Tips on dining out with children

Dining out with your kids doesn’t have to be a nightmare

You’re in the midst of an enjoyable dinner out and suddenly, an ear-splitting screech resonates from somewhere beside you, quickly followed by a full-out series of wails. You shake your head in disgust, wondering what parent is ignoring this child’s outburst only to discover that shrill cry is coming from directly beside you. It’s your kid and everyone in the restaurant is staring at you.

Sound like a nightmare?

Steady, there. Mealtime out in public, particularly at a kid-friendly restaurant, doesn’t have to turn bad.

When it comes to dining out, go prepared, says pediatrician Dr. Shanon Gruchot of Londonderry Pediatrics. As the mom of three: Anna, 12, Drew, almost 11 and Alex, 9, Dr. Gruchot speaks from experience.

“Don’t wait until kids are starving to head to the restaurant,” said Dr. Gruchot. “They will definitely be more cranky if their blood sugar is low.”

She advises visiting restaurants early before a wait starts and to focus on restaurants that are kid-centric.

Tim and Dawn Cronin, parents of two boys, Joshua, 18 months and Ben, 4 ½, find that having a set of ‘go to’ restaurants work well.

“We can deviate, but not often,” said Tim. “These restaurants usually have some family atmosphere. Bugaboo Creek is good because they have talking animals and that keeps the kids entertained.”

The couple keeps a “bug-out bag” handy, which Tim explains is simply a glorified diaper bag that has small toys, wipes (something he says is essential even if you don’t have a baby in diapers), formula in pre-measured bags, a bottle, small snacks because kids don’t get the concept of “it’s coming” when it applies to food, juice and things to keep the kids occupied.

“Think about things that the kids don’t normally use, that way it will be novel to them,” said Tim.

They look at the menu online ahead of time, which saves a lot of time and another trip for their wait person.

“One thing that is often overlooked is to gauge your child’s mood. If you don’t think they can handle a meal out, order in,” said Tim. “Finally, just let your kid be a kid. Kids will melt down. They will look at other tables. They will go under the table and do all sorts of things. Just be aware that they’re kids.”

When dining out with their two kids, Jeff and Trilby Kirkland of Nashua consider what type of restaurant will work best.

“We typically try to stick to places like Uno’s or the 99; generally places where there are choices for both kids and adults alike, not just catering to the kids alone,” said Trilby. “Picking places that have a kids’ portion to the menu is a great help or that have a separate kids menu from the adults.”

The Kirklands generally avoid places like Chuck E. Cheese that are geared specifically to kids and the craziness that can ensue from nonstop activities. While their kids, Kaia, 8 and Connor, 7, aren’t exactly grown up at this point, the Kirklands don’t have the same type of concerns to deal with as they once did when the kids were younger.

“Now they are also better able to choose what they want for their meal, not only making them part of the decision-making process, but also better ensuring that they will eat what’s put in front of them,” said Trilby.

When the Kirklands do dine out as a family, they try to go a bit earlier so it won’t interfere with the kids’ bedtime. They find it extremely helpful to keep the kids occupied, whether it’s simply talking with them or getting out some paper and pens and playing things like tic-tac-toe, hangman or other games.

“Thankfully, due to our parenting style of keeping them on a little bit of a leash, our kids have never been the type to run around places and go crazy,” said Kirkland. “They are generally happy to sit there with the placemats that most restaurants provide, color them in and play the tic-tac-toe games provided.”

The activities offered on placemats, as well as the challenge games often available at restaurants, are a welcome distraction and help occupy the kids while they wait for their meals to arrive.

“While a lot of parents tend to shove a video game or their smart phones in front of the kid(s), we try not to do that as it is very stereotypical and doesn’t do anything for the kids’ creativity and general family discussion and involvement,” said Kirkland.

With a 3 ½-year old daughter and 15-month old twin sons, Melissa and Brad Castonguay of Litchfield certainly have their hands full when they go out to dinner as a family. Melissa, however, seems to have it down to a science and has a pretty realistic approach, no doubt honed on solid experience as the mom of three tots. She relies on four simple rules:

Rule #1: Feed the kids before you go. Melissa makes the kids dinner and feeds them at home before going out to eat.

“Kids are entirely too stimulated at restaurants to eat, and when they feel hungry, they don’t want to A. decide what they want, B. have you tell them what they actually want, C. wait for it and D. watch you blow on it and cut it up for another 10 minutes,” said Melissa. “This way your kids are not starving and cranky while you wait for your food and you can buy them a dessert to enjoy while you can actually eat.”

Rule #2: Bring your own cup.

“Seriously, we’d love to believe that the plastic cups with lids and color-changing straws are spill-proof but who are we kidding? That chocolate milk is going right into your child’s lap when you’re not looking.”

She advises bringing your favorite spill-proof sippy cup and either bringing your own beverage or let your child order what he or she would like (such as chocolate milk) for the first round and have the next beverage be of your choosing (such as regular milk or water).

Rule #3: Change the diapers before you get seated.

“This way you don’t get her into the highchair, buckle her inside and find out she’s wet, unbuckle her, pick up the bag. Just do it when you walk in. This way you know where the bathrooms are and everyone is fresh, for now.”

Rule #4: Know your exit cue.

“If your little one is crying and refusing to sit in the high chair, ask for your check. No one is having fun at this table, and there’s no shame in leaving. In fact, I imagine anyone sitting near you would appreciate the gesture.”

Melissa said that parents shouldn’t be surprised when they don’t get a word of joint conversation in while out at dinner with the kids.

“You didn’t even know you could eat this quickly.”

She points out that parents find dining out to be a treat, with no cooking or clean-up detail involved after.

“For children, it’s a change in the routine and although our intentions are good, sometimes we forget who we are doing it for,” said Melissa. “You may be fortunate enough to have well-behaved children who want nothing more than to be still and take in the ambience of the Olive Garden. For the rest of us, I hope these tips help.”

Pamme Boutselis is a MarCom consultant and a freelance writer. The mom of four grown kids, she now deals with the challenges of raising two insubordinate dachshunds. Follow her on Twitter @pammeb.

Categories: Food news