Table For Four (Year Old)? Experts Weigh In On Eating Out With Kids

Table For Four (Year Old)? Experts Weigh In On Eating Out With Kids

The last time we took the kids out to a restaurant, Ben and I took turns taking Julian for a walk down Queen Street. Which would have been fine except it was November. Julian’s idea of a meal is to crawl up into his chair, jam two, maybe three, fistfuls of food in his mouth and then bolt. And to allow him amble around a restaurant rather than taking him outside is just annoying and dangerous for everyone. So, basically until we’re done with that super fun phase, even the most kid friendly spots are a no-fly zone. Esme, on the other hand, is a worldly and cultured diner and can order her own dinner and make conversation while she waits (sort of). If she’d pick up the tab once in awhile she’d be the perfect date!

So, how do you get from danger to self or others to model diner? We asked a few of our favourite parents for their tips on getting the best out of their kids while eating out. Or at least not the worst. They gave us some excellent ideas and I think a Dim Sum lunch is in Julian’s future…. and some wine in mine! 

Brandie Wiekle, editor of Parent Central

I like to take my kids to “real” restaurants, not just those with pinball machines and other kiddie distractions and menus featuring plain pasta and chicken strips. That said, we’re all more likely to have a nice time if the restaurant we choose has at least a bit of a loud, happy clamour so I’m not shushing the whole time or trying to keep juice of white table linens. I’d really encourage other parents not to assume they’ll be unwelcome anywhere but East Side Marios. I’ve had very attentive service to my children at places that you’d assume at first glance were too fancy for kids.

My latest trick is “the restaurant box.” I keep a plastic lunch box in the front hall closet; it contains small pads of paper, crayons, stickers and other little distractions. I also keep a box of raisins or just a few crackers in here to try to keep hunger pangs and impatience at bay. I know it’s kind of uncouth but my boys keep their consumption of these super sneaky and subtle and I think most restaurant patrons and servers would rather see a contraband box of raisins than a meltdown.

Next I’m thinking of taking my guys to Pizzeria Libretto on Ossington. I’ve been telling Cameron, 7, about the super-hot oven that cooks the pizza in less than 90 seconds. He’s keen to try it. And another idea: Those sushi restaurants where the dishes float by on little boats go over really well with kids.

Nadine Silverthorne, editor of

I enjoy taking my kids (Nate, age 6 and Lucy, age 3.5) to restaurants and have always taught them to treat those outings with a certain respect. Our love of good food has always been apparent, so as the adults we lead by example. We dress nice, we order wine, etc. and the kids just know that this is something special and should be treated as such.

While I do mostly take them where I want and hope that they’ll just behave, I prefer to take them to what I refer to as a “solid neighbourhood three-star.” While I have been bold enough to take them to places such as C5 (it’s in a museum!), it’s usually a waste of money at their age when there’s no kid menu or appetizer size to offer them and the adult portions are too small for a good share. Also I think that kids just don’t fit in at the higher end places and then I’m super self-conscious about the other diners.

Ethnic restaurants are also awesome for their family-friendliness. We live in Little India in Toronto and “the strip” is so welcoming of little kids at all hours. I also like Gio’s in Leslieville. While it’s a bit “nice” for a family restaurant, the staff have taken my kids to the back kitchen, shown them live lobsters and fed them biscotti so I could finish my dinner. Not necessary, but very gracious and much appreciated. Il Fornello also does a good kids’ menu while not skimping on the adult options or décor (plus they have crayons!).

I do take a few things with me to distract them if we’re going to a nicer place. C5 may be in a museum, but they don’t have a colouring page. I find that keeping them occupied helps for things to go smoother. Also bringing friends or family members can help you to actually enjoy your meal, while your child spends some time in Grandma’s lap.

