When you have children, your approach to dining out undergoes a major shift. Before becoming a parent, you may have thought nothing of dropping $100 or more on a fancy dinner for two, complete with candlelight, wine, and elaborate dishes.
But when you start eating out with kids, your tastes shift toward eateries with booster seats and child-friendly menus. On the plus side, no one there complains if your kids make noise or decide to play hide-and-seek under the table. But their menus can be a bit unambitious, leaning heavily on chicken nuggets and spaghetti.
Fortunately, there are plenty of child-friendly chain restaurants across the country that aren’t adult-unfriendly. They offer menu options for both childlike and sophisticated palates, and some can even provide a glass of wine with your meal. And their prices won’t break the bank when you’ve got three or four mouths to feed.
Top Affordable Family Restaurant Chains
Several chains show up repeatedly in print and online lists ranking the best kid-friendly restaurants based on their menus, atmosphere, and service.
These eateries offer good menu options for the whole family, including those on special diets like vegetarian, vegan, low-carb, or gluten-free. They have locations across the country, and their prices won’t break the bank. And many of them provide extras for kids, like crayons and activity placemats.
The top picks made the list based on their menu choices and cost. The list doesn’t include fast-food and quick-service restaurants since most sources evaluate those separately. These aren’t places to grab a quick bite in the middle of a shopping excursion. They’re places to sit down and enjoy a leisurely meal with your family.
Pro tip: You can save money on your meal by purchasing a discounted gift card from Raise.com before heading to the restaurant.
1. Red Lobster
No other family-friendly restaurant gets more recommendations than Red Lobster. This seafood restaurant is among the top 10 out of 37 family restaurant chains on Ranker, a site where fans of just about anything can rate their favorites. It’s also recommended by Women’s Day, The Daily Meal, Cheapism, and Parents magazine.
Menu Selections for Adults
The menu at Red Lobster is all about seafood. Fish, shrimp, lobster, crab — you can get pretty much anything from the sea in generous portions. There are light and low-carb options like a Baja shrimp bowl for the diet-conscious and more indulgent fare like crab linguini Alfredo. There are also a few steak and chicken selections for non-seafood lovers.
Most of Red Lobster’s main courses come with a choice of two sides. There’s a wide assortment to choose from, including soups, salads, steamed or roasted veggies, rice, potatoes, and the restaurant’s celebrated Cheddar Bay Biscuits. Any vegetarians in your party can make a meal out of these sides, but there are no main dishes on the menu for them.
Red Lobster stresses that all its seafood is sustainably sourced. It deals only with suppliers who obey the laws and meet its labor and human rights standards. And unlike some seafood restaurants, Red Lobster never boils lobsters alive. On the environmental front, the restaurant is moving to eliminate plastic straws and reduce other single-use plastics that contribute to ocean waste.
Kids aren’t always fish lovers, but the kids menu at Red Lobster is the perfect way to convince reluctant eaters to try it. More than half the options are beginner-friendly seafood dishes, such as fried fish, popcorn shrimp, and a mini lobster tail. Salli Setta, a former Red Lobster executive interviewed by Parents, says most young diners opt for one of these choices.
But for kids who simply won’t touch fish, there are also more standard options like chicken fingers and macaroni and cheese. All child-size entrees come with one side dish.
Red Lobster isn’t as budget-friendly as some other family restaurants because of its focus on seafood, which is often pricier than meat. But there are several ways to save on your meal.
When dining with a group, you can get good value by choosing one of the restaurant’s family meal deals. These come with either a sampling of entrees or one family-size main dish, sides, and biscuits for four people to share. Or you can get separate meals but share a family-size soup, appetizer, or dessert.
Red Lobster also offers weekday specials. For instance, on Ultimate Endless Shrimp Monday, you get all-you-can-eat shrimp in four different styles for one flat price.
