Restaurant Dining with Kids


It happens to us all, even people who love to eat out at great restaurants.  Kids enter the picture, and the next thing you know, your definition of “eating out” goes from late-night hot spots to pizza at Chuck E Cheese.  But if you’re the parent of a young child, are you doomed to years of Chinese take-out?  I hope not!

June 20 – 27 is Kids Restaurant Week in Washington, D.C., where I live.  Other cities are embracing this terrific concept as well, setting aside a special time when high-brow restaurants bring out the high chairs so that families will feel especially welcome.  About 25 top restaurants in Washington are participating in this terrific promotion.  (A complete list of the restaurants and the types of specials they will offer is posted on my web site.)

For my book My Two-Year-Old Eats Octopus: Raising Children Who Love to Eat Everything, I interviewed lots of chefs who are also parents, and asked them about the whole concept of little kids dining at nice restaurants.  The number one thing they told me: Don’t be afraid to bring your kids when you eat at nice places!  Yes it’s true: Most restaurants really do welcome groups with young children.  “I want families to be at peace bringing children to our restaurants, so we’ll build a future generation of diners,” says top New Orleans chef John Besh.

Here are seven chef hints to make restaurant dining with a preschooler fun for everyone – maybe even the people at the next table:

Go Early

You know your kids and you know their schedule; best to stick to it. If your children typically eat at 5:30 or 6:00, waiting for a 7:30 reservation is asking for trouble.  “Blue hair special” time may not be hip, but your odds of success are higher.  And if you do have problems, you’ll have less of an audience.


And Often!

Practice, practice, practice.  Frequent dining out helps both kids and parents feel relaxed and comfortable. 


Set the Scene

Don’t be afraid to ask for a good table, especially if it includes an interesting view for your child.  Ceiling fans, windows with street scenes, open kitchens all provide visual diversions.  Position the high chairs so the kids have something to watch.  Remove from the table things like extra place settings, candles or sugar packets that can be thrown across the room in a two-year-old moment.

Toys with No Noise

The chefs I talked to were all for bringing things like coloring books and little hand toys to amuse the kids before the food arrives.  But virtually all of them frowned on DVDs, video games and electronic toys at the table.  Why? 

“It’s distracting to other guests,” said Bob Carter of Peninsula Grill in Charleston, SC.  “The pinging and the noise make it offensive to the dining experience.”  Chefs equated the use of these toys with adults blabbering on cell phones or texting throughout meals.  “What are you teaching? That you can go and sit and not socialize.” says Marc Murphy of New York’s Landmarc restaurant. 

Know Your Limits

For most little kids, that’s about an hour and a half, max. This is not the night to linger over coffee.  When the server comes to take your drink order, be ready to go with what you want to eat.


Let them Eat!

If you’re taking your child to a great restaurant, let him eat there!  Skip the children’s menu and the food brought from home.  Instead, look for things on the real menu that appeal to kids, or will give them something new to taste.


Talk, Talk, Talk

Many parents run into problems with their children in restaurants because they simply forget that the kids are there. 

“I get it,” one chef said. “Adults are looking forward to a night out with their spouse or friends, some good food, a break from the day.  But if children are there, you can’t just socialize.  Somebody has to keep them engaged”   I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been out with my family and hoped for just 15 minutes of adult conversation, only to end up telling my kids another “Thomas the Tank Engine” story.   But oh well.  The conversation may not be the best, but at least the food is.

And what if, despite these best efforts, a meltdown does occur?  You’re out of there. Pack up the food, pay your bill and leave.  Kids should never be allowed to disrupt the enjoyment of other patron’s meals.

Then write this one off to a bad night, and don’t be afraid to try again!





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