The ultimate guide to dining out with children

Mealtimes are a wonderful opportunity to connect as a family and they have some powerful benefits for children too. Shared family meals have been shown to enhance family relationships and boost children's learning. Even better, taking the kids to a restaurant means no one has to waste precious time cooking or clearing up!

Taking children to restaurants can present its own set of challenges though. What if they get bored? What if they misbehave? What if they won't eat the food?

Follow these top tips from parenting expert Anita Cleare for making the most of stress-free family meals out:

Who is Anita Cleare?

Anita Cleare MA AdvDip is a parenting expert with a background in child development and family support.

Anita specialises in helping parents cut through the fads and fashions of parenting advice and focus on how modern parents can apply simple evidence-based approaches to create a happier family life.

Choosing a restaurant

  • Choose a family friendly restaurant where you won't be fretting about white linen table cloths or disapproving stares.
  • It's great to push the boundaries and try a new restaurants and cuisines but make sure there is at least one thing on the menu that each person will eat.
  • Over the age of two, children often have a strong preference for familiar flavours. But they are also influenced by what they see other children eating, so taking them to a restaurant where they can see other kids eating, means they are more likely to try new dishes!

Make it a tradition

  • Traditions are really important in bonding families together. They give children a sense of belonging and identity.
  • You can make meals out more meaningful by going back to the same restaurant, for example, or having jokes or games you repeat every time.

Time it right

  • Try and stick to your child’s regular routine. If your kids usually eat lunch at 12.30pm, don’t wait until 2pm to head to a restaurant. Hungry kids are often grumpy kids.
  • Unless it’s a buffet or fast food, there will be a wait between ordering and eating.
  • You’ll need to factor in nap times for younger children too, or you might find yourself walking a little one to sleep outside while your food gets cold.

Set some behaviour rules

  • Help the kids learn social skills by setting some clear behaviour rules from the start. Keep it simple for younger children – if they need to stay seated then the rule might be “Keep your bottom on the chair”.
  • Tell them the rules before you go into the restaurant and get them to say them back to you.
  • As soon as you are all sitting down, remind them about the rules and praise them for getting it right.
  • You could offer a reward at the end of the meal for good behaviour – maybe a trip to the park on the way home. But have a back-up plan in your head (such as taking them to sit outside for a few minutes) in case younger children get over-excited.
  • Don’t assume that older children always know what’s expected of them – a quick run through of the rules is still a good idea.

Practice at home

  • If you are expecting your children to sit nicely and use a knife and fork at a restaurant, you’d better practice those table manners at home first.
  • 3-7 year-olds love imaginative play, so why not pretend you’re in a restaurant the next time you have a family meal at home? That’s a great way to introduce those social skills and have fun together at the same time.

Keep them entertained

  • Bored children are much more likely to get up to mischief. Some restaurants provide entertainment packs but take your own boredom kit too in case of any down moments. Items that can be used in lots of different ways are best. These will keep your children engaged for longer and have the added benefit of stimulating imagination and helping your children to grow their brains. Paper and pens are always great but children are intrigued by novelty so put a few surprises in your bag too. A pack of pipe cleaners is worth its weight in gold – you can make almost anything from a pipe cleaner and then undo it and make something completely different!
  • Remember, toddlers have short attention spans and tend to jump to a new activity every few minutes so you’ll need lots of ideas up your sleeve. For older children, word games like ‘I Spy’ and ‘Animal Alphabet’ are brilliant standbys.

Keep it short

  • Young children can’t sit still for long so aim to keep it short – an hour maximum for younger children if there is nowhere for them to run around.
  • Wriggly children are more likely to sit still if they have had lots of exercise so maybe plan your meal out after an energetic activity.
  • Mindfulness activities can extend an older child’s attention span too. Try asking them to close their eyes and use their ears and name 5-10 different sounds they can hear.

Be realistic

  • Family meals out can be really special but don’t aim for perfection. Someone will probably need the toilet at an inconvenient moment and someone will probably spill something (pocket wet wipes are a good idea!).
  • With a ‘never mind’ attitude, the things that go wrong can be turned into treasured family anecdotes for years to come. The family time kids say they enjoy most is when parents are relaxed and enjoying themselves too. So, have realistic expectations and you’ll all enjoy the good bits much more.

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