Another way to save is to sign up for My Red Lobster Rewards. You get 75 points when you sign up and another point for each dollar you spend at Red Lobster. When you reach 125 points, you can cash them in for a choice of three rewards. As a member, you’re also entitled to a reward on your birthday.
Lastly, sign up for Fresh Catch News to get Red Lobster coupons and special offers via email. The newsletter lets you know about upcoming events and specials and sends a special birthday offer each year.
2. Outback Steakhouse
The Australian-themed Outback Steakhouse is one of the top-rated family restaurants on Ranker, coming in at No. 2 out of 37 candidates. It also earns recommendations from Women’s Day and The Daily Meal, which praise its kid-friendly Joey Menu.
Menu Selections for Adults
Unsurprisingly, the menu at Outback Steakhouse centers on steak. Beef isn’t cheap, so Outback prices are on the high end for a family restaurant — around the same as Red Lobster’s or a bit higher. It’s comparable to other steakhouses, such as Longhorn Steakhouse and Texas Roadhouse, but a bit higher-end. All steaks come with a choice of two side dishes.
For those who aren’t steak lovers, the Outback menu includes chicken, ribs, seafood, grilled pork, burgers, and sandwiches. Outback doesn’t offer much for vegetarians and vegans, as even its soups and salads come with a topping of meat or cheese. Gluten-free diners are in luck, though: Outback offers gluten-free versions of most dishes on its menu.
Outback is also known for its appetizers. Offerings include chicken wings, coconut shrimp, cheese fries, and the famous Bloomin’ Onion with spicy sauce. To finish your meal, you can choose from several rich desserts, including cheesecake and a brownie ice cream sundae.
Outback’s Joey Menu is limited, but it offers all the usual choices kids are likely to ask for. In addition to child-size portions of sirloin and chicken, it includes such kid favorites as macaroni and cheese, chicken fingers, and a grilled cheese sandwich. Sides include plain steamed broccoli, fresh fruit, and fries.
Outback offers several combo meals for four or six people. These include sirloin, chicken, shrimp, or a combination of two of these plus three side dishes and garlic bread. The restaurant also has a varying array of specials.
Regular Outback visitors can enjoy bonuses through the Dine Rewards program. Each time you spend at least $20 at a participating restaurant, you get credit for a qualified visit. Make three qualified visits in a six-month period, and you get a coupon for 50% off your next meal (up to $20 max). But you must use it within 90 days.
Outback also offers discounts for seniors who are members of AARP. Just show your AARP member card to take 10% off your entire lunch or dinner check, excluding alcohol, tax, or tip, at any U.S. location. This offer does not apply to takeout orders. It also has a 10% discount for first responders, military service members, and veterans.
3. Red Robin
Few restaurants aim to please their younger patrons as much as Red Robin does. Restaurant patrons at Ranker rate this American grill as the fourth-best family restaurant in the U.S., and it’s also a top pick by Cheapism and The Daily Meal. Red Robin has delicious menu items for adults as well, but the kid foods and activities make it a standout.
Menu Selections for Adults
Red Robin specializes in burgers. There are literally dozens of kinds on the menu, from classics like the bacon cheeseburger to more unusual options topped with blue cheese, guacamole, or a fried egg.
But if burgers aren’t your thing, there are many other options, including grilled or fried chicken, fish, sandwiches, wraps, pizza, and salads. Red Robin fare costs more than you’d pay at most fast-food or quick-service restaurants, but the prices are pretty standard for a family restaurant.
More than most eateries, Red Robin goes out of its way to accommodate people on special diets. Its allergy-friendly menu helps you find meals without various ingredients, such as gluten, milk, and soy, and customize your meal to avoid them. The restaurant offers gluten-free buns and is happy to make accommodations such as veggie burgers, lettuce wraps, or healthier sides.
Speaking of side dishes, most of Red Robin’s main dishes come with unlimited refills of your choice of side. The basic choices are steak fries, chips, salad, and steamed broccoli, but you can get bottomless sweet potato fries, garlic-herb fries, or zucchini fries for a minimal extra charge.
