There was a playground and it was still a nightmare to take the kids!

You’re out for dinner and the kid are playing up and you just don’t understand why. There is a great kid’s menu and a play area! Surely, that’s enough to keep the kids happy, right? You’ve been there for 10 minutes and you’re already flustered. You call to the wait staff to order and tell them to rush.

The meals arrive and you fuss for the kids to eat their food and then you finally have the opportunity to scoff your cold food. You try to make a quick exit, only to run after little Bobby who’s heading towards the kitchen at world record speeds! Then you’ve already got an audience watching as you return, with a resisting child, with what feels like a walk of shame. Onlookers giving you the, “we’ve been there” look.

Laying in bed that night, reliving the nightmare, you realise that the kids barely even looked at the play area! Your immediately thoughts are “Never again!”

Does this sound familiar? Do you stress that next time it’ll be a scene from The Exorcist and you’ll have to pretend he’s not your child?

We hear you loud and clear. We surveyed a number of parents and found most parents didn’t feel confident dining out with young kids and it requires you to be on your feet constantly firefighting.

This has been an ongoing topic of discussion from parents who are yet to take the plunge with their first child, to seasoned dining parents who dine frequently with their kids.

You can change this!

We are here to help you create a positive dining experience, so that you don’t have to relate to the species of animals that eat their own young. The better you prepare your visit, the more likely you will have a positive experience.

Here are our top tips to set your family up for success.

Start early and keep it short.

The earlier you introduce eating in restaurants, increases the chances of your children responding to your expectations, before the negative behaviours are born. Dining out should be about teaching your child table manners and what is expected of them. We always feel this needs to targeted to be age appropriate.

Babies – This is a great age to head out for a coffee to test the waters. Once you start feeling like you know your baby’s feeding and sleeping schedule, plan for a spontaneous trip to the café where bub can have a sleep in the pram, while you enjoy a coffee. There are plenty of breastfeeding friendly venues or pack a bottle so that if it does not go to plan, you can be equipped to comfortably feed bub. Once you’ve attempted a few visits, order yourself some brunch.

Infants – In addition to the advice for babies, this is a great period to model table etiquette out of the house, during times they are awake. Once you have introduced solids, whether it be purees or finger food, we suggest you pack a small snack or meal with you to offer your child while you dine out.  We also suggest that you offer some of your meal, once they are ready and willing.

Toddlers – This is definitely a tough age to dine with. In addition to the following notes, much of what we target in this piece will assist you. If you have not dined with a toddler before, it is reasonable to expect that they will not sit for long periods of time. Short and sweet is the motto to get you through the first few times until you can extend your visit longer once they know what is expected of them.

A coffee date with you and your toddler is a perfect starting place. Most toddlers love baby chinos. Just be aware that many places will add marshmallows or other sweets, so make sure you ask if you want these to be excluded. Once you’re feeling confident, start extending your visits to ordering snacks, then meals.

Pre-schoolers – This is still a tough age, but you have a great advantage that your child understands you and can communicate with you. It’s a great opportunity to discuss with your child in advance what is expected of them when you dine out. Discussing what happens and how long the visit is, is a great way for children to know what to expect and how to behave, such as remaining seated.

Know your child’s limits and tell them what is expected of them.

Knowing your child’s limits is the most important piece of information you can have. If you’re new to dining out, we suggest morning visits to avoid overtired and hungry children in the afternoon and evening. Starting with shorter visits, then slowly increasing the length of your stay is the best approach. The visits should remain positive, so if you feel that the visit is going south, be prepared to abort mission before this happens.

Book at a time where you know your child isn’t going to be over hungry. Plan to arrive before your child’s meal time, so that it gives sufficient time to settle in and for meals to arrive when they would normally expect to eat.

Your first visits should only be with your child and may include your partner too. The very early attempts can be difficult to attempt conversation while fussing over kids. Don’t consider it a fail if you don’t have a conversation with your partner. Don’t make it a social event until you feel confident that your child will settle without much fussing. It’s a new environment to them too.

Don’t let one bad experience put you off. Everyone has their bad days, including children. Go with what works, before asking more of your children next time.

Know your limits.

If it’s going to stress you out, take a step back. If you’re flustered, then you certainly can’t have the patience of attending to children in an unfamiliar environment. They will feed off your emotions!

Pick the right support person and try for another day. Take someone with you who you know will be very hands on with the kids and understands that conversation and meals come second.

Research the restaurant.

Choosing the right restaurant is the second most important decision when planning to dine out. This is where preparation is best.

