Survival Guide for Restaurants with Toddlers + Kids

Mitch here!

The best parenting advice I ever received was this:

Don’t forget to do you while parenting

And if you clicked on this post, I think we’re in the same boat.

Kelly and I love going to restaurants. Always have, and I’m not afraid to admit it. We love supporting local establishments to keep Chicago vibrant; we love exploring the city and trying new things in the process; and we love the little reminders that yes, we’re parents, but we’re also people. Sure, it can add up, but we make sacrifices in other parts of our lives—like where we grocery shop or how/when we travel—to accommodate for it. (A big part of the reason I’m so into discount stores and sites!) We also bring our kids most of the time, as we really like them 😉 and babysitters can multiply the tab like whoa.

If you’re new here, we have two daughters, ages two and five. And even though they’re very good girls, they’re still kids! So here’s what we do to up our chances of enjoying restaurant experiences while dining with kids. It’s the patented Larkin 5-Step Plan to Get the Kids to Behave So We Can Still Go to Restaurants.


5 Tips for Enjoying Restaurants with Toddlers/Kids

1. Choose venues wisely

The restaurant itself is the single greatest factor in your quest for a successful meal. New parents develop a sixth sense for kid friendliness and as veterans of the search, we like our spaces Loud and Large (which, coincidentally, was my nickname in college). My ideal family dining hall resembles Woodstock.

A few pointers:

  • Never try to sit at the bar with your kid, even if your wife is away. That bartender will straight up scold you.
  • Avoid the rush and go early. An acceptable venue at 4:30 p.m. might not be so accepting at 8:30 p.m. Going early can also means that kids won’t be crabby. (And there’s a better shot at making bedtime!)
  • If the weather permits, SIT OUTSIDE. When you’re outside, no one can hear you, and as an added bonus, you can walk your kid up and down the block to get the willies out if necessary.
  • To reiterate, look for large and somewhat loud restaurants. Not too loud, of course, as we clearly want to protect our littles’ eardrums. But being able to hear a pin drop isn’t a good thing when you have kids in tow.
  • Choose restaurants that have high chairs and children’s menus. No high chairs or children’s menus? There are always exceptions, but might be best to wait a few years.

2. Set kid and parent expectations

Before going to the restaurant, we talk about the following kid expectations:

  • We stay in our seats at all times, unless Mommy is taking us to the bathroom. This is because restaurants are busy places, and we need to stay safe.
  • We use our inside voices, even if we’re dining outside. This is so that everyone at the restaurant can enjoy their meal.
  • We use our manners and clean up our messes. Waiters and waitresses work very hard, and we don’t want to make their jobs harder!
  • We get rewards if we behave. Who doesn’t love dessert or a trip to the playground afterwards?!

But it’s important to remember that expectations go both ways! Here are the expectations we set for ourselves:

  • We get the kids excited about the restaurant. Everyone likes having something to look forward to, especially kids! Why might they be excited about this particular establishment?
  • We only go if we have the patience. If we’re short on patience that day—which, hey, totally happens!—it’s likely not the best day to dine out.
  • We keep our time at the restaurant brief. Kids are kids, and we can only ask so much of them.
  • We bring high-quality entertainment. A “restaurant bag” is a simple concept but can make or break an experience. Load it up with activities, and break ’em out when need be.

3. Pack to distract

Building off the last bullet point, sitting through any meal can be challenging for kids—even at home. So Kelly and I try as hard as possible to level the playing field. Emma and Lucy are voracious toy and activity aficionados. So we pack a “restaurant bag.” I’ll give Kelly all the credit here; she’s great with toy/activity rotation both in our home and with the restaurant bag. She switches things out constantly, and every once in a while while add something new in there. To avoid fighting, she caters to both children’s interests, and sometimes includes duplicates of things she assumes will be popular. RESTAURANT BAG FOR THE WIN. Our favorites:

And then we have the last resort: the tablet.

It’s amazing, and somewhat dishonest, that I’ve made it this far into a “Restaurant Survival Guide” post without mentioning the magical power of the iPad and other similar tablets. Kids and screen time is a hotly debated topic, but we personally have chosen to take the “everything in moderation” outlook in both parenting and life. We fill the iPads with fun, engaging apps and learning activities as well as YouTube Kids… and we break them out if they tire of the restaurant bag. Sometimes we make it through a whole meal without using them, and other times we hand them over 10 minutes in. Last week, I caught Emma doing math on the Khan Academy Kids app at a restaurant. (TELL ME HOW THAT’S BAD.) Regardless, it’s for everyone’s sake.

4. Bring snacks and drinks

Toddler crunch time comes quick, and if we’re not prepared, our girls could bring the whole restaurant down. I know what you’re thinking: Snacks will spoil her dinner! She needs a varied diet! Won’t someone think of the children?! Let’s be honest here, though. A quick healthy snack is likely better than the chicken fingers they’ll soon be served on a dinner plate. We’re all in this together.

5. Implement a reward system

As a dude who spent four years studying economics in college, I’ll gladly take the opportunity to discuss rewards and incentives. But before I get out my graph paper, let’s all agree on a simple fact:




And cookies.

And if you incentivize kids with tangible rewards, they just might listen to you.

And I’m not talking about bribery. Bribery is… Okay, maybe I am talking about bribery here. But the point is it works. If, at the end of the meal, they’ve met the expectations, they should be rewarded! And hugged! And high-fived! And praised! Make a big deal of it. They’ll eat it up. (Perhaps literally. 🍪)

In conclusion…

Things change pretty quickly around here, and we adjust our techniques when necessary. But what I’m saying here is that visiting restaurants with kids isn’t impossible. We’ve had our fair share of disasters, but for the most part, the girls look forward to and have a great time visiting restaurants. The best is three-year-old Emma would walk by a restaurant and yell, “Mommy, Daddy, I want to sit down in there!”

Mitch. OUT!

Survival Guide for Restaurants with Toddlers + Kids
Dining tips at restaurants with kids