No one wants to get kicked out of a restaurant because their children can’t behave. For many parents, the fear of children throwing a tantrum and disturbing other diners keeps them at home. And before they know it, cooking at home and delivery become the default way of life for years, with a date night maybe once a month. It doesn’t have to be like this! I’m here to tell you that parents can still get out with their kids and have an enjoyable experience.
My wife and I love going out to eat and discovering new places and cuisines. Before we had our twin boys, eating out was at least a weekly occurrence. When they were babies, going out was easy. We’d throw them in their car seats and bring those into restaurants and they’d pretty much sleep through every meal. Once they turned into toddlers, things got harder. Now they want to eat everything in sight, especially our food, and they get quite vocal if not pleased.
After a nightmare experience at a fairly upscale restaurant we had waited months to get into, we knew we needed to re-strategize and figure out how to make eating out enjoyable again. During this meal, we had to get up several times from the table to rock and bounce the boys to get them to quiet down and be calm enough to realize there was food for them. A roll ended up thrown so hard it hit another diner’s chair. Normally at home our dog cleans up any crumbs, but without him with us, the crumbs piled up so high it looked like termites had nested under the highchair. It was time for some changes. We weren’t prepared to just stop going out at all.
These are the foolproof, definitive methods, twin-tested and parent approved, that we followed to take our lives back.
The last thing we want to do before asking our kids to sit down peacefully for an hour or so is make them wait longer without any distractions. Reservations not only mean no wait to be seated, but the table will also be set and waiting for us. If we’re really worried, we might even look at the menu ahead of time to have an idea of what we’ll order and be ready when the waiter first comes by. The last time we had to wait in a line for food, the boys began by putting on a show for others they could see, smiling and waving to get attention, and then once they had it, absolutely exploded in tantrums, ensuring we had a full captive audience while we looked like the worst parents in the world.
Take a walk
Before arriving at the restaurant, we like to take a walk with the boys in their stroller. This usually gets them at least calm and sort of zoned out, and sometimes gets them to sleep. If they do get to sleep, we leave them in their stroller during the first part of the meal, giving us time to actually relax and potentially get through an appetizer without anyone begging us for bites. If they aren’t asleep, at least we’ll begin the meal with calm kids. One of the most valuable parenting lessons I’ve learned was actually at our first day of dog obedience training: A tired dog is a well behaved dog. Getting kids tired out, but not exhausted, is the key to preventing energetic outbursts and grasps for attention.
There is no measure of time longer than the time between ordering food and it actually appearing when kids are also waiting for it. It can stretch on beyond eons. This time feels like it lasts so long it should get a period name like the Jurassic Period. The best way we’ve found to occupy this time is with more food. Books and toys can work, but often don’t distract long enough or get thrown around the room quickly. A small Ziploc bag of Cheerios can stretch through this eternal time.
Bread is a friend
We all want to eat healthier and minimize gluten or empty calories like dinner rolls. However, a well-timed scrap of bread can make a big dent in the waiting time too. Our boys discovered a love for rolls at a recent meal where due to an order mix up, we waited nearly an hour for food to arrive. Sure, they are looking a bit roll-like now, but that hour could have quickly become a full blown disaster otherwise. A little bread bloat is a fair price to pay for that.
If possible, we get an order for either an appetizer or food for the boys in as soon as we are seated. The faster their food arrives, the better for our sanity. Many restaurants will even expedite food for kids if we ask, meaning it will come out with or even before appetizers, allowing us to get them fed and happy before our food even comes. Then, we can focus on ours once it’s there.
Try something new
One of my boys once starred at a piece of romanesco for over five minutes. He then chomped on it for another five. That little piece of weird alien produce bought us ten minutes of uninterrupted mealtime. I once watched one of my kids eat an entire lemon peel, after sucking on the juice for several minutes, making faces the whole time, acting surprised time after time at the bitterness, but coming back for more. While I had to keep a close eye to make sure he was okay and didn’t choke, I was able to enjoy a nice thick steak during it. He may have even added some citrus acidity to balance out my side salad. Kids not only get distracted by novel things, they learn to eat more diverse food and end up less picky.
Skip the kids’ menu
The best way to try new things and prevent boredom is to stay away from the common set of bland, boring children’s food every restaurant seems to share. Is it possible they all get it from the same place and just heat it up? I didn’t think my kids would be willing to try chicken curry or grilled branzino, but they devoured it like locusts, with the same voracious appetite they demonstrate with seemingly every other food.
If everything goes great, the boys are in a great mood, and Mercury and Venus align just so, we might get a few minutes of peace to sit and relax after a meal. Otherwise, we probably need to hightail it out of there. In either case, it’s a great idea to get the check quickly, pay it, and be ready to go at a moment’s notice. If everything works out, we can sit and relax and maybe even enjoy dessert, though usually our little vultures swoop in and steal my ice cream. I thought the deal was that I get to finish their uneaten food, not that they would steal mine.
Pack a dustbuster
After a family meal, the area under, around, and even across the room from the boys’ chairs tends to be covered, especially with bread crumbs. Unless we can borrow my sister’s pomeranian and hide it in a small bag to clean up, other measures are needed if we ever want to return. Okay, we don’t actually bring a vacuum, but a little sweep up to get the big debris often solicits a pleasant reaction from staff.
Going out for a meal with kids should still be a fun and pleasant experience. By following these steps we’ve been able to maintain a fairly regular dining out schedule with our twins and get through almost every meal without a disaster. Planning ahead is key and ensures that the meal can proceed without major meltdowns. The goal isn’t just to get through the meal, but to make it enjoyable and to have some time to relax and stop worrying, a true luxury in the life of a parent. If we can make it work with our two locusts in human bodies, anyone can.
Updated November 2017
Tyler Lund is the founder and lead contributor to Dad on the Run. Tyler is a software development manager, tech nerd, home-brewer, 3-time marathoner, and rescue dog owner. Tyler loves traveling to new and unique places a bit off the beaten path and sharing stories from these adventures. A foodie with a taste for the unique, Tyler enjoys trying anything new.