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The Parents’ Survival Guide to Dining Out With Kids

photo: Meanest Indian

Dining out with unruly toddlers can be stressful for parents, restaurant staff and patrons alike.

Sure, the youngsters could be great — many are — and behave like little Martha Stewarts or Carson Kressleys. But there’s also the distinct possibility that by the end of the meal, Junior is cranky, you’re frazzled, and the other diners are grumbling. Oh, and that pricey kids’ meal? It’s likely largely untouched, despite the copious amounts of ketchup poured next to the fries.

Don’t resign yourself to only dining at kid favorites like Applebee’s and Chuck E. Cheese’s. With a little patience, planning and creativity, you can keep everyone happy and well fed, and not spend a ton of money, too:

Dine early

Arriving right when the restaurant opens for dinner (around 5:30 p.m.) has its advantages. A leaner crowd gets you faster service for hungry little ones and ensures you are home before their bedtime, “If you have 45 minutes before they get nudgy, do you really want to spend 20 of those minutes waiting for a table?” says Leland Brandt, a co-author of “Baby Daze”. Plus, you’re less likely to run into adults out for romantic dates or important business dinners — events that may make them inclined to be less appreciative of kids seated nearby or running around.

Bring the right entertainment

To avoid boredom, family coach Barbilee Hemmings suggests packing a travel bag with a few special toys that the kids only have access to when you’re traveling. If you’d rather not bring stuff, try games like “I Spy” and “20 Questions.” One thing to avoid: handheld video games. “The noise is distracting to other customers,” says Bruce Claver, a parent of two who works in the hospitality industry.

Keep butts in seats…

“Running around the restaurant is not cute — it’s dangerous,” says Steve Dublanica, the waiter-turned-blogger behind “Waiter Rant” and author of “Keep the Change.” Servers will thank you from keeping kids out of their way while maneuvering the restaurant floor with hot plates, glassware and sharp utensils. 

…Unless you’re up too

Taking a walk between courses is a great way to keep kids entertained, especially if there’s a fish tank, open kitchen or outdoor area, says Billie Frank, a travel concierge in Santa Fe.

Share

Most restaurants are amenable to letting you split plates with your kids, or letting them split something, instead of ordering a separate meal that’ll be left largely untouched. “We typically order an entree with side items for our 5-year-old, but ask the waiter to double the meat item on that plate so the 1-year-old can share it,” says Felicia Pinkney, a Dallas mom of four. “The 5-year-old rarely eats all of her food, so she and the baby can share that meal for maybe $2 to $3 extra.”

Hunt for kid-friendly spots

On a more obvious level, that means kids’ menus and booster seats, and maybe some crayons or table games. But other touches help, too. “One of my sons favorite places is Olive Garden because they bring out breadsticks,” says Amanda Collins of Phoenix. While you’re at it, look for spots where kids eat free with a paying adult, she says. Check your local paper or sites like MyKidsEatFree.com.

Enlist your waiter as the bad cop

If the kids aren’t listening to you, ask your server to come over and request they calm down. The reprimand has more effect coming from a stranger, Dublanica says. 

Tip well

There’s no need to leave more than the standard 20% just because you brought kids — especially if they behave. But consider adding a few extra bucks if you put your server through the ringer, or the kids left a huge mess for the busboy to clean up, says Dublanica.

Frugal Foodie is a journalist based in New York City who spends her days writing about personal finance and obsessing about what she’ll have for dinner. Chat with her on Twitter through @MintFoodie.