One of my guiding parenting principles is that there is a work-to-fun ratio for almost every activity. Going to the pool, for example, involves the work of getting everyone in suits, applying sunscreen to children trying to escape sunscreen, and loading the bag with towels, goggles, snacks, and flip-flops. The fun ratio for swimming is high for my family, though, so it feels worth it. The work-to-fun ratio concept applies to lots of other family activities, like eating out.
In theory, eating out sounds like a great idea: You get tasty food that you didn't have to cook or clean up. But as any parent with young kids can tell you, eating out can also feel like a lot of work. You've got to keep squirmy kids in their seats, try to stop them from destroying the table or spilling everyone's drinks, and make sure that they actually eat some food along the way.
It just doesn't seem fun to deal with the stares of other restaurant guests as my kid tries to escape our booth by sliding onto the floor and going limp noodle.
But avoiding restaurants means not giving our family the chance to try new foods, and not giving the kids the chance to get good practice with how to use their manners and behave in public. So I asked some seasoned mom pros for their best advice on making eating out as a family fun again. Some of these ideas are totally genius and none of them involve using screens -- love that!
Play Word Games
"We play verbal games as a family while we wait for our food. We do boys against girls, so each kid is paired with an adult. Here's an example: We start with the letter A and take turns naming a food that starts with A. The team that runs out of words for that letter loses and you go on to the next. I let my 3-year-old start with the easy answers and then I take over with artichoke, albacore tuna, or apricots. We usually get to about G before the food arrives and nobody has tried to escape the table during that time." -- Lindsay T., Charleston, South Carolina
Stick With Places With Kids' Menus
"I think the first thing is to know your audience. If you are dining out with kids, do dinner early and go to a restaurant that is family friendly. Everything will get harder if you have a kid who is hungry and tired and if you feel the restaurant staff doesn't want you there. I like to go to a neighborhood place with a good children's menu -- they don't give you the stink eye when your kid acts like a kid." -- Marjorie E., Kansas City, Missouri
Order an App
"We get an appetizer everyone can share right away. Chips and salsa is a great choice. The less waiting we have to do, the better." -- Sue D., Ames, Iowa
More from CafeMom: 5 Ways to Double Your Meals When Eating Out as a Family
Bring Travel Board Games
"I have one kid who's happy to sit and color and one who needs something more active to do. I've found that playing a game with him works well. We bring a small set of dominoes or our Uno cards with us, and that does the trick of keeping him at the table and not making a huge mess while we wait for food." -- Tara A., Maui, Hawaii
"I love a buffet for dining out with kids. Not only do they get to actually walk around a little, but being able to see and pick their own food gives them a sense of control and helps me not waste money on food they won't eat. Breakfast buffets are a personal favorite, as I've never had a kid who can resist bacon and waffles." -- Pamela R., Salinas, California
Do the Waiting for Them
"We wanted to go to a new restaurant that had long wait times to be seated. I know my kids can't handle having to wait 45 minutes just to get seated. So I went first and put our name in for the table. While I waited (blissfully alone!), I got to read my book. When our table was ready, I texted my husband and he brought the kids. By the time they got there, our apps and drinks were already out. I was in such a relaxed mood from having an hour to myself that it made dinner chill and fun." -- Amy Jo., Tucson, Arizona
Dine Al Fresco
"Whenever possible, eat outside. The fresh air seems to help my kids not be so squirrelly. Also, there is more to look at and less stress about spilling." -- Beth D., Saint Paul, Minnesota
More from CafeMom: Restaurants Are Banning Little Kids & as a Mom of 2, I Get It
Try to Outsmart Them
"We play restaurant-friendly games like 'I Spy' and one where everyone closes their eyes, I take one thing off the table, and the kids have to try to guess what it was. Just being really interactive with them helps." -- Norah J., Austin, Texas
Bring Out Fresh Toys
"I have a gallon-sized bag of toys that I ONLY bring out at restaurants, so that keeps them 'fresh' for the kids. Things like Silly Putty and some superhero toys get me at least 10 minutes of good behavior." -- Michelle J., Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Feed Them First (Really!)
"This sounds crazy, but it works! We feed the kids dinner at home and then go out to eat. My husband and I get entrées and the kids get dessert. The prospect that dessert is coming soon usually keeps them in check, and they both behave better if they aren't famished. It also makes it cheaper to eat out with my somewhat picky eaters." -- Sarah F., Phoenix, Arizona
Get the Booth
"Always, always, always ask for a booth! Wiggly kids can move around more in a booth and if they get tired, they can lie down. It also helps with containment -- kids go on the inside, adults on the outside, always!" -- Marie D., Grand Rapids, Michigan
My kids are still not ready for fine dining, but with these tips and a sense of patience, I'm feeling good about our prospects for eating out again. Bring on the appetizers!