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Eating Out with Kids: Benefits and Tips (Hubnugget Contest Winner)

Updated on April 10, 2012

Eating out with the kids, especially when they are little, may not seem worth the effort. Images of babies screaming and throwing rice all over the floor, or toddlers running circles around the waiter, are often enough to keep many parents home.

I would argue that getting in the habit of eating out with your children has many benefits and, while not all meals out with small children will be blissful, the extra effort early on will have many payoffs down the road. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of eating healthy, nutritious home-cooked meals, but I do think that with a little preparation, eating out can be enjoyable for the whole family.

Benefits of eating out with your children:

  • Encourages trying new foods. By eating out, your kids will be exposed to new kinds of foods. Try a variety of restaurants (Italian, Mexican, Japanese, Chinese, Indian) to expose your children to new ingredients, tastes, and textures. My kids' favorite meal is miso soup, seaweed salad, sushi, and shrimp shumai. Who would have guessed? Wherever we go, we give our children a taste of whatever we’re having and are often been surprised by what they like.
  • Trains your children in good restaurant habits. Starting to dine out while the kids are young and making it a regular habit (as regular as your wallet and lifestyle permit) will help get your children accustomed to eating out. They will start to understand what behavior is expected of them and this will make it easier, over time, to eat out with them when you want to.
  • Gives mom and dad a night off from cooking and clean up duty. Even the most avid home cook needs a night off here and there. Going out is a welcome break from the daily routine of cooking and is a special treat for the whole family!

Tips for making eating out a pleasant experience for the whole family:

  • Choose the right restaurant. Some restaurants, billed as “kid-friendly,” provide crayons, a kids’ menu, and lots of other understanding families. If this is your first venture out, choosing one of these restaurants might be wise. However, there is an increasingly wide range of restaurants that welcome families, especially if you arrive at the beginning of service (i.e., 5:30) before the full swing of the night begins. If unsure, call ahead and ask about how receptive the restaurant is to young children.
  • Be clear, firm, and reasonable about the rules of eating out. Let your children know that eating out is a special privilege and that they need to have “restaurant behavior." This means speaking in an inside voice, staying seated, and listening to you. Be firm about the rules, including the consequences of misbehavior. In our family, anyone misbehaving is immediately taken outside (during the winter in Boston, this can be a great deterrent!) At the same time, be reasonable: expecting an 18 month old to sit still for an hour long meal is not realistic. Going for a walk with your kids after you order but before the food arrives can help ensure that they will sit for at least part of the meal.

  • Pack a special restaurant toy bag (or lunch box!). Pack a couple of bags of toys that are reserved for use at restaurants. Kids love the opportunity to play with “new” toys. I always include a couple of picture books that they can flip through on their own, as well as a few crayons and some paper.
  • Feed your kids a healthy snack. Having a slightly hungry child will encourage trying new foods and eating a more robust dinner, but showing up to a restaurant with starving kids is a recipe for disaster. Take the edge off by giving them a piece of fruit or a cheese just before you go out or when you're sitting down.
  • Be kind and considerate to your waiter. Yes, the waiter is there to serve you, but be kind. What might seem like a normal order to you (pasta, but plain, with sauce on the side, but not if there are big chunks of tomatoes) may not be second nature to a waiter. If your child makes a huge mess, at least attempt to help clean it up. And, for heaven’s sake, leave a generous tip!

More tips:

  • More and more cities have restaurants that are kid-friendly, but also serve up healthy, wholesome, interesting fare for kids and grown-ups. Some otherwise fancy, upscale restaurants have also started having “family nights” or "family brunches" transforming into a kid-friendly spot, complete with a special kids menu, toys, and other kids' entertainment.
  • Choose restaurants that have healthy options for you and the kids. Just because you are eating out doesn’t mean you have to throw nutrition and healthy eating to the wind.

Eating out can be a special treat for the whole family. Taking a few precautionary measures and taking the time up front to get kids used to proper restaurant behavior can open up a whole new world of culinary exploration for you and your kids.

Pad Thai anyone?


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