Travel: How to Dine Out on Vacation and Stay Sane

traveltips for traveling with children

I am on the heels of a whirlwind road trip with my two little ones, ages nine and seven. Since school resumes three weeks from today, I’m squeezing in last minute travel to see family we don’t see often enough during the year. If you are like me who plans for a last minute travel escapade, you may visit sites like and see which travel destination you and your family will enjoy.

At first, my kids were dreading the car ride and extra hours, but I managed to get them excited by adding some random stops along the way. Yesterday, it was South of the Border, commonly known as “America’s Favorite Highway Oasis.” Next week, it’s the UFO Welcome Center in Bowman, South Carolina. You can’t make this stuff up!

Dining out along the way and while we’re on vacation is difficult and often very stressful. Kids aren't on their regular schedules, sleep patterns are interrupted, and everyone is more mentally exhausted.

How to Dine Out on Vacation and Stay Sane

Here are five tips to help you and your family when dining out while on vacation. Feel free to add any of your tricks below; I’m always on the lookout for helpful hints.

1. Look for Kid-Friendly Restaurants

Knock fast food all you want, but restaurants that have a built-in play area are number one on my list when my kids need an energy release. Tack on an extra 30 minutes to your stop to let them burn some calories and stretch their legs. There are many restaurants incorporating play areas into dining out experiences. Do you homework before you hit the road. Worst-case scenario: a restaurant with a grassy area for a quick game of chase or catch works wonders.

2. Activity Bag Exclusively for Restaurants

All kids love something new and special. Create an activity bag for each child with stickers, pocket-sized games, stamps, and Legos designed for engagement solely while they are in the “waiting” period at a restaurant. An extra 15 minutes is relaxing for you and gives your child something to look forward to when they go to a restaurant. Waiting 15 minutes for food to arrive can seem like an eternity when you’re three (and for the parent with the three-year-old). Have an activity bag ready with your dollar store treasures!

3. Stick with What You Know

Unless you have adventurous eaters, use this refueling time as simply that: energy for the next round of activities in your day. It should certainly be filled with healthy choices and not added sugar, but it’s probably not the best time to introduce new flavors. Offer bites of your cuisine if it’s something you’d like your kids to try. Familiarity is comforting to children, including food choices. For little ones just beginning to read, recognizing menu items and being able to order themselves fosters independence. (I still have memories as a child of coleslaw being served at our hometown seafood restaurant. I love it now, but then it was tortuous!)

4. Give Up Control Over Every Meal

If your kids are older and have a favorite food, give each one a meal that’s their choice. As a Type A mom, I love to make decisions, but when we’re traveling, I will cave and have “kid choice” meals, whether it’s while we’re driving or once we’ve reached our destination. It gives them autonomy and eliminates the “I’m not in the mood for…” phrase. (Just wait, toddler parents!) Taking ownership in our family is fun. On an earlier trip this summer, my son wanted crawfish. This was his “kid choice” meal, so we researched before we got there and found crawfish (which is not easy in South Carolina, I might add).

5. Avoid Dining Out When Kids are Exhausted

When my kids are grumpy, 90% of the time it’s because they are tired or hungry (That sounds like me!). If you’ve spent a long summer day walking a theme park in the heat and humidity, chances are your kids’ temperament won’t be happy and cheerful while you wait for a table, wait to order, and wait for food. Yes, you have to eat. But respect their need for rest, relaxation, and nourishment. There’s a lot to be said about down time, and kids need it. Send someone to pick up a to-go order (and a bottle of wine) while the other party gets the kids bathed and settled or spends 45 minutes letting the kids swim at the hotel pool.

Remember to relax, enjoy the moments, and have fun! Your kids will know if you’re not!

 How do you handle meals while you are on vacation? Do you indulge more often in fast food?

Featured image courtesy of Flickr.

Jennifer Bilbro is a social media consultant and founder of, an online resource and mobile application designed to help families find economical and healthy children’s meals at local restaurants. Search more than 15,000 kids’ meal deals at restaurants nationwide at, or submit your restaurant info to [email protected].

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