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

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.



  1. Jane says:

    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 says:

    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. 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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