Mr SnS and I have always loved heading out for a bite – breakfast, brunch, lunch or dinner. Coffee, afternoon tea, high tea. You name it, we’ll be there.
So no surprises then, that we were THAT couple who thought having kids wouldn’t slow us down or stop us doing the things we loved doing. *insert knowing laugh*
Of course things did change and we now do things quite differently than what we expected.
Fast forward eight years and we still love to eat out, try new places and new cuisines and we’ve tried to bring the kids along with us as much as possible (as we did in Bali).
Ideally, we would love them to grow up with a love of food, a willingness to try new things, an appreciation for chefs and meal makers everywhere (including their parents!) and the ability to behave appropriately at the table so we can all enjoy our meal together. A girl can dream.
It’s hasn’t been smooth sailing of course and we’ve had some memorable meals – memorable for all the wrong reasons and one or two may have involved tomato sauce. But over the years, we have slogged it out regardless and learned a few tips and traps along the way.
If you are looking for a few pointers that might help make eating out a happier experience for everyone in your family, this post is for you.
1. Do your Research
It’s important to find a good venue. For us, when we have had babies or toddlers, this has meant choosing places that have highchairs and a kids menu.
Now that our children are a bit older, we try to find places that are kid friendly – by this I mean the staff are happy to receive them, deal with spills, mishaps and noise without fuss and read the play well enough to get you the bill stat when someone has lost it.
Cafes with courtyards and in or next to parks are always great options for daytime dos. Places with playgrounds are often the easiest although this can sometimes be at the expense of the quality of the food. We have found plenty of other places that can be just as family friendly and have better food. We’ve taken our kids to the Healesville Hotel and iCarusi (both in Victoria), both of which are great places to eat but can also work for young families.
I always talk to family and friends about where they’ve been and what’s worked for them too.
2. Be Prepared
We sometimes check out the menu online, even in the car en route, so we can talk to the kids about what they might like to order, so we can order our food as soon as we arrive, with the drinks order.
If there isn’t a playground/play area of some description, we always bring textas and paper/colouring books to keep the kids occupied before their meals arrive. Some places provide these (such as Queen Margaret) which is a bonus.
We don’t bring iPads or electronic devices when we go out to eat as we want the kids to be involved in the conversation and ready to “down tools” when the food arrives. I’ve also found that our kids fight over what to watch/play/who holds the device and so bringing a device causes more problems than it solves for us.
3. Be realistic
Lower your expectations. Eating out with young children is a short and sharp affair. When our kids were smaller (and with a baby in tow), we’d be lucky to make it to 45 minutes. We would literally order all our meals and drinks as soon as we arrived and wolf them down before running out the door to put the baby down to bed within the hour. It sometimes seemed a bit pointless, but eating a meal out, training our kids in the art of eating out and not having to do dishes on a Saturday night were sometimes more important.
Now they are older, occasionally we might be able to stay somewhere happily for an hour and a half to two hours. We have literally done a fist pump on these occasions.
We’ve found eating out with other families (with kids) has been a bit hit and miss. Sometimes it’s been fun and worked well, other times it’s been a disaster and it’s hard to pin down why. It seems to depend on a combination of factors including the time of day; the various children’s ages and stages; how tired they are; how hungry they are; how quickly the food comes out; how much they like the food and so on.
Sometimes the easiest option when there is a big group of kids is to meet up for a picnic in the park in between the baby’s sleeps or have an early dinner of fish and chips in the park or at someone’s house.
4. Go early
For most families including ours, taking a toddler to dinner at 7.30pm isn’t going to work.
Generally speaking, when it comes to dinner, we only eat out at places that open at 5/5.30pm. With very young children, we have found that 5pm is the ideal time to arrive even though it may seem like late afternoon. By the time you sit down and order however, you’ll be lucky to be eating by 5.30pm. This is always worth checking too as a lot of places don’t open until 5.30pm.
5. Be Smart
We’ve found that our most “successful” dinners are to places where we feel confident the kids will like the food or at least be prepared to try something new. Our go to places are pizza and Vietnamese/Chinese/Malaysian restaurants. Roti, dumplings and dim sims are always winners with our kids and are easy finger food. We then order a couple of curries or spicy dishes for us.
We also go to places where we know the food comes out quickly to kill the before dinner shenanigans before they start. The promise of ice cream or a dessert pizza is always a great motivator for good behaviour too.
6. Think Outside the Box
Eating out doesn’t have to mean dinner.
When we had young babies, the only meal out we could manage was a weekend breakfast. With our eldest, we’d head out early – as soon as he had his morning feed/breakfast and be back in time to put him down for his morning sleep at 9am.
When we had our second and third sons, we timed going out with his morning sleep so he would fall asleep in the pram on the way to the cafe and hopefully stay asleep during our brunch and I’d feed him before we went home.
We only really attempted dinners out when our babies were closer to twelve months old. On nights we planned to go out for dinner, we’d try to put him down for his afternoon nap a bit later to maximise his capacity to be awake and happy at dinner. Still, an hour was usually his maximum.
We’ve also had some success eating out at serious foodie establishments (like when we went to Tanni in Bright) by ordering a range of tapas or small plates for the kids and main meals for us.
7. Don’t Give Up
Sometimes, eating out with children is not fun for anyone. You might be embarrassed by their behaviour, your behaviour in responding to their behaviour, the noise, the spills, the mess, the table manners (or lack thereof) and by the general shenanigans. We have all been there. I’ve been there plenty of times.
However, I still persist because it’s something I am hoping that will become easier with time and eventually, it will be really great. I’ve already seen huge improvements with our kids, the youngest of whom is 3 years old, although we still have a long way to go.
In the meantime, I get a night off cooking and the dishes and get to be home by 7pm in time for pjs, plonking on the couch in front of the TV and an early night. What’s not to love about that?
Do you eat out with your kids much? Is it a pleasure, a pain or something in between? How do you minimise the eating out shenanigans?