Tired of fast food on paper plates? Here’s how to eat in a snazzy restaurant with your children, without an embarrassing meltdown (by them or you!). 

By Marisa Cohen
Updated November 07, 2017

When a restaurant in Florida recently outraged some local parents by declaring “no children” in bold letters on the front door, we nodded in sympathy—with both sides. On the one hand, if you’re at a fancy eatery on a date, out with friends, or simply hoping to grab a beer and a pizza in peace, a cranky toddler at the next table can ruin your night. But if you’re a parent who’s desperate to go out for a nice meal, and the babysitter canceled—or you’re simply trying to teach your kids there’s more to life than chicken fingers and Happy Meals—being barred from a restaurant because you have little ones seems a bit unfair.

To help keep the peace, we rounded up the best strategies from parents who routinely take their kids to restaurants that have waiters and wine lists rather than drive-up windows and juice boxes.

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Do a Dress Rehearsal.

“I think a lot of kids behave inappropriately in a restaurant because they haven’t been taught what’s expected,” says Debra Steppel, a mom of two in Reston, Virginia, who did practice runs with her kids before they ventured out. “Put out cloth napkins, multiple forks, knives, and spoons, and explain every step: how to butter bread, how to eat salad, how to order their meal, and what is appropriate behavior.” Treat it like a game—if they learn all the rules and behave appropriately at the restaurant, there will be reward for them the next day.

Scout Out the Menu Online.

Of course it’s torture for a child to sit through a long meal if there’s nothing he’ll eat, so check out the menu online together and make a plan (hint: you can create an entire kid-friendly meal from appetizers and side dishes, like soup, dumplings, and mashed potatoes). You can also call ahead and ask if the chef will prepare a simple pasta dish—after all, chefs have kids, too! Also key: Ask the hostess for a bread basket as soon as you sit down.

Be an Early Bird.

Take the earliest reservation you can get—even if that means eating dinner just a few hours after lunch, advises Caryn Young, a mom of one in New York City, who dines out frequently with her son at 5:30 p.m. Not only will you avoid the date-night crowd, but your child will be less likely to be tired (the main engine for crankiness), and will get home well in advance of bedtime.

Location, Location, Location.

Many restaurants have outdoor seating, party rooms, or secluded areas where you can keep a bit of a distance from any couples who want to enjoy an adults-only atmosphere. A good hostess will find you the most family-friendly spot in the room, but it doesn’t hurt to ask when you make your rez.

Stick to a Smart Seating Plan.

“Sit siblings away from each other,” advises Kathleen Reynolds, a mom of one in the Bronx who worked for many years as a nanny. “It gives them a break from each other, and it also gives them a chance to engage in conversation with adults, which has always been my daughter’s favorite part of dining out.” In fact, if you talk to your kids instead of solely to the other adults at the table, they might not even beg for your iPhone.

Keep Them Creatively Entertained.

Speaking of iPhones and tablets, keep them on hand for emergencies (if you get stuck with sloooow service, for example), but there are many ways to keep the kids occupied before pulling out the electronics. I Spy, Tic Tac Toe, and Mad Libs can buy you time until the food arrives. Having your little one fill a purse or backpack with favorite toys and books is a great idea, as well as taking walks around the restaurant to visit the bathroom or look at the fancy decor, advises Amy Miller, a mom of three in Minneapolis.

Strategize the Food Timing.

Resist the urge to ask the waiter to bring your child's entree as soon as it's ready. "All that does is rush the little one through his meal, so it feels even more endless when he has to wait for yours to arrive, and for you to eat," points out Melanie Mannarino, a mom of one in Springfield, New Jersey. Instead, order some appetizers or snacks for the table to share to keep little bellies happy while you wait for your main courses.

If All Else Fails, Try Brunch.

Before you graduate to dinner, let the kids practice their best restaurant behavior at an elegant brunch. “They’re not as tired and there’s less chance of a meltdown,” explains Sherri Stuebing, a mom of two in Kitchener, Ontario. Besides, with pancakes, scrambled eggs, French toast, and crepes on the menu, brunch is the meal most likely to make happy foodies out of your kiddies.

If All Else Really Fails, Beat a Hasty Retreat.

Despite your best efforts and preparations, your kids might just be done with this whole charade before the entrees even arrive. In that case, have one adult take the kid out for a walk around the block while the other pays the bill and gets the food wrapped up to go. You can reheat it at home with a glass of wine and then try again next year.