Sarah Bancroft, editor-in-chief of lifestyle magazine,

Now that dinner parties are a logistical nightmare for our group of new parents, and because no one wants to do the dishes or pick food up off the floor, we meet up at Vancouver’s family-friendly dim sum restaurants for lunch. Deep fried squid “French fries” are always a hit, barbequed pork buns disappear like magic, and ha gau (shrimp dumplings) are gobbled up. Best of all, rounds of 10 or 12 can accommodate muitiple highchairs, while chop-stick drumming, plate smashing and toddler screeching meld into the happy cacophony of the dim sum experience rather than drawing disparaging stares. And when the kids need a diversion, there’s always the trip to the crab tanks.

Here are two of my favourite Dim Sum children’s books: Dim Sum for Everyone by Grace Lin and Yum Yum Dim Sum by Amy Wilson Sanger.

Dick Snyder, editor-in-chief of Toronto’s hippest food magazine, City Bites

I like to view the menu online and/or keep a hard copy so you can order as soon as you sit down. Or, ask the kids what they feel like eating on the way to the restaurant. Get them thinking about it. Sometimes you can just tell the waiter “we need a burger/pizza/hot dog/soup” or whatever without even looking at the menu. It’s all about getting food fast. Sometimes it’s worth asking what’s the fastest item they have!

I’d say we choose restaurants with various kid-friendly appointments, like fish tanks to look at, open areas for running (patios, outdoors spaces),  lounge spaces where the kids can stretch out on couches, etc. — all without smashing into people.

The other thing is to order lots of stuff, in case they change their mind or discover that your hot & sour noodle soup is more interesting than steamed chicken and rice. Kids need variety, and that way you avoid further delays. (Though I was very sad when Harry ate my entire $20 platter of sashimi, and from now on I have to order 2 of them at great expense.)

I think restaurant visits are key to teaching manners. How to order from the waiter, how to ask politely, how not to bother other people. I find that with repeat visits, they model behavious on the parents and on observing other kids. Even observing bad behaviour doesn’t necessarily invite copycat behaviour; I find the kids identify inapprapriate behaviour in other kids, and then enjoy the feeling of superiority that comes with ratting them out.

Of course, sometimes you have to pull the chute and bail. If the kids just aren’t digging it, or the food takes too long, or they seem to just spill everything. Then you just have to dine and dash… Or just dash.

Jennifer Reynolds, editor-in-chief of Canadian Family

We actually bring him to restaurants often so it’s not a new experience for him to be out and he doesn’t act all crazy. We also let him know before we go what kind of behaviour we expect from him and threaten to withhold dessert if he doesn’t remember his manners (he loves his sweets so he always does!). I’m not a big believer that you have to always entertain kids with a circus of items you’ve stashed in your purse, but if dinner table chat doesn’t seem to keep him still, we’ll play a quick game of “eye spy” or “find 10 things that start with the letter M.”

Sharon DeVellis, editor of The Yummy Mummy Club

I’ve definitely gotten the evil glare from other people when my kids have misbehaved in a restaurant but in spite of the slinking out with my tail between my legs feeling, I continue to take them to restaurants that don’t have arches or menus that come with crayons.  Why?  Because they need to learn.  In the words of Miss Manners “We are all born rude. No infant ever appeared yet with the grace to understand how inconsiderate it is to disturb others in the middle of the night”  While I still haven’t slept a full night in nine years (where’s your advice for *that* Miss Manners?) it’s my job as a mother to teach them burping is not an Olympic event and the only place where it’s okay to eat with your hands is Medieval Times.

Start At Home:  We expect good manners at the table, period.  This includes, but is not limited to: no potty talk, burping, farting, eye rolling, rude gestures, or sarcasm (that last one is for me). Forks are not for stabbing and hands are not to be put in any body orifice. EVER.

Great Expectations:  Before going to any restaurant, whether it has a play land and a toy with every meal or candlelight for ambiance, set the expectations before leaving the house so everyone is clear on how they are to behave.  Also, kids have the attention span of gnats on amphetamines.  Long and convoluted explanations – No.  Short and to the point – Yes.

Rewards vs. Punishment:  Some parents like to give positive reinforcement by offering an incentive for when their child is acting appropriately, while others feel it’s better to give a consequence for bad behaviour. I actually work on a combined system.  i.e. If you behave during dinner you can have a sundae for dessert but so help me god if you act like a heathen, I’ll never take you to another restaurant ever again. Sometimes it’s just good to have all your bases covered.