Red Robin’s drinks — including soda, iced tea, and the chain’s signature flavored lemonades — are bottomless too. In addition to soft drinks, the chain offers beer, wine, and various cocktails for the adults. To satisfy your sweet tooth, there are milkshakes and several decadent desserts.
The kids menu at Red Robin includes such standards as burgers, pasta, pizza, and chicken fingers. All kids pasta options are bottomless, including the macaroni and cheese.
The chain has also partnered with Kids LiveWell to offer child-friendly healthy options like grilled chicken, pasta with tomato sauce, and fruit. And according to Susan Lintonsmith, a former Red Robin senior vice president who spoke with Parents magazine, kids actually order these healthy options. As of 2011, about 40% of child visitors to Red Robin passed up the fries in favor of a healthier side dish.
The fun for kids doesn’t stop with the menu. They also get an activity sheet with puzzles and games and a free balloon on the way out the door. The chain’s mascot, a bird named Red, also puts in occasional appearances. And according to Parents, some Red Robin locations even feature special child-size sinks in the restrooms.
Kids and adults alike can save at Red Robin by joining the Red Robin Royalty program. Its perks include:
- One free birthday burger available anytime during your birth month
- One free item — a burger, salad, sandwich, or main dish — for every nine you purchase
- A $20 discount if you visit five times in the first five weeks after joining
- Special offers and deals throughout the year
- Additional rewards for members of the U.S. military and teachers
Keep an eye out for additional limited-time promotions throughout the year.
Formerly known as the International House of Pancakes, IHOP still emphasizes pancakes and other breakfast fare and retains its family-friendly vibe. Ranker rated it the sixth-best family restaurant, and it earns recommendations from Women’s Day, Cheapism, and The Daily Meal.
Menu Selections for Adults
Despite its name change, IHOP’s menu continues to focus heavily on traditional breakfast foods. At any hour of the day, you can order waffles, French toast, or an omelet. Pancakes are still very popular too, from the traditional short stack to exotic offerings like Mexican tres leches pancakes and Swedish crepes.
If breakfast for dinner isn’t your style, IHOP also offers more traditional dinner options. You can choose from a wide array of burgers, sandwiches, and all-American main dishes like roast turkey or sirloin steak tips. Sides can be breakfast-centered, like hash browns, bacon, and toast, or more dinner-oriented, like French fries, onion rings, and salad.
The focus on breakfast foods makes IHOP a vegetarian-friendly place to eat. Vegans will have a harder time — there’s not much for them besides salad and a couple of side dishes. But people on gluten-free diets are in good shape, as many of IHOP’s pancake and burger selections come in gluten-friendly versions.
IHOP goes out of its way to keep the kids happy. One of the most cherished breakfasts on its children’s menu is the Funny Face pancake combo, a single chocolate chip pancake with a face drawn in whipped cream accompanied by one egg, one strip of bacon, and one sausage link.
Other kids’ meals include chicken and waffles, mac and cheese, a junior cheeseburger, and the ever-present chicken nuggets.
IHOP is a very budget-friendly choice, with low prices on nearly every menu item. However, for older adults who prefer a still lighter and cheaper option, there’s the 55-plus menu. It offers modest portions of several breakfast selections, sandwiches, and dinners, with correspondingly modest prices.
At certain locations, you can get special deals during IHoppy Hour. From 2pm to 10pm, these sites offer a $5 menu ($6 in some locations) that includes such items as a quick two-egg breakfast, a breakfast burrito, and a classic burger.
Another way to save is through the MyHop loyalty club. It gives you a free order of pancakes when you sign up, every year on your birthday, and every year on the anniversary of your signup date. You also receive special offers and news by email and an app that speeds up online ordering.
