But as a Mom, restaurants can be stressful, difficult events--especially on vacation. At home, restaurants are a rare and fun treat, often in celebration of a birthday or school success. They are easier to plan because I am familiar with local restaurants and I have more flexibility in picking a time that would be easiest on my family.
Vacations can be less predicable. It can take 10 minutes just to read through an unfamiliar menu and help each child pick both an entree and drink (amazingly most restaurants do not even list the drink choices, so I spend another 5 minutes asking the waitress if they have raspberry lemonade, chocolate milk, hot chocolate, Sunkist or another orange soda, root beer, apple juice, etc). Eating times can vary especially during road trips, at amusement parks, or changes in time schedules making some kids particularly hungry and consequently more impatient and grumpy.
Here are a few tips I have learned to help my children (and me) enjoy restaurants.
Kid Menus are insufficient
- If you can, plan. If you are going somewhere new like Vegas or Disneyland, check out your dining options ahead of time. Make sure you have read through several menus so you have a general idea where you would like to eat and what your children might enjoy. A large number of restaurants do not even offer children's menus (for example, Cheesecake Factory has no kid's menu despite having a multi-page menu with two pages of dessert choices alone).
- Order carefully. Even kids meals may not be the common recipe your child is expecting. I now refuse to order mac and cheese at restaurants because the recipe is often different from what my child envisioned. I also am careful of the sauce on spaghetti.
- Avoid at almost all costs having to wait more than a few minutes at a restaurant. This may mean adjusting meal times, eating at counter service or fast food restaurants, making reservations, or eating at a buffet. For the inevitable few minutes of wait time (either for a table or from the time an order is placed until the food arrives), play some games or use the crayons. Do not rely on the restaurant's children's menu to be entertaining. In my experience, the menu only targets one of my children's ages well usually leaving my others bored, often my preschooler is the least happy. A 3- or 4-year-old is generally too young to do a dot-to-dot, unscramble words, read the jokes, or do a word search. My current restaurant kit includes a few pennies, a very small stuffed animal, 2 matchbox cars, a reading book for my older elementary child, and an iPod touch with headphones. When I was a child, my mom's kit included a magnetic chess set, a travel size memory game, a strawberry shortcake doll (the size of an action figure), and a ziploc full of legos.
- Nutrition should not be completely forgotten, but may have to be very flexible, especially on the toughest vacation days. We insist our children have milk at two meals every day on vacation and eat some fruit. They are also not allowed to drink caffeinated soda. Everything else is pretty much negotiable, though I try to make sure we do not have an all junk food day (if we had fries at lunch, then bananas for snack; eggs and cold cereal with white milk for breakfast means corn dogs and cotton candy at dinner).
Timing, Bathrooms, and the Noise
- Children will finish eating faster than adults at sit down restaurants. So, adult either need to take their food to go halfway through the meal or give the children something to do during the rest of dinner time. Some restaurants offer ice cream scoops for $1 for the children to enjoy while adult are finishing their entrees. Otherwise, it is time to break out the games and crayons.
- Restaurant bathrooms need an article all to themselves. Be prepared for anything. Most bathrooms have diaper changing stations but I have had to change some babies on the seat of my car. Most of my children have been deathly afraid of automatic flushing toilets, which usually can be fixed by placing some toilet paper over the sensor. My then six-year-old son once shouted that he was out of toilet paper in the men's room and needed help. Just remember, you will laugh about it one day.
- I prefer loud restaurants because the noise of my own children is less noticeable, especially if the baby is fussy (if the baby is actually crying, I take him out).
- Tricky as it may be, try to eat when your children are too hungry or sleepy (they won't behave as well) or when they are not hungry (then they get bored too easily). Plenty of snacks on hand can help delay a meal when necessary but over snacking may mean your child is full after a single glass of soda or milk.
Types of Restaurants
- Buffets can be a good option for some of the meals. Many motels offer a free buffet style continental breakfast. Buffets in general mean little to no wait and can be more economical (often children are free or more deeply discounted than a traditional kid's meal). Though I do not let my child abuse the buffet, it is not a big deal if he takes a bite and then does not want to eat something (I often only but a bite's worth on his plate until he tries it). That allows my children to try all sorts of new foods and have fun picking a little of this and a little of that. With my younger children, I leave them at the table with dad while I get a plate for them to share--some fruit, some entree, some sides. Trying to let them pick from a sea of choices may be overwhelming and time consuming. I especially use this trick at a Vegas style buffet. I brought back to the table a plate of pastries, a plate of hot carbs like pancakes, a plate of hot proteins like eggs and bacon, a tray of juices and milk, and then I got a few special requests as my children saw what other tables were eating.
- If you have young children, plan a few meals at places that have playgrounds. I have found for my children under 8, a playground can work wonders. I can sit and regroup. They can play until their hearts are content. My husband and I have occasionally gotten take-out to eat in the car or at the motel for ourselves if we rather not eat fast food and let the children enjoy themselves. Also, prepare your child to not expect a toy. Increasingly, I have found may restaurants with toys that were of no interest to my children or only had a very limited selection--making one child happy and the rest jealous that there wasn't a toy that interested them as well. After seeing tears of disappointment, I had to retain my children to see the slides as the treat and a toy as a very rare event. I also have bought dollar store type toys that were tailored to my child's interest and passed them out during long road trips as treats, even passing them out in the kid's meal. That seems to make everyone happier then buying whatever toy happens to come in the meal.
Restaurants should be fun
So plan a little from timing, to menus, to what you pack in your purse, and make sure to include a few restaurants as part of your family's vacation. It may just be what your child remembers most.