waiting for your table. Conversely, bored staff usually are happy to have any customer when the dining room is empty at an off-peak time, so their service is usually great!
Finally, we love to go to hotel restaurants. Seriously, most nice hotels have a restaurant downstairs that will have good food, decent prices, a nice ambiance, and they’re usually empty.
Our favorite hotel restaurant loves to see the girls when we come, they have nice tablecloths, plenty of space down by the usually empty ballrooms for the girls to take a stroll while they wait for food, and it’s always quiet with just some light music playing over by the bar and a couple t.v.’s that are in the corner and muted.
Attitude, Attitude, Attitude
As hard as it is, I think so much of mealtime success is Ethan and I’s attitude. The girls totally feed off of it, and if we are stressed, rushing them, on edge etc. it makes things worse.
I find when we try to be calm, pointing out the interesting things around the restaurant, and enjoying coloring with the girls, they do better and we all enjoy ourselves more.
Recently Ethan took Philomena out for a surprise bowl of pho after she woke from a nap in the car. He texted me this picture and told me how well Philomena did with him for their special meal. She has had some great practice eating out, and really truly enjoyed her time at the restaurant.
Do you have a favorite tip or strategy to make eating out work better for your family?