5. Olive Garden
When you think of Italian food with a friendly, homey atmosphere, you likely think of Olive Garden. Diners on Ranker place it in the top-five family-friendly restaurants, and Women’s Day and Cheapism both recommend it.
Menu Selections for Adults
When you go to Olive Garden, you know just what to expect: generous portions of uncomplicated Italian fare. Pasta dishes are a standout here, both as a main course and as an accompaniment to dishes like chicken Marsala, shrimp scampi, and eggplant Parmesan. Prices are typical for an Italian restaurant, between $12 and $20 for an entree.
A lot of Olive Garden dishes are fairly rich, dripping with cheese and heavy sauces. However, people on special diets can easily find a meal to fit their needs. For instance, the create-your-own-pasta dish with your choice of pasta, sauce, and topping offers gluten-free pasta and a vegan marinara sauce as options. Some locations also serve “zoodles” (zucchini noodles) primavera.
Even more than its main courses, Olive Garden is known for its side dishes. Most locations offer bottomless portions of several traditional Italian soups and the famous Olive Garden house salad. Every meal also comes with unlimited, fresh-baked garlic breadsticks.
Another nice perk for the adults in your group: Olive Garden offers both alcoholic and nonalcoholic beverages. Its selections include wine, beer, iced tea, lemonade, and soft drinks. You can also enjoy Italian-style coffees like espresso or cappuccino with your dessert.
Olive Garden’s special kids menu features Ollie and friends, five cartoon characters representing different foods. Ollie the Olive, Gina Grape, Bene Breadstick, Tonya Tomato, and Ricky Ravioli liven up a menu full of kid-friendly Italian dishes like pizza and pasta. Even the obligatory chicken fingers come with a side of pasta, giving them an Italian twist.
Children’s dinners generally come with one side dish and a glass of 1% milk. Side options are limited to broccoli, grapes, French fries, and spaghetti with tomato sauce.
Although Olive Garden’s prices aren’t especially low, you get a lot of food for your money thanks to the limitless portions of soup, salad, and breadsticks. You can even make a meal out of these items alone for a lower price than most dishes on the menu.
Olive Garden has an array of specials that change throughout the year. Olive Garden eClub members are the first to learn about these specials and receive additional offers. All guests can get a free dessert on their birthday accompanied by a chorus of “Happy Birthday” from the staff.
6. Cracker Barrel
The No. 1 family restaurant in the country, according to diners on Ranker, is Cracker Barrel. Professional reviewers in The Daily Meal, Women’s Day, and Cheapism also recommend it. With its combination of Southern-style comfort food, a homey feel, and modest prices, it’s an easy choice for kids and adults alike.
Menu Selections for Adults
The menu offerings at Cracker Barrel — cheeseburgers, country-fried steak, smoked ham, chicken and dumplings — definitely aren’t health food. Cracker Barrel also serves a hearty country-style breakfast all day. Eggs, bacon, sausage, pancakes, and biscuits are all staple items.
It’s a bit tricky to eat at Cracker Barrel if you’re on a special diet. Vegetarians can get by with one of the breakfast choices if they hold the meat. But the best option vegans have is to make a meal of the few side dishes that contain no meat or dairy. These include salads without the croutons, a plain baked potato, steamed broccoli, fried apples, and fresh seasonal fruit.
Health-conscious diners can look for the Tasty Alternative icon on the menu. It highlights items with less than 600 calories and 15 grams of fat. If you’re on a gluten-free diet, your best bet is to check Cracker Barrel’s allergen guide. It shows which menu items do and don’t contain gluten, soy, eggs, and other common allergens.
Along with its comfort food, Cracker Barrel is known for its budget-friendly prices. They’re roughly on par with IHOP and quite a bit cheaper than upscale family eateries like Red Lobster or Outback Steakhouse.
The children’s menu at Cracker Barrel is basically a scaled-down version of the adult menu. It includes smaller portions of Cracker Barrel classics, like pancakes, fried shrimp, and a veggie plate with just two sides. It also adds a couple of trusty kid-friendly favorites like macaroni and cheese.
