Tips for eating at restaurants with young kids

18 March 2022

Since our first baby, we’ve gone out to eat as a family. The experience of eating out is something John and I enjoy, and so, like other things we enjoyed pre-babies, we want to fold our kids into this aspect of our lives and are willing to put in the work to make it happen. And though there are moments of fun and joy and ease, make no mistake – there are also meals that feel like straight-up work. Teachable moments abound! :)

We have found the work to be worth it, though. I also can’t help but love that dining out is a distillation of so much we’re trying to teach our kids – kind of a fun pop quiz along the way! They’re learning to have patience, show respect to the people around them, converse with their fellow diners, flex their manners, and grow in confidence as they speak up and order their own food – among other things!

Today, I thought I’d share a few of the super-simple strategies that have helped our kids (currently 6, 3, and 8 months) enjoy restaurant meals alongside us.

First things first: I do not have a list of magical toys that keep my children quietly occupied and in their seats for hours. I wish!! Activities and toys at the table can sometimes be helpful, but in our experience, they can also be more trouble than they’re worth: the toys can quickly clutter the table, causing things to be knocked onto the floor. The kids might bicker over who gets which item. And sometimes our kids will cycle rapidly through the options and lose interest, only to seem more antsy than before.

For better or worse, what keeps our kids happy and behaving well at a restaurant is our pure, unfiltered, full-strength attention. You saw that one coming, yes? :) At these sweet ages, having our undistracted attention is precious, and they completely soak it up. Does this mean we have less time for grown-up conversation? Yes. Does this mean we are on our toes throughout, and the meal is a bit less relaxed? Yes. But again, for us, the extra effort on our parts is worth it – and when we go in with the expectation that we’ll be engaging as a family instead of just enjoying grown-up company, it usually is a very sweet and memorable experience.

So what do we do together as we wait for our meals, eat, and wait for the check? Here are a few of our favorite super-simple activities:

I Spy. A classic!
Favorites. Take turns asking each other “favorite” questions, like favorite color, restaurant, fruit, book, etc.
Vacations. This is similar to Favorites, but travel-themed! Reminisce on past vacations and chat about favorite destinations, meals, activities, etc. for each person at the table. Start lots of sentences with, “remember when…?” :)
The Alphabet Game. Choose a category (animals, foods) and name something in that category for every letter.
Places. If you have spellers, go around in a circle, each saying the name of a place (town, state, country, whatever) that starts with the last letter of the previous place. For example, France –> Edmonton –> Nigeria.
Animal sounds. Be careful with this one, because it can get rowdy in the wrong hands, but the gist is: one person makes an animal sound, and everyone else has to guess the animal.
Guess the object. Go around the table. One at a time, have each person close her eyes, then place something in her hand and have her guess what it is.
This or that or would you rather. Ocean or pool? Brownies or chocolate chip cookies? Would you rather eat the same thing for the rest of your life or never eat the same thing twice?
Circle the letters. If there’s a paper menu, have them circle all of a certain letter one at a time (all the B’s, then all the M’s, etc.).
Conversation cards. Cultivate makes my absolute favorite and – spoiler alert – there’s a kids’ version coming soon :) But the OG is still great for kids, too!
Names. See if they can remember the full names of loved ones – grandparents, cousins, etc. First, middle, last! Birthdays are fun, too. This often spirals into talking about memories with each person, which is perfect.

A few other random tips that have helped us:

We make our expectations clear before we arrive at the restaurant, because they can’t meet an expectation they aren’t aware of. We remind them we’re on the same team and how much we love having fun experiences with them – and that one of the reasons we’re able to have these experiences is because they do such a nice job when we go out. John and I get to set the tone and build them up!

Don’t have the kids’ food come first. If necessary, pack some Cheerios or give them a snack in advance, but if the kids have long since eaten by the time the grown-up food arrives, you’ll be stuck trying to eat and entertain them at their antsy-est.

