Dining out with kids often involves more challenges than joys.
But that doesn’t have to be the case.
It’s happened to the best of us. You planned a non-drive-through visit to a restaurant with your family. You imagined little Elisa would enjoy the change of scenery. And you made sure to call the establishment to ask — or to check in with friends to see — if they have highchairs. But once you get there, it turns out your little one is not in the mood for sitting.
So you dig through the diaper bag, looking for the bag of carrots you are 100% sure you brought. But before can find them, little Elisa graduates from table fussiness to full-on tantrum, with a side of diaper explosion. You feel flustered and a little embarrassed.
Dining out with a child requires a little more prep than dining solo or with other adults. But it’s not just prep. Going to new places is a risk when we don’t know if the restaurant will welcome our whole family. For little learners, dining out is also not always easy. New places can be just as unpredictable as kids are. Not being able to move all around, new people and smaller spaces can really challenge children.
Learning from a pro: what to look for in a restaurant and what to focus on as a family
To learn more about identifying family friendly restaurants and preparing for dining out as a family, we interviewed restaurant pro Melissa Henderson Uhte.
Melissa worked at the Aristocrat, a family friendly restaurant in Indianapolis, for 17 years. She then worked at Grand Junction in Westfield. Now, Melissa works at Half Liter BBQ in Indianapolis.
This is what she had to say:
On what makes a restaurant “family-friendly.”
Family-friendly restaurants make parents and children feel welcome. Beyond that, restaurants should cater to family’s diverse needs. For example, many families value healthy food choices. So family-friendly restaurants should have those options for kids on their menu. Family-friendly restaurants also understand that, for families with young children, timing is everything. When your toddler is hungry, you want to be able to ask for something small for your little one to munch on. Great spots are happy to serve a few strawberries, some carrot sticks or a banana while you wait for your meal.
“For me, it’s creating a place that families feel welcomed. I constantly remind my staff, if you see a fussy kid, offer to bring them some food before their order is ready. Crayons and coloring sheets can give you a good 15-minute jump. And keep healthy food choices on our kid’s menu. Parents don’t want their kids eating chicken nuggets all the time.”
On picking family-friendly restaurants.
A lot of places call themselves family-friendly. But that doesn’t guarantee that they can create a great environment. Sometimes, staff are ill-prepared to serve a table with little guests. Children may take longer to decide on a side or may spill a cup. How servers manage that can go a long way toward making a meal nice — or awful. Crowded spaces and servers carrying big trays of food present hazards for free-range little learners.
Ultimately, Melissa thinks that family-friendly is like a lot of things — you know it when you see it. And kids know it better than anyone.
“Kids dictate this. My kid knows where she wants to eat because she feels welcomed. I always joke about catering to the kids more than the parents, because I want their child to ask to come to my place. Some things parents can identify and know it’s a kid-friendly space are: crayons, milk, and a solid kids’ menu is good start. Changing tables in all restrooms are important too.”
On how families can prepare for dining out.
Kids may be unpredictable, but there are many things you can prepare for. When you visit restaurants, bring something your child can engage with. Great options include a board book or a toy. Have some snacks, in case your child is too hungry to wait.
If for some reason you find yourself without any of these things, ask the staff. Many will have something you can borrow for your fussy toddler. Family-friendly staff know that a happy child means happy diners!
“I think this really just depends on the establishment. I think it’s our job to recognize a family that might be struggling with a hungry, tired kid. To try and help find a solution to keep everyone happy. I don’t want you to not enjoy your experience, and I don’t want the other costumers around you to be put out by your kid. Many establishments do not feel it’s their responsibility to fix these things, but I feel it makes us a special place by doing so.”
One playful way to prepare for restaurant success
One other idea that helps make dining out a success for families: play restaurant at home. When your child pretends to be a waiter, chef, dishwasher or diner with you, they learn the norms. While you play, practice some key skills such as:
- Looking at a menu
- Ordering our food
- Saying thank you when it arrives
- Keeping our inside voices on
- Using our table manners
- Staying at the table
- Asking for a refill
- Paying for our meal
And, if all else fails, one of our Brighter Futures Indiana moms recommends the Yo Gabba Gabba restaurant episode.
What are your tips for dining out with kids? Share them in the comments!