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July 02, 2008

Dining out with kids

Max's trademark "Big Smile"With a name like Foodmomiac, it should not surprise any of you to learn that my husband and I love eating out at restaurants. Before we had kids, we ate out a LOT. This included weekend breakfast (often both days) and dinners out both Friday and Saturday. When I was a restaurant reviewer in Ann Arbor, we were out more than that, and at one point, I remember thinking that eating out was a chore. Ha ha ha. I should have tried throwing two active kids into the mix. Now THAT's a chore!!

As I've written about elsewhere, my husband and I manage to sneak in a date nearly every Saturday. Friday nights, though, are reserved for family, and it is often quite challenging! My kids are now 6.5 and almost 3, and they definitely don't behave well all of the time. However, the following tips have certainly helped us enjoy our family nights out a bit more:

1. Go to a restaurant that doesn't require your kids to remain seated. Our favorite in Chicago is the Chicago Brauhaus. The polka band starts playing at 7pm on Fridays, and my kids are immediately drawn to the dance floor where they can shake and shimmy their hearts out. They occasionally return to the table for some more pretzel or liver dumpling soup (seriously - it's their favorite), but they spend most of their time dancing.
2. Go to a restaurant that is close to home. Living in Roscoe Village, we are lucky enough to have a bunch of options available to us, and I feel very lucky! Eliminating the car ride from the dining out equation saves us both time and stress. Additionally, if one of us has to take one of the kids home early (if there is a major meltdown), we can easily do so.
3. Don't rely totally on the kids' menu. Kids menus can get VERY tedious, and they usually do nothing to encourage adventurous eating. We often turn to the appetizer menu instead. At Southport Lanes, for example, Dylan always orders the Buffalo wings (mild) and Max frequently gets a bowl of chili.
4. LIKE kids' menus? Choose a restaurant with a good one! In Chicago, Harmony Grill's is my favorite, followed closely by Kitsch'n.
5. Visit the dollar store before you head out to eat! A few months ago, I went to our local dollar store and stocked up on cheap stickers, coloring books, crayons and markers. I created a little kit for each kid and they can only use it at restaurants.
6. Think carefully about food timing. Often, restaurants rush to bring out the kids' meals first. This seems like a good idea, but then you are left with kids who have eaten and are already bored when you're just starting in on your entree. We only get the kids their meals first if we know they'll be having dessert. That way, they can focus on their ice cream while we focus on our meal. However, if dessert is not a definite, consider entertaining your kids with something other than food at the beginning of the meal and then eating all together.
7. I'm hesitant to share my final tip, but here goes: chain restaurants are GREAT for kids. This is a really good tip when you're traveling and can't find anything but a giant national chain. The food might be mediocre, but you'll be sure to find lots of kids activities and food options.

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