Choose a family friendly restaurant that has been recommended to you by a friend or one that has been tested by us. Don’t pick the hot new café down the street, that is still trying to find its feet or a venue that doesn’t take bookings. The venue should be very close to home to avoid a long drive. It maybe unreasonable to expect children to sit in a long commute, then a restaurant immediately after.

Look at the menu.

Pick a venue where you know there is something your child will eat. Your first few visits are not about exposing your children to new foods and should be about familiarity.  

Secondly, narrow a few options for yourself to order. You don’t have to decide what to order prior to going in, but it reduces the amount of time spent looking at the menu once you arrive, that it can be spent on settling the kids at the table.

Finally, avoid ordering well done steaks. Select meals that can be cooked quickly.

Contact the restaurant.

This is a crucial step to undertake before the day. There’s more to making a booking, then just requesting a high chair. This is the opportunity to investigate! Someone can tell you how great a restaurant is and how much their children loved it. Every child is different and we all have different needs.

It’s important that you speak with the venue to confirm the best time for families to eat. You want to dine at a time when there are other families present, to model the positive behaviour.

Secondly, it’s important to know you are attending at a time where kitchen times are prompt. This is where an early lunch or dinner is better.

We definitely suggest asking for a booth (where kids can spread out a little) or at a table that might be nestled away.

This is also the time to discuss questions about the menu, substitutions (if required) and to ask any other questions you might have, such as whether the chicken is crumbed or grilled. This makes sure that there are no surprises on the day.

If they sound like you are bothering them with these questions, then it’s likely not a good choice. Just be sure you’re speaking with someone who should know these answers (such as a manager).

Burn energy.

It can be difficult for a young child to sit for long periods of time. Take into account the travel time too. If you feel that you kids need to burn some energy prior to a visit, schedule a visit at the local park for some fun.

We certainly do find that venues with play areas are a great combination. Use them to your advantage, but eventually you will teach your children there is also table time, so that you can eat together as a family.

If you are finding that a play area is too distracting to your child and their meal is barely touched, you may want to reconsider these venues. This is where you may consider a park first, then restaurant. You know your child best and what you want your experience dining out to be like.

Prompt ordering.

Advise your wait staff what you expect from your visit! If you want the kid’s meals first, to share meals or to eat together; make it very clear.

If you’re wanting a quick in and out visit and ask for their suggestions, especially on quick meals and timing of food. A lot of complaints we receive is that food can be received staggered.  If you’re keen for dessert, let them know early, so that they can promptly attend to you.

If you need to offer them a snack from home to keep them content while you wait for meals, don’t be shy. Keep it very small so that they don’t fill up. While we believe restaurants should always be prompt with service, we know this isn’t always the case, so if you’re ready to order before you’re attended to, ask for service.

We generally advise the kitchen to bring meals out as they’re ready. This avoids us having to attend to the kids after they finish their meals and we are still eating ours. We also enjoy sharing multiple dishes with the kids. This is a great alternative to kids meals arriving immediately, unless you’re happy to order dessert the moment they’re finished. You will know your child best.

Don’t rely on the venues facilities or toys to entertain your kids.

You might hear that they have a fantastic play area. What if your kid isn’t interested? Some kids can be intimidated in play areas with older kids, or the ability level for the equipment is above their capabilities. The toys may have missing parts or be run down. The colouring books might be old, with no pages left to colour.

Check out our survival bag guide for ideas on what to take with you to a restaurant. Our biggest tip is to offer high value items that your child can enjoy at the table.

While we are not suggesting technology at the table, we definitely suggest that this is not offered as a reinforcer to unacceptable behaviour at the table (ie given to them to quieten them). If you have no issues with technology, it can be used appropriately as a reward for good behaviour, as long as a child is willing to relinquish it when the meals arrive.

Finally, use this opportunity to engage with your child. Play social games such as I spy with my little eye or a small hand held game at the table (such as memory or go fish). There are plenty of age appropriate games at the table to play, that would be suitable at a restaurant.

Final points.

If the child gets restless, take them for a wander around the restaurant (as long as this is appropriate). If they are starting to play up, consider talking them for a walk outside. We definitely suggest this in the early stages, before there is a meltdown or unwanted behaviour.

Our main message is to keep the visit positive, prompt and end the visit on high note, even if it means you take the food home. We are not suggesting parents ignore unwanted behaviour at all, but parents must react and reprimand in a way that suits their parenting style.

Teaching table manners and what is expected of children at the table starts at an early age.  These are valuable skills that build their confidence and social skills. In return, you experience quality family time together and expose your children to more foods and environments.

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