We started taking our kids to restaurants very early in their lives. I think Alfs was just a couple of weeks old when we decided to try a family-friendly pasta place down the road. He slept through the entire experience. I think the next attempt was not as quiet, but we figured out a strategy and kept trying. Over the years, we've had to adjust that strategy as kids get older and more arrive.
Choose your location carefully
When choosing a restaurant for family dining, think family-friendly, but think beyond it, too. While many restaurants are very family friendly and advertise as such, others are just as family friendly, but are quieter about it. This way they can give appropriate attention to the families that do come in while still taking care of clientele that arrives without children. Ask for recommendations from friends about restaurants at which they have had good experiences. If you have a good experience, tell a friend.
One of my favorite restaurant experiences with kids was at a fairly high-end restaurant while we were on vacation. It was attached to the hotel and we were tired, so we figured we'd give it a chance and leave with take out bags if need be. The staff there was the kindest and most interactive with our son and that made all the difference - for him and us. Clearly the leadership at the restaurant had coached the service staff on ways to keep everyone happy. And everyone was happy! The servers were tipped well, too.
That said, don't try to take your kids where children really would not be welcome. If you are in doubt at all, call ahead and ask. And if you are still in doubt, think about another location.
Think about timing
Timing, as we moms know, can be everything - and can be very tricky. You need to get seated and something in front of the kids before they are too cranky with hunger, but you don't necessarily want to be too early. If you have a hankering for the burgers at the joint down the road, check your watch. Will you be able to get everyone fed while you are still in the good mood window? Yes? Then go for it. No? Stay home or order take out for yourselves after the kids are in bed. Maybe? I'd probably lean toward no, but that's me.
Have a bag of tricks
No matter the age of your kids, boredom while waiting for food happens. Like most moms I know, I have my tricks for keeping the kids occupied.
While many restaurants provide crayons and paper for kids, some don't. Especially when the kids were smaller, I kept certain items at the ready for meals out: a baggie or crayons, a small sketchpad, a couple of books and a matchbook car or two. Even now, I tend to keep a pack of cards in my purse for just such occasions. Remember travel games in these situations, too: play "I Spy" or variations on "20 Questions." Before you know it, the food will be in front of you.
Stay positive if you encounter a grumpy diner
Every once in a while, in spite of taking all these things into consideration and the kids being well-behaved, we'll encounter another grumpy diner. These are people for whom your kids can do no right, no matter how quiet or still. There is nothing you can do about that person. Nothing. Not one thing. No number of apologies will make any infraction - perceived or real - better. In these situations, it's all about smoothing things over as best you can. Try to stay positive with your kids: reinforce the good choices they do make. Apologize as appropriate, of course, but maybe you just need to get through the meal quickly and move on. And try not to take it too personally; it's likely that any person with a child would have received the same treatment.
Unless the service is abhorrent, tip well. The wait staff usually does have to make extra efforts for tables with children and the tip needs to reflect that.
When all else fails
Sometimes, despite the best of efforts and intentions, you can tell that a situation is just not going to work. For moments like that we do what we call a "hybrid." We just try to make it through the starter portion of our meal and ask the server to put our entrees in take out containers.
Dining out as a family can be a challenge, but it can also be lots of fun. And the more you get kids used to going out, the easier it will be to go out for a meal. A special treat becomes that much more special because it's that much more fun.