3 Simple Strategies for Stress-Free Restaurant Meals with Kids

(Image credit: Kachalkina Veronika)shutterstock

My husband and I recently took our 3-year-old out for burger night at our favorite local restaurant. We wanted to take advantage of the reduced prices — and sometimes, on a random Wednesday, it’s just nice to have someone else do the cooking. Of course, I packed a tote full of books and crayons to occupy our girl, but the key to a stress-free dining experience with a tot in tow often requires a bit more thought. Here are three ways we keep eating out enjoyable for the whole family.

1. Ignore the appetizers.

The prevailing wisdom for dining out with toddlers is that you should order an appetizer so your child has something to eat right away. But here’s what happens if you do that: The toddler fills up on said appetizer and is ready to get down and run around before your food even has a chance to arrive.

Instead, we try to have all of our food arrive at the same time — including the bread basket, because you know how much most toddlers would love to just eat bread for supper. This way, everyone eats at the same time, and there’s a better chance of finishing around the same time, too — even if my husband and I have to trade off helping the kiddo with her pasta.

2. Use toys before the food comes.

Before the food comes, the table is clean, there are no plates to move out of the way, little hands aren’t yet covered with ketchup, and being at the table is still a novelty. Which makes having a little playtime while the food is being cooked a great way to start any restaurant meal. We read books, color (the Melissa & Doug On the Go Water Wow coloring sets are awesome), and even sometimes do a small puzzle (yes, ours is Frozen-themed). When the food comes, the toys go back into the tote bag so we can focus on the meal at hand. And when we’re done, we get the check and go home. Sure, we’d love to linger over a glass of wine after a meal like we used to, but trying to force an antsy toddler to continue sitting still once her belly is full is a battle we’ll never win.

3. Order food you know your child likes.

Whether or not your toddler is an adventurous eater, you never quite know what mood they will be in, so stack the deck in your favor by relying on foods they like — and don’t restrict yourself to the kids’ menu. Does your little one love hummus? Get them the hummus and pita appetizer. Inhale burgers? Split an adult burger and order yourself a side salad or soup alongside. Do they devour edamame? Get them an order of steamed edamame with a simple side of rice. When we go out to eat, we’re looking for a break; for us, this is not the time to push our daughter to try dumplings for the first time.

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