Over the summer I got invited out to lunch with our playgroup for hard of hearing children. We were a large group – 20 of us. The service at the restaurant is notoriously slow and with such a large group it was slower that usual. It took a full 20 minutes for our orders to be taken and another hour before our food hit the table. That’s right, almost an hour and a half of sitting still before any food was delivered. It was a nightmare for a parent of small children – and we were a table full of parents and small children.
By the time lunch finally arrived me and my kids were the only ones still sitting at the table. All the other moms and children were pacing the restaurant floor or had gone outside because they just couldn’t sit still.
Several of the moms asked how I got my kids to behave so well and my answer was very simple, I was prepared and we dine out often (and there was some luck involved because they aren’t always that well behaved).
I know dining out is stressful and it’s tempting to avoid dining out as a family altogether but sometimes, like I found out this summer, it’s unavoidable – for example, when you’re traveling or when another family invites you out. When those situations arise you want to make sure you child has had plenty of experience, lest you suffer epic public humiliation.
Dining out with kids will always be hard but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible and it may even be enjoyable if you’re organized and well prepared. Here’s a few tips:
Establish ground rules. It’s important to establish that dining out is a privilege. It’s something special that you do together as a family and it is to be respected. Before you go discuss behavior expectations with your spouse/partner/co-parent and use those expectations to establish some ground rules.
Our rules are as follows:
- Once we’re seated our kids aren’t allowed out of their chairs unless they’re moving to a lap. No running around the table, playing on the floor, etc. The only exception to this rule is if we’re dining at a restaurant with a sand box, play area, etc.
- No raising your voice at the table – this includes loud talking, screaming, crying or anything else that may disturb other diners.
- Toys that we bring can be played with before our dinner arrives but as soon as the food hits the table the toys are put away. If the kids finish eating before the adults the toys can make a re-appearance.
Be prepared to enforce the rules in a restaurant environment, just as you would at home. Time outs are an important piece of my dining out arsenal – I will take my child outside and sit them down on the sidewalk for a time out if they’re not behaving. If they continue to misbehave once they return to the table then they go back outside. Yes, I’ve spent entire meals sitting outside on the sidewalk but it always pays off the next time we go out.
Time outs are especially effective in a restaurant environment because they serve multiple purposes:
- They remove the child from the situation giving them a break from whatever was causing the misbehavior.
- They give them a chance to calm down.
- They keep the other diners from experiencing your child’s misbehavior.
- They reinforce the concept of sitting at the table together in a restaurant as being special, if the child don’t behave they don’t get to participate.
Practice restaurant manners at home. Sit down at the table to eat as a family and enforce your restaurant rules at home. That means sitting at the table until everyone is finished eating and asking to be excused before getting up.
Practice! Dine out often, once a week if you can. By dining out in restaurants they’re familiar with, it gives the kids a chance to practice their eating out skills and table manners in an environment they’re comfortable with but still outside the home.
Have good timing. If your child missed their nap or is overly tired from a long day at school, you can’t expect them to sit still and quiet for an hour at dinner. When you go out, make sure your child is well rested and if they’re overly hungry feed them a small snack before you go. Tired and hungry kids are cranky kids!
Use tools to help make the experience easier. Minimizing the number of things that can go wrong is always a good thing. I always take a spare strap for the high chair (because they always seem to be broken) and some bendy straws, which I keep in a travel toothbrush holder. If you child can’t handle a cup with a straw take a sippy cup. Climbing out of the highchair and drink spills are now two things you no longer have to worry about!
Reserve some toys only for trips to restaurants. I have a bag of toys that are reserved especially for going out to eat. I keep them by the back door in my diaper bag bin for quick and easy access. The novelty of having these special toys also reinforces the “special” aspect of going out to eat.
When choosing special restaurant toys look for things that are small, flat and easy to shove in a diaper bag or purse. Yes, a tablet or phone falls into this category and I often rely on a tablet for pre-food entertainment with a few rules – tablets and phones are to be used for games only, no streaming videos and they follow the same rules as other toys. When dinner is served they are put away.
Get food FAST. If you’re at a restaurant that serves bread or chips when you’re seated then you’re in luck. If not, then consider ordering an appetizer to get something on the table. If you’re familiar with the menu, plan on making your ordering decision soon after sitting down – if you place your food order at the same time as your drink order you get double parenting bonus points.
Order easy food. Though I am a stickler for trying everything on your plate at home, a restaurant isn’t the place I want to have a battle over eating green beans. To reinforce the concept of dining out being a special event, I let them eat things they wouldn’t normally be offered at home. Corn dog? YES. French Fries? YES! Chocolate milk? YES PLEASE!
Manage your expectations. You can’t expect your two year old to sit and play quietly with their special toys for an hour while you enjoy your meal in relative peace and quiet. Plan on interacting with your kids to keep them distracted. One of my favorite things to do is to practice origami with with the paper kid’s menus. There’s a ton of online tutorials on how to make paper flowers, cranes, etc. It’s a fun, quiet activity, kills a lot of time and they can play with the end result.
No matter how well behaved your child is you will have meals that are failures and unfortunately they are impossible to predict but that doesn’t mean you can’t go out and enjoy some good food with some good company! It just takes a little organization and practice to get there.