When The Going Gets Tough:  You’ve taken your kids out for dinner and are now riding the slippery slope to potty talk land and armpit farting.  This is when the tough order a glass of wine. It’s amazing how less bothersome their behaviour is after a glass of crisp chardonnay.

And if everything else fails, take comfort in the fact that we’ve all been in restaurant hell with our kids.  Sure, it’s embarrassing and you want to never take them out in public again but someday you’ll look back and laugh.

Kathy Buckworth, author of Shut Up and Eat: Tales of Chicken, Children and Chardonnay

Best strategies:  We have to remind ourselves that eating out at restaurants is mostly about US, and not our kids.  While we don’t expect them to sit quietly at home and watch us prepare dinner, we expect them to do so in a restaurant, so the key is having that “waiting” time be as painless as possible.  My tips:

  • Order quickly – in fact, view the menu online beforehand if you can.  And when I say order quickly, that of course includes your wine.
  • Bring quiet games for them to play –  we always play a game of cards before dinner. The kids like it, it’s quiet, and time passes quickly. If kids are younger, colouring books, books to read. Electronic games are okay too – but only before the meal, not during.  We also sometimes to a quiz about what we’ve all been up to during the week  – the kids love questions like “Dad, guess what colour my underwear is today” (here’s a hint Dad – probably the same colour as yesterday. And maybe the day before.)
  • You are in charge of ordering the quantity of food you get – if its too much, that’s your fault. Don’t expect the kids to clean their entire plates if the portion size is way off. We’ve learned to order “for the table” instead of for each person.  Just bring the leftovers home and avoid the arguments and bad feelings at the restaurant.
  • You won’t get to linger over coffee. Forget about it. Go home and have a glass of wine.

We don’t take our kids to really upscale, adult only restaurants. I go there as an adult myself sometimes, and it’s not appropriate for kids. They’re bored, and the menu doesn’t appeal so its bad attitude and feelings all around.  Practice eating ‘fancy food’ and good manners at home, where there’s less pressure.  I am a fan of introducing kids to ethnic foods and dim sum is an awesome place to take young kids. I used to take my kids there when they were babies and toddlers – the restaurants are often noisy, there are carts moving around, loads of finger foods, etc.

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  1. Jane
    March 30, 08:31 Reply

    My pet peeve is parents that don’t seem to think children need to behave. Children need limits. Why, as their parents, would we not give them those? When my almost adult kids were little, I never put away delicate things/kid proofed, and had white furniture and rugs. I suppose I just indoctrinated them to exist in a world that is NOT rotating around them. I would bring them to nice restaurants, but not when they were starving, exhausted or any other thing that might make good behaviour difficult.

  2. Joni Nawrocki
    March 30, 08:58 Reply

    Now that my girls are 3 and almost 6, we go to restaurants more frequently. They know (well mostly) that they’re to be on their best behavior. Usually telling them to eat like a princess works. I make sure to set up a good experience: go when they’re well rested, bring a couple of things to entertain them, and go early enough to beat the crowds. My children know that if they get out of hand, we’re out of there.

  3. Trevor Cherewka
    March 30, 13:01 Reply

    This is totally something that starts at home. If your kids are used to eating on the run at home or in front of the tv or in their room….then don’t expect them to eat at a table in restaurants.

    If your child/children cannot sit still at home for a 30min meal and converse at an acceptable level then why, why, why do you think they will become miss/mr manors at the restaurant.

    We have 6 kids and there are times when the stare has no affect and we have to deal with it….and on the other hand there are times when people see the big train coming in and roll their eyes only to come up to us after the meal and congratulate us on having well mannered kids.

    We eat every meal at home at the table (i know, i sometimes think its boring too) but that was a choice we made when our DD was born 13yrs ago….don’t tell the kids, but b4 they came along we ate infront of the tv.

    Good luck to all of you daring parents out there and remember to test run at home first.

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