Dining Out With Children Who Have Special Needs

Most families eat at restaurants or get take out 2-3 times per week. Although eating out may seem routine for some families, when you have children with special needs this process can become incredibly complicated. Most families of children with special needs I speak to often feel locked in their homes and extremely isolated. After all, leaving a safe environment where you can control the type of chicken nugget being served can seem like a daunting task, but nonetheless an important one.

Even worse, schools have recently limited their community outings because of COVID-19, making it even more important for families to help teach their children skills for being out in the community.

So, I wanted to offer a few tips, tricks, and suggestions to help you navigate eating out at restaurants without losing your sanity or temper.

Take It Slow with Baby Steps:

Careful planning goes a long way in having an enjoyable meal out. Start small by selecting a restaurant that provides meals fairly quickly. Currently, with fast-casual restaurants popping up left and right, these should not be too hard to find. Once you’ve practiced at some fast casual restaurants try a more family-friendly sit-down restaurant such as a diner, burger chain, or pizzeria. Eventually you may be able to work up to a fancier restaurant or be able to go out to meals with larger groups.

Timing is everything:

Plan to go at off-peak hours or call ahead to make a reservation. This will help avoid any down time that might leave your child frustrated or bored. Going out to dinner on a Saturday night to the trendiest new restaurant may not be the best choice since waiting 30+ minutes will lead to hangry children and irritated adults.

Location, Location, Location:

Ask if it’s possible to have a booth or be seated in a quiet space in the restaurant away from the kitchen and front door. Servers, hostesses, and guests frequently congregate by these areas which make a potentially dangerous situation for a wiggly child who leaves their seat.

Quick Tip: Booths are great because they allow the parent to sit on the outside blocking the child in so they don’t run away from the table.  

Decide Ahead of Time:

Review the menu and expectations with your children a head of time. Many restaurants have their menus available online. Creating a timeline with your child may be helpful too. For example, explain that “first we will sit down, then we will tell a waiter what we want to eat…” This helps your child know what to expect.

Dinner And a Show:

Bring some things to keep your kiddo entertained. In my house, we pack a small book bag with some Play-Doh, crayons, or water-wows to take with us just in case we have a long wait for our food. If you have more than one child with you, it’d be best to have a second adult with you, if possible, so you can go for a walk with your child or to give them a sensory break in the car.

Your Waiter Is Your Friend:

Let your server know your needs. If your child only has a limited attention span, ask if you can order your meals when they ask for your drink order. You may also want to ask your server to bring everything out at once or to bring your child’s dish out first if possible.

When you order your food, be specific if your child is picky. If your child rejects anything green, ask them if they garnish their food and if they could leave it off or to put the vegetables in a separate dish if your child does not like their food to touch. Think about the cook times of foods too; ordering a well-done steak will delay the meal for everyone.

Don’t Be Adventurous:

Order your child food they are most likely to enjoy. Now is not the time to be expanding their food repertoire if they are picky eaters. You can present new food, but try to have a preferred meal ordered so that your child has a pleasant experience.

Safety First:

Ask the server to place all hot plates in front of an adult to block your child from getting burned if the plate was under a heat lamp.

The Great Escape:

When it’s time to leave, your child is probably at their limit and may have a hard time waiting for the check if they think it’s time to leave. To expedite the process, I tend to ask for the check and boxes to be brought over once I get my meals so that I can pay for everything as soon as possible and leave if things take a turn for the worst.

Quick Tip: Cash sometimes makes the payment process easier since you do not have to wait for your server to return with your credit card.


Remember, going out to a restaurant is a skill that needs to be practiced. It may take a few trials and errors to find an ideal restaurant to take your family that has the right type of shell macaroni and cheese, a great atmosphere, or understanding servers that leads to an enjoyable experience for the whole family.


Dr. Jen is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist, mother of 3, and a former waitress. If you’d like more support or would like to learn more about child therapy in Bucks County, please reach out! We’d love to chat.  Contact us today for help navigating difficult situations.