Going out to eat in a restaurant with kids can be a fun family activity.
Or, it can be the stuff that nightmares are made of!
Picking the right restaurant can be the difference between having a fun family outing and spending an hour nagging at your kids, before hurriedly paying the bill and leaving without dessert.
Sitting around a table in an adult-oriented restaurant with limited entertainment can be a real challenge for kids. Those who are too young to express their dissatisfaction with words are likely to resort to yelling, crying and leaving the table.
That’s why it’s so important for parents to invest some time into finding the most kid-friendly restaurants in their area.
But what should you look out for when choosing a family-friendly restaurant? This guide to choosing the best, most kid-friendly restaurants might help.
Kid and family-friendly restaurant usually have:
- Kids’ menus with lots of choices
- Space for strollers and wandering children
- High chairs and booster seats, plus plastic cups and other things kids need to eat
- Friendly service and a willingness to adapt menu items and arrangements for children
- Fair prices on kids meals that, frankly, might not even get eaten!
Let’s take a closer look at all of these, plus some other family-friendly ideas to help you scout the right restaurant for your family’s next outing.
(And for restauranteurs and owners, here are some good ideas from a parent’s perspective on how to make your restaurant attractive and appealing to families.)
Having a dedicated kids’ menu is the first thing to look for when choosing a restaurant for your family.
While it’s true that kids might be happy to dine on appetizers, sides and bits from their parents’ plates, the inclusion of a kids’ menu is about much more than just the food.
Having a decent kids’ menu shows that the restaurant cares about children and is welcoming towards families.
Choice – How many items are on the kids menu?
Having just three different things, all served with fries, suggests that children aren’t a priority for the establishment, which may become apparent in other ways if you choose to eat there.
Mix and match – Menus with a choice of mains and sides that kids can mix and match are ideal.
While some restaurants would serve mac and cheese with a standard side of garlic bread, the best restaurants for kids recognize that your three-year-old (or you!) might prefer a healthier side, like a chopped banana
Kids are pickier and need more options for what comes with their meal, and what doesn’t.
Pictures – Letting your child choose their own meals makes it much more likely that they’ll actually eat the food once it arrives. Colorful menus with photos is a great way to get little ones involved in the experience.
Catering for special diets – Children are just as likely to be dairy-free, gluten-free or vegetarian as adults.
For parents of kids with allergies, a menu with options is certainly welcomed, but it’s always a good idea to call ahead to check what’s available.
Healthiness – Kids’ menus are notorious for featuring hot dogs, burgers and fries.
This might be okay for a treat, but what about on vacation if you’re dining out every week? Look out for healthy-ish options like grilled chicken and pasta.
Portion size – A two-year-old and a ten-year-old will have very different appetites. To avoid wasting food or not having enough, look for menus that offer a choice of larger and smaller portion sizes.
Most restaurants will publish their menus and children’s menus online, so search for the restaurant’s website and be sure to check out the kids’ menus before you book.
When it comes to restaurants, space is important for families with kids.
Restaurants with booths are ideal, as they offer more privacy and kids are less likely to escape from their seats.
Here are a few more things to look out for — look for pictures of a restaurant online to see if you can spot these:
Space for a stroller – If you need a bit of extra space for a stroller or a car seat you should let the restaurant know when you book.
Large tables – The best wait staff will sit a family of four on a table for six to make sure that they have enough room for the kids to play without knocking over glasses.
Space between tables – Children aren’t aware of the volume of their own voices, but if the next table is only a few inches away, you can be sure that both the parents and the other diners will be.
Safety – Candles, pot plants and power outlets are just some of the hazards that curious toddlers might want to stick their hands into.
Kid-friendly restaurants will have thought of this and made the necessary adjustments.
Play area – Restaurant play areas can vary from a box of old toys in the corner to indoor soft play areas and outdoor jungle gyms. But anything is better than nothing!
One of my favorite local spots has a box full of kids books that little ones can grab to stay entertained at the table.
Cleanliness – This is important for any restaurant, but with kids that touch the floor, the underside of the table and then their mouths, it’s even more vital that a restaurant practices good hygiene.
Outdoor space – Outdoor dining is great for kids, but you’ll want to make sure that it’s safe and away from any traffic.
A gated-in patio is ideal to keep kids from running off.
When choosing a restaurant, take a look at photos of the restaurants on their website and on review sites. Do the tables look large and well-spaced? Does the play area look safe and well-maintained?
Facilities & Amenities
Restaurants vary in what they provide for kids.
While you can bring your own crayons, booster seats and kids’ cups if needed, if the restaurant offers these it will make your life a heck of a lot easier.
High chairs – This is a basic requirement for any child-friendly restaurant. You’ll want to make sure that the high chair you’re offered is both clean and secure before you sit your baby in it.
