Eating out can provide families with a much-needed break from the daily grind, but sometimes it can feel as though you’re just taking your parenting challenges out in public. Whether it be for a celebration, a change of scenery, or even just a desperate escape from the kitchen, dining out with little ones doesn’t always have to be a battle. Follow our tips to increase your chances of a fun family night out.
Make an informed choice
With most of the information we need now at our fingertips, it’s relatively easy to find a restaurant that suits your family. Most restaurants have their own website or Facebook page, which not only gives you access to quick information such as menus, specials and family-friendly provisions, but also customer feedback. Social media and review sites allow consumers to have a stronger voice more than ever before, and it’s worth taking the time to read through these comments to avoid disappointment.
While someone else’s bad experience doesn’t necessarily mean the same fate for you, the large number of reviews and specific comments make it a quick way to decide if you’re taking a risk or are in for some family enjoyment. Also be sure to contact the restaurant directly to enquire about high chairs, changing facilities, space for prams, kids’ menus and whatever else you may require, as another family’s needs may not necessarily reflect your own.
Play it safe
While playgrounds can seem like a parents’ dream for dining out, they can sometimes prove to be a nightmare. Often playgrounds are not in a position that allows parents to supervise their little ones from the table, making it difficult to see if they are making new friends or enjoying a mouthful of dirt as an appetiser.
This gets easier as they become more independent, but with a variety of ages these areas can quickly turn into a survival of the fittest. Fights can break out, bigger kids can unknowingly run over little ones, and the bottom of the slide can quickly resemble a freeway pile-up. To make it through one piece of garlic bread without becoming a jack-in-the-box as you deal with yet another miniature war cry, avoid restaurant playgrounds with limited visibility. Opt instead for places that have closer or smaller play areas, or playpens with books and toys, depending on the age of your children, and be sure to book a table in advance that’s within reach so you can relax without having to hover.
Bring your own entertainment
To keep young ones entertained at the table, be sure to plan the most practical and effective entertainment for the situation. The best choices will vary with age, but consider packing some old favourites as well as some new surprises – some restaurants will even have a small selection of toys or activities for the table. Whatever you choose, make sure it’s something that will engage them for a reasonable length of time, and be sure to take a range of options to help ward off boredom.
Plan ahead by downloading a new App for your phone or tablet that you know they will enjoy, or putting aside a new book or toy until you get to the restaurant, so it holds their interest for as long as possible. The best preparation is to pack a ‘going out to dinner’ back-pack with a variety of fun items for them.
For babies we suggest:
Cloth books, especially ones with different textures
Bubbles (just be sure to take a cloth too)
Plastic keys and wrist rattles
Soft toys, especially ones that have mirrors or make crinkly sounds
Photo album with family members and people they recognise inside
Stacking rings, especially ones that have lights and sound
Large connectable blocks, you only need 2 or 3
Toy cars or anything on wheels that are usable on a high chair tray
For toddlers and young kids:
Magnetic games and books
Sticker sheets and books
Colouring books and crayons
Felt scenes and games
Pop-up and activity books
Push-button carousel toys
iPad or tablet device (when they are able to hold it without dropping it!)
Remember to download Apps before you leave the house, to save money and waiting time. We’ve compiled a list of the best Apps for toddlers and pre-schoolers to help you on your way:
Petting Zoo by Christopher Niemann
Acclaimed children’s author and illustrator Christopher Niemann has created this simple but quirky interactive storybook. The animated animals are fascinating in themselves but tapping them brings funny results that kids will love.
Sound Touch – baby flash cards
Featuring animals, musical instruments, transport and more, this App provides colourful illustrations of a variety of familiar things for little ones. Whichever picture they tap on will bring up a matching full screen photo with the appropriate sound to provide interactive and familiar learning
Musical and interactive App featuring animals that help teach kids about emotions, actions and sounds. Children are asked to identify things such as animal types and sounds, which animal is winking or which one is wearing sunglasses!
The Very Hungry Caterpillar & Friends Stickerbook
An interactive virtual sticker book featuring the classic character from Eric Carle’s always-popular The Very Hungry Caterpillar book. Provides a variety of background scenes, fun sound effects and a wide range of highly interactive stickers that are simple to use.