Look for a loud restaurant. Even though the Sunset Terrace was upscale, it was bustling and almost boisterous, so we weren’t worried about every little noise our kids made. We learned this lesson at The Obstinate Daughter when June was only a few months old, and it has served us well! Noise level matters a lot more than level of luxury.

A short walk can help a long wait. Better to get a few wiggles out, or reset sibling dynamics, before things get bad than wait until we’re at a boiling point. We’ll usually send out one parent-child pair at a time while the others hold down the fort at the table. Of course, some restaurants have full lawns or places to play while waiting, and we’re all about taking advantage of those when available.

We are not above having our children watch something on a phone if the circumstances are beyond our control. For us, this usually means we’re at a leisurely dinner with loved ones we don’t see often and want to be able to soak up conversation. That being said, we will still resist this as far as it’s possible – building these skills are just that important to us (even more important than in the car!).

Some meals will go poorly. Some will be magical. What we have found – gratefully – is that people seem to appreciate when an effort is being made. It is SUCH an encouragement when another diner leans over to issue a compliment, and I try to pay it forward whenever I see another family doing their best with small (or big!) kids.

Friends, I’d love to hear: what helps you and the kids you love enjoy dining out together? Any other fun non-toy-based games to throw in the ring? :)

P.S. Screen-free road trip tips with preschoolers

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March 18, 2022 7:15 am

I love this post! Now that our daughter is talking more and more, I’m tucking these game ideas in my back pocket. What fun ideas! These will be great at the dinner table at home too.
Our daughter is 18 months and we’ve been dining out with her pretty regularly since she was about 6 months (she was a September 2020 baby, so we were all stuck at home for quite a bit at first). One thing we received as a gift that has been amazing for us is an Ingesina fast table chair. We keep it in the back of our car and clip it on — we haven’t had one place where it hasn’t worked. Small tables, high tops, thick tables, you name it. In our area, restaurants don’t always have high chairs, and if they do, they aren’t always the best quality, and Emmett was originally far too small for them. The Inglesina gets her right up at the table with us and she loves it! They are fabric and it can get a little dingy at times, but we just throw the cover in the wash every few weeks and let it air dry and have not had any issues!
We also keep an EZPZ tiny bowl, a straw cup with a lid, and a toddler utensil in our diaper bag. The bowl has good traction on the table so before she used a “real” plate, it really helped with mess. It’s always nice to have these in the diaper bag so that we’re always prepared if we make a last minute stop while running errands!
Can’t wait to hear everyone else’s tips!

March 18, 2022 7:50 am

We used to go out to eat a lot before the pandemic but now are kind of out of the practice. It was also so much cheaper when they were smaller! They could just have a portion of our giant serving, but now everyone needs their own kid’s meal and it adds up quickly. When we do go out, though, we usually choose a Mexican restaurant. It is almost always lively playing fun music and the chips/salsa keeps their bellies full!

March 18, 2022 11:30 am

I loved reading this — thanks. Our kid is now ten, but the first time we took her out, she was only a couple of months old. She’s an only child, so we don’t have to think about dynamics among siblings. She also has some sensory processing issues, so our needs are different than those of many other parents.
Over the years, it worked best for us to choose a *quieter* restaurant and to eat a little earlier than most diners; that way, the food came quickly, and she had room to move around and make a more noise without our worrying about disturbing too many people. It was also easier for her to meet and speak to one or two other people than a roomful.
We had luck with bringing along a couple of books, a coloring book and a small ziplock of crayons, or an easy card game like Uno. The other great save was that sitting at a restaurant table was the only time our daughter could draw in my notebook using “Mama’s special pens” — I’m a teacher, and I keep a small notebook and a rainbow of different-colored pens in my purse for when I need to take notes. This became a very special privilege!
I wonder whether the act of taking one’s children out into the world is another form of deep listening. We all win when we pay attention to who our children (and our families!) are and what they need. Thanks again for your thoughtful post.