The fun for kids at Cracker Barrel isn’t just about the food. In addition to their own menu, young diners receive coloring and activity booklets and even a game to play.
Before or after eating, both kids and parents can have fun browsing the attached general store. It offers an assortment of country-style foods to take home as well as clothing, decor, toys, games, books, music, and personal care products.
Unlike many other family restaurants, Cracker Barrel doesn’t offer discounts through a loyalty club or coupons. There are no discounts for seniors and no special senior menu. Fortunately, its prices are already low enough that you don’t really need them to feed a small family on a budget.
If you have a big group to feed, you can save by ordering a family meal to go. These feasts include a favorite main course, such as fried chicken, meatloaf, or an all-day breakfast. It comes with all the fixings, a choice of two side dishes, and a batch of biscuits. Each meal serves up to five people.
Chili’s serves up family favorites with a Southwestern flair. Ranker reviewers place it in the top 10 family restaurants. It also earns recommendations from Women’s Day, Cheapism, and The Daily Meal.
Menu Selections for Adults
Many of the meals on Chili’s menu echo those you’d find at Red Robin or Cracker Barrel, including burgers, ribs, steak, and fried chicken fingers. But there’s also a subtle emphasis on Tex-Mex cuisine with offerings like chili, fajitas, tacos, and quesadillas.
Unlike Cracker Barrel, Chili’s offers a broad selection of lighter fare. Examples include salads with grilled chicken or shrimp and the Guiltless Grill, a selection of six dinners with no more than 650 calories.
Chili’s isn’t ideal for vegetarians, especially vegans. It doesn’t offer meatless versions of its tacos, quesadillas, or chili. There’s a black bean fajita on the menu that’s meatless, but it comes with queso fresco — though you could ask to leave it off. Even the salads mostly come with chicken, shrimp, or Caesar dressing (which may contain egg, anchovy, and Parmesan).
People on gluten-free or low-carb diets will have a somewhat easier time. The menu includes plenty of salads and grilled meats without starchy sides, such as a sirloin steak with grilled avocado. There’s also a special gluten-friendly menu. A somewhat more elaborate fact sheet shows items free of other allergens.
Because Chili’s is also a bar, you can choose wine, beer, or a cocktail with your meal. Margaritas are a perennial favorite, with a different flavor on special each month. Alcohol-free selections include soda, iced tea, and lemonade.
Prices at Chili’s are middle-of-the-road. There are some pricier meals here, like steak and ribs, but the burgers, sandwiches, and burritos are much more budget-friendly.
Chili’s Pepper Pal kids’ menu doesn’t offer much in the way of Mexican food. Aside from a plain cheese quesadilla, it’s all meals for the unadventurous child palate, such as mini-hamburgers, chicken strips, pizza, and grilled cheese. There’s also a child-size version of Chili’s molten chocolate cake.
In addition, Chili’s shows its commitment to kids through charitable donations to St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital. Since 2002, it has raised more than $77 million for St. Jude’s through its Create-A-Pepper promotion. For one month each year, Chili’s guests can donate to St. Jude’s and color a picture of a chili pepper to show their support.
One of the best values on Chili’s menu is the 3 for $10 special. It includes a nonalcoholic beverage, appetizer, and main dish you choose from a limited menu for a fixed price of $10. Main dish selections include a bacon burger and margarita grilled chicken, and appetizer options include soup, salad, or chips and salsa.
You can also save by joining My Chili’s Rewards. All members get either chips and salsa or a nonalcoholic beverage of their choice each time they spend a minimum of $5 at Chili’s. To maintain this benefit, members must eat at Chili’s at least once every 60 days. Members also get a free dessert on their birthday, free Wi-Fi, and special offers like free kids meals, appetizers, and desserts.
