Fine Dining with Kids: The Do’s and Don’ts of Eating Out with Toddlers

Eli at RestaurantEating out these days means nothing less than preparing for battle.

Lollipops? Check. Portable DVD player? Got it. Toy du jour? Yes. Groupon? Yup.

After all, you don’t want to spend a fortune on a meal you may have to abruptly end to chase a runaway child.

Some parents decide eating out with young children is not worth the struggle, and it’s hard not to sympathize with that stance. A restaurant visit is supposed to be an extravagance, a chance to let someone else do the cooking and cleaning while you enjoy a meal you probably couldn’t make as well at home.

Add children into the mix, and you’ll spend time answering inane questions (“Daddy, did this turkey wanna be in my tummy?”), shove delicate plates out of your toddler’s reach and endure  another untouched meal growing cold before your eyes.

Yet my family goes through this ritual twice a week, sometimes more. It helps to have a plan, but a  quick prayer never hurts.

You never leave the house without a stocked bag or mommy purse. A pair of lollipops is your emergency gear, the only treat that can stop a full-on tantrum or coax a child back into his high chair. Never play the lollipop card too early. After a while, you’ll learn exactly when to break them out, like a safe cracker feeling when the lock is just about to pop free.

Choose restaurants that offer free crayons, fun place mats or balloons. Each can be a great distraction, although no kid goodie is perfect. My sons will fight over crayon colors if the mood strikes, and heaven help you if a balloon gets free and floats up, up and away. That might be a two-lollipop crisis.

A smart cell phone loaded with family videos can be a good way to entertain your child. My kids love watching video clips of themselves. We recently tried bringing family photographs to a meal for just such a diversion, but the kids tugged on them endlessly and they proved too challenging to keep in order.

My sons loved played Peek-a-Boo with the heavy napkins most restaurants provide. They quickly grow out of this stage, but for a few weeks, maybe months with some luck, you can get real mileage out of this trick.

A lil’ bit of research will uncover plenty of local restaurants offering days when kids eat free or at a discount. Plus, never be ashamed of ordering one meal for two children and asking the server to bring an extra plate.

Most of all, know your children’s limits. If a meal takes a very long time to be delivered it can be trouble. Benjamin can be good as gold for 45 minutes, but after that he likes to wander. That can be cute if he doesn’t stray far and offers our dining neighbors a few lopsided grins. If his mood is more mischievous, it could mean it’s time to get the check – stat – and start preparing your apologies to the waitstaff.

Part of me wishes a time machine would whisk me into the near future, a time when my boys won’t feel the need to dump the salt shaker on the table or beg to suck on the sugar packets. When everything goes right with a meal, which actually does happen once in the bluest of moons, I feel like all the preparation and agita was more than worth it.


  1. says

    children aren’t geared to wait for anything, so get their meal quickly and hope they give you a chance to eat or get a babysitter and wait until they are older to take to dinner.

  2. Mary-Margaret Green says

    We discovered when traveling that taking the kids to something like a McDonald’s first helped. THEN we’d go to the grown-ups’ restaurant, and they’d get dessert while we had dinner. That enabled us to try interesting restaurants on the road – but there still was a time limit!

  3. Susan says

    I’m past this stage so I have the luxury of remembering the past with rose colored glasses. Am I bad for saying it was almost as entertaining watching you and miss J as it was watching the boys! I do feel bad for all the bus boy’s out there who have to clean up after all those toddlers and preschoolers. They deserve way more pay than the minimum wage they’re probably getting, lol. My little guy (who is now 14 and can’t stop eating – which will be a post for you in another 10 years.) used to fall asleep the minute we got to a restaurant, and we’d wake him when his food arrived. Probably nothing to do with our parenting, and much to do with the luck!

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