Kristen M
March 18, 2022 12:55 pm

I have to admit I am a person who comes armed with toys – I have a ziplop of all the little mini figure toys they pick up through kids meals or goodie bags and I only pull them out for restaurants so they have a bit of a novelty (and it keeps them from cluttering the house!). We’re very anti-screens while dining out so this is a good way to distract. I also have mini color books and crayons on me for the same reason. The rule is everything gets packed up when the food arrives. My kids are 6 and 2.5. Since March 2020 almost 100% of our dining out has been outside so allowing them to run around a bit also helps!
We also like to play “would you rather” or as my oldest daughter calls it “rathers” and I have a mini version of the game “Spot It” from Chickfila we will occasionally pull out too. I pack more involved card games for when we do breweries – Uno is our favorite!

March 18, 2022 6:11 pm

I agree and endorse all of these! I do keep a small maze book and pen in my purse, that I can use in certain circumstances, and it also came in very handy when we were at the ER for 4 hours! So that’s in there all the time. The loudness of the restaurant is definitely the most important. I love eating out with my son and feel so proud that he always orders his drink and food by himself. He’s the best!

March 18, 2022 6:15 pm

What a great post! First time visitor to your site (discovered via the Shubox today).
I have to admit this is about 1000x easier now that our kids are older (7, 11), though we haven’t really eaten out much in the last two years.
This isn’t necessarily a “trick” in any way, but we’ve made quite an effort to expose our kids to a wide range of foods over the years. They have preferences, for sure, but will try just about anything if, for example, there is no “pizza” on the menu. I think this goes a long way because I feel comfortable going to eat in a restaurant (or at a friend’s house) knowing the kids will be willing to try things – or at least whisper to me if they don’t like something. This also comes with age, though!
I really appreciate your comment about some will be magical and others…not so much. We’ve had a few tough experiences and it does help to have the perspective that this ebbs and flows over time.
I used to have a baggie with a small blank notebook and some stickers. Somehow stickers felt less onerous than taking along markers or crayons.

March 21, 2022 10:34 am
Reply to  Elisabeth

Elisabeth — I had never heard of The Shubox and LOVE it! So glad you posted this! :)

March 18, 2022 8:21 pm

I can so relate to this post! Thanks for your activity ideas? Some of them we’ve been doing already, but there are a few I’m excited to incorporate next time we’re eating out or are on a road trip!
One thing that is definitely not groundbreaking (ha!), but works for us 9 out of 10 times is the good old paper and crayons! Sometimes they just draw/color. But if we all want to be involved, you can play guessing games. One person starts drawing something and the others guess what it is. Or you guess words – kind of like Wordle, but on paper, haha.

March 19, 2022 11:03 am

I love these tips! We just had our first baby, so I’m definitely bookmarking this for future reference as she grows (:

March 21, 2022 8:06 am

These tips remind me so much of Justin Earley’s book, Habits of the Household. He discusses the importance of mealtimes and conversation for families in the book and gives great ideas for how to grow in each area. I would highly recommend it if you haven’t heard of it!

March 21, 2022 1:44 pm

So many great ideas! I’ve had a lingering “sometime” to-do item of making little restaurant activity boxes which I imagine as a hard pencil box with stickers, some pipe cleaners, and crayons, etc. So maybe I’ll make those one day finally! Our boys (now almost 9 and 7) have not been the greatest restaurant patrons so our approach is to find places where there’s space to run around and definitely kid friendly. I’m hoping our 2 year old will not follow in her brothers’ footsteps in this aspect…so far so good! ;)
I think it also helps to relax my expectations about what they get and how much they eat – yes to the chocolate milk, and usually they can split one kids meal (they are not super adventurous eaters and fill up on chocolate milk) but yes they can get dessert. Any pleasant moments we get at a restaurant as a family are precious yet often fleeting :)