I remember back when my three oldest sons were little (toddlers and babies really), Steve and I used to take them out to dinner with us and it didn't always go so well! Many times Steve or I ended up leaving the restaurant with the misbehaving tyke(s) while the other parent stayed at the table, paid for the meals and had the wait staff pack up our food to go. I remember complaining to my good friend Lisa, who has a son a little older than my oldest, and whom she could take to any restaurant and he would behave perfectly (or so it seemed to me)…. and I was telling her my latest tale of dining-out failure… and I must have told her that we were taking a break from eating out- it was just too hard… and Lisa told me “You have to just keep doing it”. Keep trying it, keep setting that expectation of how to behave and eventually they will learn. So we did, we stuck with it….. and now all six of our kids enjoy eating out together as a family and it can be a really great experience, not to mention a night-off from cooking for Mom!
Choose the right restaurant
I know plenty of people who dine out as a family at every different kind of restaurant- from casual bistros on up to top-chef fine dining establishments. The parents enjoy dining out, the kids know how to behave, and everyone has a great experience (including fellow diners in the restaurant). But with our large family- we mostly stick with places that clearly welcome families. If we walk into a place and thery don't have high chairs and booster seats (even though we don't use them anymore)- it is probably not the right place for us. We also know that the restaurant will usually need to push together a couple of tables to accommodate us- and some restaurants are happier to do this than others.
So while this list includes the typical places you might think of: Chili's, Applebee's, and the local diner…. we also like to go to restaurants that feature Korean BBQ, Japanese Steakhouse/Sushi, Chinese food, and Italian foods.
Encourage them to order something they don't eat regularly at home
It is really kind of silly to take the family out to dinner and have the kids just order the macaroni and cheese kids meal or the chicken fingers. Eating out is a nice opportunity to encourage my kids to try something that they don't eat on a regular basis. I am not talking about stepping far outside of their comfort zone and ordering something really crazy…. unless your child is an adventurous eater. But menu items such as fajitas, shrimp, BBQ ribs, and grilled fish are great alternatives to typical kids menu fare, and once you discover that your child enjoys a new food- you can start adding it to your own menu plan at home!
Skip the kids menu
One thing that works really well for our large family is to order several entrees off of the regular menu and share them. We have found that restaurants are usually happy to bring us extra plates with our meal- and this often encourages our kids to try something new and select a healthier option than what we find on the kids menu.
Sodas and refills
Regardless of whether or not the restaurant offers free refills on the kids sodas- our family rule is to allow the first glass of soda and then all refills need to be water (or milk). Since our kids don't drink soda with meals at home, having one cup of it is already a treat. My kids start sucking down their drinks the minute they are brought to the table…. their cups are empty before the entree arrives and their bellies are already half-full. Limiting the amount of soda they can have encourages them to save a little for their meal and leaves more room for the food (which is why we came to the restaurant to begin with!)
Things to do while we wait
When they were younger, I used to come equipped with a whole bag of things to do- little books and crayons, small toys and cars…. and I always came prepared with some little “snack” that they could eat while they were waiting for their meal to arrive, such as applesauce cups or fruit cups. Now that they are older, I can walk in “unprepared”, and we usually just spend the time waiting by either just talking together or sometimes drawing and playing games with the kids menus or placemats and crayons that the restaurant offers.
My recommendation here is to plan ahead. After we order our meal, we always offer to take the kids to a “final” trip to the bathroom before the food arrives…. even if we just went 10 minutes ago before we left home. We make it clear that once the food comes, we won't be leaving the table again until after we've eaten. This advice comes from eating far too many luke-warm dinners because someone had to “go” the minute the food hit the table.
Tomorrow I will share with you an opposite approach…. the list of things that I do where I do not take the kids along!