How to dine out with children and survive to tell the tale

Family dinners out are a challenge no matter which way you tackle it. When our first son was born we smugly continued to have dinners out at clubs and restaurants.  We’d get dressed up, I’d breastfeed before we left home and then we could rock him to sleep in his pram at the table.  We marvelled at our marvellous parenting skills.  What was all the fuss about?  Children should not dictate your life, and other conceited things crossed my mind as I sipped lime and soda from a wine glass, scoffed my risotto ai funghi and enjoyed conversation with my loving husband.

Image credit: mariakomar / 123RF Stock Photo
Image credit: mariakomar / 123RF Stock Photo

Passers-by would comment and congratulate us on our ability to maintain a normal life.  We would proudly explain our methods but concede that we were lucky enough to have a good-natured baby first time around.  Then people would compliment us by saying that this was because we were such relaxed and easy-going parents.  Our already inflated confidence swelled.  And we’d respond with lines like ‘well children don’t learn how to behave at restaurants unless they experience it’.  I shit you not.

Even when our second son was born, who flatly refused to sleep, the odd night out was still achievable.  Our eldest son was then old enough to sit in a high-chair at the table with a few toys and he could also snack on some hot chips (having been fed his vegies at home before heading out) or throw them at the floor.  If that failed then a milk bottle or a plastic straw would keep him occupied.  Baby number two could be rocked to sleep in the pram and once again we could relax and enjoy our meals.

Then we went and had a third child.  Here’s where we’ve come undone.  With the experience of three babies (almost) behind me I can say in hindsight that Master 1 has been my dream baby.  He’s relaxed, he sleeps, he’s easily satisfied and he’s happy.  So it’s not that he’s a problem.  It’s just that with three children aged four and under the ability to mobilise ourselves anywhere has become akin to a military exercise.  This is compounded by the different ages meaning that not everyone is ‘into’ the same things to keep them distracted at a new and exciting place just waiting to be explored and demolished.  Therefore, we pack books and puzzles for Master 4, little trucks and cars for Master 2 and a rattle or jangly-pram-thingy-toy for Master 1.  This is in addition to the ubiquitous nappy bag that holds everything from a full change of clothes, nappies, wipes, torch, towel and a map showing the fire exits and escape routes of our chosen venue (OK I was just kidding about the map but you get the idea – I am nothing if not prepared).

We decided to have a special family dinner out at a local restaurant before my Mum left after her recent visit.  This was a lovely idea.  In practice it was very stressful just to leave the house on time still looking reasonably decent.   Just as I am ready to announce I’m ready Master 1 does a poo and needs a nappy change.  But no matter, I remained cool and managed to change him sans poo on me.  Then there were the fights about who was taking what book and toys.  Still cool, this is normal; we got into the car and headed off for a decorous family dinner.

After wrangling Master 2 through the car park and stopping him from running off into the dark (I told you he was fearless) and assuring an anxious Master 4 that yes they did have fish and chips on the menu, we got inside with all our gear and sat down.  I was exhausted already.

It was an enjoyable evening but we’ve learnt to keep it short and sharp.  I did end up with Master 2 on my lap all night to keep him from throwing food or running around.  So I ate my meal one-handed and kept him distracted with garlic bread and then ice cream for dessert.  We even managed to get this rare family photo taken with both parents in the photo.

Source:  magentafrog publications
Source: magentafrog publications. Don’t we look like a cheeky bunch?

I still tend to think that children do learn to behave by experience and we will continue to dine out on occasion but it is necessary to be prepared.  So, I have compiled a list of useful tips should you want to try this adventure for yourself.  The tips apply no matter how many children you have but are probably only useful up until the age of five (here’s hoping!)

Tips for taking children to restaurants

  • Get in early – book the restaurant for as early as possible (when they open).  They serve you quicker and generally the children will not disturb other diners
  • Feed babies at home at the normal time before leaving and give older children a small snack
  • Take books and toys
  • Take a bottle of milk and water (because antsy kids don’t like to wait for the table service)
  • Take your nappy bag (change of clothes for everyone and small first aid kit)
  • Order kids meals first (as soon as you arrive)
  • Say YES to anyone’s offer to help you (including to the waiter who offers pencils and colouring paper)
  • Get all sharp knives and glass wear removed from the kids’ end of the table
  • Try to enjoy yourself, it is a rare night out after all
  • Get out early – this helps keep everyone’s sanity (including the restaurant staff) and avoids any unnecessary tired meltdowns and judgemental glances from the diners with no children
  • Drive to your nearest shop (they’ll still be open because you’ve started so early) and buy a packet of ice creams for the adults who have not had time to enjoy dessert
  • Go home put kids to bed and put your feet up and eat your ice cream
  • Don’t forget to congratulate yourself on a job well done!
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