Photo: Zinkevych (iStock)

The oldest millennials were born in 1981, putting them solidly in thirtysomething status. So although the public perception of millennials is that of entitled youngn’s, some millennials are now parents themselves. This is creating an as-yet underserved market for restaurants, as Nation’s Restaurant News points out today in the following article: “How to win over Millennials? Cater to their kids.” The Pew Research Center points out that a million millennials give birth every year.

NRN talks to a few restaurants veering from traditional chain fare to offer specially crafted menus for young kids and their young parents, creating a draw for both. They find it key to set themselves apart from the laminated-menu crowd: “What is it about this experience that’s really appealing to families?” one restaurant consultant opines to NRN. “It can’t just be that we have the crispier chicken tenders.”

So, what should these new parents look for during meals out with small people? My kids are now old enough that as long as I can find a restaurant with some retro video games or a shuffleboard set, I’m good to go through at least a couple of craft beers. Granted, I’m now living the dream, at least until they stop talking to me in a year or so when they become surly teens. But although those early years of eight or 10 years ago sometimes seem like a blur, a few toddler restaurant truths still come to mind. First of all:

Don’t be afraid to go out to eat with kids

I had twins, which meant double trouble to the restaurant world: double bibs, double high chairs, double pain-in-the-ass for whatever server was unlucky enough to be saddled with our table. Often my husband wanted to stay home out of sheer embarrassment. But to me, our dinners out were always totally worth it. One meal out meant not only one meal that I didn’t have to prepare, but one meal I didn’t have to clean up after. Coming home to a pristine kitchen was well worth the price of the dinner bill for me. But how to make that meal more palatable for everyone involved?

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Disposable tablecloths are your friend

I can tell you exactly what restaurants in my neighborhood have paper tablecloths, and they are the absolute best. You may have to BYOC (Bring Your Own Crayons), but paper allows for creative engagement between both kids and parents. We favored a game wherein one of the kids would draw a long line, and my husband or I (probably him, he’s a much better artist than I am) would have to draw a complete picture building off that one line. Nowadays, we use the paper tablecloth for hangman games during long waits for food. Also a godsend: Disposable plastic tablecloths that stick right onto the table. The only downside is you don’t get to draw on ‘em.

Time is of the essence

Takeout editor Kevin Pang, who has a toddler, reminds me that kids are apt to melt down at any moment, to the combined horror of your server and all your fellow diners. So don’t mess around. A lot of places bring the kids’ food out first, just in an attempt to engage them early. How fast to eat is up to you, but remember that clock/tantrum bomb is ticking away, so find a restaurant where you can get in and out within, say, 45 minutes.

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Pack an activities tote

If you’re smart, you’ll already have some distractions stashed in your diaper bag (fact: I still probably have at least two Hot Wheels on my person at any time). But I once went on a mom-daughter date with a friend who had a special tote bag just for the occasion: coloring books, Shopkins, board books, even a few building blocks. The girls were totally entranced and we each got to have a second glass of wine.

Don’t rely just on screens to distract the kids

I see so many parents out with their kids who are watching Mickey Mouse Clubhouse or similar on an iPad. I know that probably keeps the tantrums down to a minimum (although believe me, even the TMBG-penned theme song is annoying to the rest of us), but I think it’s a missed opportunity. It also bolsters this idea of screen as crutch that I am fighting tooth and nail now that my kids are in middle school. Going out to eat as a family gives you guys the opportunity to interact without being distracted by the dishwasher or laundry: Take advantage! Or at least, draw a line on a paper tablecloth.

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Don’t be afraid of the laminated menu

Look, I’m sure that Red Robin is not number one on your list of favorite dining options. But it has kid sides like mandarin oranges and broccoli, unlike that craft beer/burger place that just offers nuggets and fries. A lot of those chain restaurants realize that catering to families is a great marketing theme and offer next-level kids menus with distracting word searches and non-deep-fried things—and they usually have a full bar as well.