A fun game of hide-and-seek inside the Duplo world with Giraffe, Rabbit and Teddy. Tap the blocks to move them and find your friends, then build a Duplo trophy! Kids will also love pouring out the virtual blocks with the realistic sound, and building their own creation.
Just like everything Sesame Street does, this App is highly engaging and educational. Elmo talks toddlers through each part of the App, encouraging them to choose letters and use the interactive letter tracer with their fingers, while providing them with activities for each letter including videos, colouring and movable balls.
Provides different categories such as ‘Up, up and away’ and ‘Safari’, each containing two short videos from Charley Bear episodes, with simple drag and drop shape games in between. A must for any Charley Bear fan, but still fun for everyone.
The happy teddy bear train driver will take kids on a ride through the alphabet in this colourful interactive animation, as they learn what letters look like and words that begin with each letter.
This colourful toddler-sized keyboard allows little ones to play their favourite nursery rhymes with keys that light up and stars that spin to get their attention. Of course, they can also make up their own tunes! Large interactive balls built into the keyboard spin around, change the keyboard colours and the songs.
Always a popular one, and the #1 ranked pre-schoolers game in the App Store, this App contains seven different fun and exciting educational games. The adorable monkey encourages players throughout the different games, teaching matching, recognition, counting skills and more, while rewarding players with interactive stickers and fun sounds.
Children can put together jigsaws with a variety of animals and scenery, as well as different levels of difficulty ranging from two to 16 pieces. A gentle voice over offers encouragement and is available in several different languages.
My Little Town: Toddler’s Seek & Find
Simple taps make just about everything in this beautiful little animated town come to life by sight and sound. Kids will love seeing what each animation does when they touch it, from the sun to the man walking his dog, and the musical teddies to the helicopter!
Allows kids to join the world’s most popular pig family on their holiday. Providing easy and engaging holiday-themed games and activities such as ‘At the airport’, ‘Swimming race’ and ‘Let’s go to the beach’, as well as a postcard sticker book and a music video, this will keep toddlers and pre-schoolers interested in all the fun.
Hunches in Bunches - Dr. Seuss
One of the many Dr Seuss Apps on the market, Hunches in Bunches brings another classic storybook to life. With large, colourful artwork, fun background audio and typical sing-song Seuss narration, this is a great way to encourage an interest in reading.
Children’s entertainer and CBeebies sensation Justin Fletcher engages kids in learning letters and phonics through videos, rhymes and interactive games. Beautifully illustrated and animated, children will love learning with Justin.
Minimise conflict to maximise enjoyment
Meal times can be a stressful experience for many parents of young kids. This doesn’t change when you’re dining out, and if anything it can become more stressful as you become acutely aware of your child’s uninhibited dining habits. The fact is, people around you aren’t going to really care how much mess your child is making with their food or if they’ve made a fort under your table, but as parents we can often feel like a spotlight is on us, along with an expectation that our kids have to behave perfectly in public.
For your own sanity, try to relax and be sure to pick your battles. The novelty of going out to a restaurant can be a great way to encourage kids to try new foods, but do you really want that potential disaster to overshadow an enjoyable family night out? Strike a balance by ordering their favourite food that you know they’re sure to eat happily, and consider ordering an appetiser or side dish that is new to them, or share something from your plate. This will help them to relax and not be under pressure, especially if they feel like they have a choice in what foods they try.
When it all goes south
Let’s face it, when it comes to being a parent, there are times when we can do everything right and the situation can still fall apart (sometimes taking us with it). A number of factors could contribute to this – tiredness, moodiness, anxiety, even being overexcited about a new place – and that’s just the kids! The key is being mentally and strategically prepared for this to happen.
Moving little ones onto your lap can help them feel calmer – or sometimes it could make them lash out. Taking them for a walk can be a good distraction – or it could make them want to run into the kitchen or behind the bar to explore. The point is, all kids are different and the best strategies will vary between situations or meltdowns. You may decide to take turns with your partner or another adult at eating your meals while the other holds the baby or walks outside with them. Either way, do what works for you and don’t let it discourage you from trying again at another time. Just like everything else with parenthood, some days are going to be harder than others.