A restaurant is supposed to be a treat, but you feel more stressed. Learn how to enjoy a restaurant with kids, even without screens or snacks.
With three kids, I’ve had my fair share of restaurant madness. They’d switch seats and wouldn’t stay put, or they’d drop one of their burger buns before they even had a bite of it. By the time I was able to eat, my meal was disappointingly cold.
It definitely hasn’t always been easy.
But each time I’ve gone, I pick up more tips to enjoy a restaurant with my kids. Now, for the most part, they behave well in restaurants.
What makes our situation unusual is that we don’t rely on common distractions like phones, snacks, or walking them around. We don’t limit ourselves to “kid-friendly” places—they’ve eaten at loud diners and fancy tea rooms.
I rarely bring snacks to restaurants, timing their outing so we arrive right when they should be hungry. I also want them to enjoy the restaurant’s food, not a box of raisins or apple slices. And I want them to see the restaurant as a treat, rather than something to get over with.
How to enjoy a restaurant with kids
Still, I know all too well how stressful going to a restaurant with kids can be. Whatever antics they come up with at home are on public display for all to see. The server takes forever to bring the meal, making you feel anxious about how long your kids have been waiting.
And sometimes, they outright make what should be an enjoyable family time into a nightmare. You almost wonder what’s the point of going out to eat when this is the experience you face every time.
Rest assured mama, you can definitely turn these situations around and teach them how to behave and enjoy their time at a restaurant. You don’t need to resort to distractions to keep them occupied, nor should you spend the whole time pleading or scolding them.
Take a look at these tips on how to enjoy a restaurant with kids:
1. Go to the restaurant at a good time
Timing is the first thing to consider when going to a restaurant with kids. What time do they normally eat at home? Try to arrive at the restaurant about half an hour before then.
Let’s say dinner time is at 5pm. Make a reservation for 4:30pm—by the time you’ve settled in and the food arrives, you’ll be eating at the same time you would at home.
Sometimes it’s hard to time your meals, or it just doesn’t work out. I joined my siblings at a steak house that didn’t end up serving dinner until 6pm, well past dinner time for my kids. In those cases, rely on bread and appetizers, as well as engaging them in family conversation.
You’ll also want to go to a restaurant after your kids have had their needs met. This means after a good nap, a clean diaper or potty break, and relaxing downtime at home.
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2. Set expectations beforehand — and set them high
A positive experience begins with the expectations you establish, even before you enter.
Talk to your kids about sitting at a table while someone takes your order. How they should be polite and courteous because other people are trying to enjoy their meals. That there’ll be a period where you’re waiting for the chefs to cook your meal.
If you’ve been to the restaurant, describe what they might see. Talk about the food they’ll likely eat, and which cuisine it’ll be. Paint a picture of what to expect so the experience is less surprising for them.
Not only should you establish expectations, you should set them high. Let them know that eating at a restaurant is a privilege and a treat. That any misbehavior means they won’t be able to do this as often, and that you believe they’re capable of behaving well.
They’ll meet your expectations, whether you set them low or high, so you might as well set them high. They’re more likely to feel like you trust them to behave. If they sense that you already assume they’ll misbehave, then they’ll do just that.
3. Encourage your kids to feed themselves
Do you still have to cut your child’s food? Spend a few minutes when the food is served to cut them up, then encourage her to feed herself.
You’re giving her the autonomy to eat whatever way she wants. You’re also saving yourself time from spooning food into her mouth, and you’re able to enjoy your meal while she enjoys hers.
And of course, if she’s old enough, encourage her to feed herself completely. Hand her a fork and a safe knife to cut her chicken, or a spoon to scoop her rice. Never mind if it’s not how you would do it, or if clumps of rice end up on the table.
4. Alternate feeding and eating
If your child is still too young to feed himself at all, alternate between feeding him and eating yourself. Don’t wait until he has finished his meal before starting yours. Not only will your food be cold, but now he’ll have to wait until you finish your meal.
Instead, eat together. Scoop a spoonful into his mouth, then eat your meal right after. The best plan? Alternate with another adult so that both of you take turns feeding.
5. Order quickly (and ask for the check soon)
You know how at restaurants, the server asks for your drink order, brings it, and then takes your food order? Save time and order all your meals in one conversation.
If you can, scan the menu ahead of time, whether online beforehand or in the waiting area. That way, you can place your order with your drinks a few minutes after settling in.
Then, once you get a sense that you’re wrapping up your meal, ask for your check, even if it’s earlier than you would normally request it. You can even ask for your check once they bring your order (yup, that early). But generally, I tend to wait until it looks like we’re about to finish up.
6. Talk to your kids
Dinner time, whether at home or at a restaurant, is a time to engage as a family. Talk to your kids, and not with a mindset of distracting them from boredom. Instead, have a genuine interest in what they’re thinking.
What did you do at school? Why is that napkin folded that way? How many people do you think are in the restaurant?
Talking will help you enjoy your time more than if you sat impatiently waiting or feeling anxious about when the food will arrive.
7. Encourage good table manners at home
Before you step into a restaurant, your child’s behaviors will reflect your own dinner table at home. If you allow her to throw food, get in and out of her seat, or yell at home, she’ll do the same at a restaurant.
Instead, set high expectations of how she should behave at the dinner table. Dinners at home will be more relaxed, of course, but you should still establish responsibilities and expectations.
For instance, don’t allow gadgets that would distract her from conversation with others. Expect polite behavior and kindness to one another. Don’t tolerate rude comments about the food, and use the time to reconnect after a day apart.
Good behavior starts at home and will translate well into a restaurant experience.
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No more embarrassing outbursts or weird glances from restaurant patrons. No feeling more stressed in what should be a relaxing family meal.
You can enjoy a restaurant with kids, even without distractions. It may even be the absence of those distractions that will teach them to behave well.
Plan your outings well and focus on family interaction. Teach them that this is a privilege and a positive experience, not one to get over. Expect good behavior both at home and out and about.
And soon, you’ll be able to enjoy a restaurant with your kids — and actually eat your meal while it’s hot.
Get more tips:
- Are You Teaching These Life Skills Your Child Needs in Adulthood?
- Do You Know What to Do when Your Child Acts Out in Public?
- Why Technology Isn’t Necessary for Kids (Even in These Modern Times)
- How to Get Rid of Picky Eating Once and For All
- What to Do when You’re Unhappy Being a Mom
p.s. Check out Do Not Take Your Dragon to Dinner by Julie Gassman to talk about dinner manners:
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