When you’re on a family vacation and a delayed flight has you hunting frantically for dinner at 10pm, there’s just one place to go: Denny’s. Not only is it open 24/7, but its diner-style menu has something for everyone, even tired and cranky kids. Both Women’s Day and The Daily Meal recommend it, and it makes the top 15 in Ranker’s ratings.
Menu Selections for Adults
Like IHOP, Denny’s offers breakfast all day. No matter what time you roll in, you can order eggs and hash browns, an omelet, or any of numerous pancake selections.
However, Denny’s menu isn’t quite as heavily breakfast-focused as IHOP’s. About half of it is traditional diner fare: salads, sandwiches, burgers, and classic dinners such as pot roast and spaghetti. If you’re looking for healthier options, try a salad or the Fit Slam, an egg-white omelet with turkey bacon, an English muffin, and fruit.
Between the salads and breakfast dishes, vegetarians won’t go hungry at Denny’s. Vegans are likely to have trouble, though. Participating Denny’s offer a Beyond Burger, but it’s cooked on the same grill as the bacon, and you’ll have to leave off the cheese and dairy-based All-American sauce. Or you can make a meal from sides like the garden salad, rice, broccoli, and seasonal fruit. Gluten-free eaters will have an easier time, as the menu marks meals that meet those needs.
Denny’s kids menu is packed with fun and playful dishes children love. Beyond classics like chicken tenders and spaghetti, kids can enjoy mini-corn dogs, chocolate chip pancakes, or a kid-size portion of pasta Alfredo. There are junior versions of many desserts as well.
Denny’s also shows its commitment to kids through its partnership with No Kid Hungry, a nonprofit that fights childhood hunger. During its yearly fundraiser, Denny’s asks its patrons to donate by rounding up their checks to the nearest dollar or adding a dollar to online orders.
Dinner at Denny’s is easy on the wallet, with prices about on a par with IHOP’s. For the extra budget-conscious, there are several additional ways to save, including:
- Value Menu. Denny’s value menu includes inexpensive fare like pancakes, a basic burger, and chicken wings. But it may not be available at all locations.
- Senior Deals. Diners ages 55 and up can enjoy smaller portions with prices to match. Denny’s 55-plus selections include country-fried steak, salmon, and grilled cheese with soup. Additionally, seniors who are members of AARP get a 15% discount on their entire bill.
- Denny’s Rewards. When you join Denny’s Rewards, you immediately receive 20% off your next Denny’s meal. You also get news and special offers via email and a special birthday treat each year.
- Kids Eat Free Days. Kids eat free on certain days. You can get up to two main course selections from the kids menu for each adult meal over $6. (Days and participation vary by location.)
Finding the right restaurant to satisfy both kids and adults is always a challenge. You need to find a place that fits your family’s tastes and won’t break your budget. And when you have special dietary needs like healthy or vegetarian meals, it can seem impossible.
Fortunately, these restaurants offer options for almost every budget and taste — from steak and seafood to Italian or Southwestern fare. If price is your top concern, your best bet is either Denny’s or IHOP. If you’re more concerned about healthy menu choices, try Red Lobster or Red Robin.
For people on gluten-free diets, Outback Steakhouse and Red Robin are the most accommodating. If any adults or children in your party are vegetarians, they’ll find plenty to choose from at Olive Garden, IHOP, or Denny’s. None of the family restaurants is ideal for vegans, but Olive Garden is probably the best of the bunch.
Of course, going out to eat isn’t just about the food — it’s also about the experience. If you want to give your kids a truly special time, they can get it at Cracker Barrel or IHOP. By contrast, the adults in the party can enjoy a drink with dinner at Olive Garden and Chili’s. And if you want both fun for the kids and cocktails for the grown-ups, go for Red Robin.
Eating out with your kids will never be the same experience as fine dining for adults. But with the right restaurant, it can be a fun and memorable occasion for the whole family to share.