Booster seats – For kids who are too big for a high chair, a booster seat is a great way for kids to reach the table and it also makes them feel really important to be higher up than usual.
(PS – Here’s the difference between a high chair vs a booster seat.)
Plastic cups – Giving a young child a high-ball glass is a recipe for disaster. The best family restaurants offer kids cups and straws.
Bonus points if the cups have fun characters and designs on them, or if they kids can keep them and reuse them at home. But even a simple throwaway kid-friendly cup will do.
Kid-sized cutlery – While it’s possible for any kid to eat with a regular fork, a smaller one will be much easier to manage and reduce the need for kids to use their fingers.
Baby changing facilities – If you’ve ever changed your baby on your lap or on the floor of a restroom you’ll know that baby changing facilities are a must for any family dining establishment
Crayons and coloring paper – Kids love place settings that they can color in. My daughter constantly asks to go back to this one restaurant near us because they had great coloring pages, even though the food was forgettable.
As these aren’t always provided, it’s always a good idea for parents to carry a few crayons and some paper as a backup.
It’s not always possible to know what facilities a restaurant will offer for kids by looking online. Be sure to ask whether things like crayons and kid-friendly cups are provided. As well as knowing what you should pack, asking these questions also lets the restaurant staff know what customers care about.
Great service is one of the most important things when eating out.
Oftentimes, servers are young and don’t have kids themselves. The best family-friendly restaurants will train their staff on the best ways to interact with children.
Attitude to kids – Kids are customers too, so you should expect that restaurant staff will be welcoming and respectful towards them. The best servers will treat kids like young adults by being polite and talking directly to them when taking their order.
Adaptability – Whether it’s a glass of milk with a straw or a side of grated cheese, kids like to order off-menu. The best kid-friendly restaurants will welcome this and not charge silly supplements for the privilege.
Bringing kids’ meals out with the starters – A good server should offer to do this, but if they don’t, you can request it.
Kids take longer to eat and need a head start, plus if they have to wait too long they’re apt to get bored and act up.
Not bringing food out too hot – Nobody wants to spend the first five minutes of their meal blowing on a bowl of red hot Spahetti-Os. Yet this is one area that restaurants often go wrong.
Timeliness – Families with young kids don’t generally want their meals to last for hours. If service seems slow, you might want to order the bill at the same time as the desserts.
Good service is always important, but when you’re eating out as a family, it becomes even more so.
When searching for somewhere to eat, you’ll want to steer clear of anywhere that has poor reviews for customer service.
Eating out with kids can be much more expensive than a meal for two, but it doesn’t have to be if you’re savvy with which restaurants you choose.
Kids’ food – Kids portions are smaller and should be priced accordingly. Compare the prices of kids’ meals to the adult meals, they should be less than half the price.
Meal deals – Do kids’ price include a drink and a dessert?
While this can seem like good value, if your child only wants to drink water and share some of your pie, three-course kids’ meal deals are a false economy.
Special offers – Restaurants that offer ‘Kids Eat Free’ deals are always popular with parents.
These may only be on offer at certain times, so if the deal applies between 4 pm and 6 pm, make sure that you book your table at the right time to take advantage.
How to find the best kid-friendly restaurants
Now you know what makes a great family-friendly restaurant. Here’s where to look to find them…
Online review sites
Yelp – Yelp has a check box for ‘Good for children’ which will show only the restaurants that are. You can click through to restaurant websites to see the menus.
OpenTable – Yelp has a huge number of search filters. Hidden amongst them you might find options for ‘Kid-Friendly’, ‘Families’ or ‘Family Style’ with no explanation of the difference between these categories. Check them all to see the most results.
Tripadvisor – Under ‘Good for’ you can filter your search to ‘Kids’ or ‘Families with children’.
However, the best feature of Tripadvisor is that you can filter the reviews for any particular restaurant by your chosen keyword. Use ‘child’ as a catchall term that includes ‘children’ and ‘child-friendly’ then repeat with ‘kid’.
On any review site or search engine, see if you can search reviews by keywords. Look for “kids”, “chidren” or “family.”
Friends – Ask your friends where their favorite place to eat with kids is. They can probably recommend somewhere that they’ve enjoyed.
Facebook groups – Most towns have Facebook groups associated with them. These are great places to ask other parents for recommendations about the best places to eat out locally.
When dining out with children, it’s wise to plan ahead by asking for recommendations and reading online reviews.
When you call ahead to book, use this opportunity to check what facilities and amenities are provided and make any special requests.
If you enjoy a great child-friendly meal, be sure to tip well and consider writing a review to help other parents find great places to eat too!
Before you go, check out some of my favorite guides for parents with young kids like:
- Games to play in the kitchen with kids
- Bibs vs burp cloths explained
- How to make your yard kid-friendly without grass
Hope this helps!