6 Tips for Taking Kids to Restaurants (Plus – Where to Go for Free Kids’ Meals!)

It’s been a long week.  No one feels like cooking or cleaning.  Hungry faces are staring back at you as you try to decide how to proceed.  So you pack the kids in the car and head out to dinner, because everyone needs to get out once in a while, right?  But silly you, you left a little later than expected and you arrive at the restaurant at 7:01 pm.  Sorry, no service for you.

A Texas restaurant made headlines several years ago when they posted a message to their Facebook page, stating that they only serve people over eight years old after 7:00 pm.  That restaurant was not alone.  It was simply the latest restaurant to draw the line.

On the one hand, I understand.  People go out to dinner for a variety of reasons, and often they simply want to enjoy a relaxing meal in a quiet environment.  Kids running around the restaurant or the sound of handheld games beeping away in an attempt to reduce the whining can be very annoying.

It’s not enough to simply say, “Be on your best behavior.”  In fact, statements like that tend to be meaningless for small children.  Say what you mean.

But, on the other hand, families should be able to go out to dinner with their kids!  Families with young children shouldn’t be restricted to unhealthy fast-food restaurants simply because some other kids failed to demonstrate proper manners at a nice restaurant in the past.  And children need to learn how to eat and interact in places other than their own kitchen tables.  It’s a life skill worth teaching.

The magic word, of course, is teaching.  It’s up to us to teach our kids how to behave in restaurants so that we can all enjoy an evening out. People go out to dinner for a variety of reasons, and often they simply want to enjoy a relaxing meal in a quiet environment.  Kids running around the restaurant or the sound of handheld games beeping away in an attempt to reduce the whining can be very annoying.

6 Tips for taking kids to restaurants:

Go early:

Seems simple, I know.  But you know how time flies when you’re trying to get out the door.  If you want to take your kids out to eat, it’s best to go very early.  If your kids normally eat at around 6 pm, you want to get there no later than 5:30 pm, earlier if you’ve never been before and are not familiar with the menu. 

Between waiting for a table and waiting for the food to arrive, time ticks away fairly quickly in restaurants.  Hungry kids are generally impatient kids.  Plan ahead to beat the waiting. 

Bonus tip: feed them a healthy snack just before you leave the house.

Choose kid-friendly establishments:

kid menu
Image via Flickr/FamilySibaja

This doesn’t mean that you’re stuck with the golden arches.  There are plenty of nice restaurants that cater to families.  Some have kid corners to distract the kids while they wait and others provide activity books.  Many will rush out the food for the little ones to get them settled before bringing food for the adults.

Do your research.  Save the less kid-friendly options for that coveted date night and find a nice, family environment for family dinners out.  

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Order ahead:

Fact: Starving, grouchy kids do not make the best dinner companions.  Avoid excessive hunger by downloading the menu and calling in advance.  Many family friendly restaurants are happy to get an order started in advance to minimize the wait for food when you do arrive.  This is a particularly useful strategy if your kids tire easily or are not used to eating out.  

Review your expectations:

It’s no big secret that kids need frequent reminders about a lot of things.  Without reminders they would probably leave clothes all over the place and leave their homework in their backpacks every single day.

Use the car ride to the restaurant as an opportunity to review your behavioral expectations.  Be specific.  It’s not enough to simply say, “Be on your best behavior.”  In fact, statements like that tend to be meaningless for small children.  Say what you mean. 

  • Sit in your seat during dinner (no running around).
  • Use your regular voice tone (no yelling).  Role-play this.
  • Be kind.
  • Say thank you when your food arrives.
  • Say please when you ask for something.

Practice:

In theory, restaurant table behavior and home table behavior shouldn’t really be any different.  But it can be useful to play “fancy restaurant” every once in a while and practice.  Take turns serving, receiving, and demonstrating appropriate manners.

Be prepared:

Be prepared to stay or leave.  You might have a great experience where everything goes according to plan, but you also might end up dealing with a huge meltdown that seems to come from out of nowhere.  You just never know.  It’s best to be prepared.

  • Bring your own activity books and crayons just in case.
  • Pack a snack in case the kitchen gets behind.
  • If you were unable to order in advance, be prepared to order right after you’ve been seated.
  • Be patient.  It can be hard for kids to sit and wait, particularly after a long week of sitting at school.
  • Be ready to leave if the dinner isn’t going well.  Sometimes it just takes practice.

And when you decide that you're ready to take the plunge, you might want to check out this list, which features 150+ places where you can find discounts or kids eat free offers: 

Kids Eat Free Guide

What do you think?

6 Tips for Taking Kids to Restaurants (Plus – Where to Go for Free Kids’ Meals!)

Katie Hurley, LCSW is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist and writer in Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" and "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World". She earned her BA in Psychology and Women's Studies from Boston College and her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania. She divides her time between her family, her private practice and her writing. Passionate about he ... More

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10 comments

  1. Liza says:

    I am a mother of six and this past summer I took my kids out for lunch, all of them, ages, nine through four months and had a wonderful fearless time. It starts at home, teaching your kids manners at home, to be respectful always to you and to each other and they need an example, you. At anther table was a dad with his two kids and they were all over the place, and the dad was being very loud about his discipline, like, look at me everyone, I am on top of my kids. It struck me that it was an appearance. As I walked out with my kids, very proud of the way the kids conducted themselves, I was met with nice comments from many of the customers. I love taking my kids out and we don’t do it very often so it is much more special for us and for them.

  2. EbyMom says:

    Interesting tips.

  3. Lara says:

    Getting to restaurants early is the real key. I have never heard of restaurants refusing to serve young families. Wow. I am from GA and they probably have kids working in the back. That’s LA for ya. Nice post.

  4. great tips to keep in mind

  5. REKERIA says:

    I think that’s a wonderful idea.

  6. Great Idea Plus The Family Gets To Spend Time Together

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