As every parent knows, eating out with your kids can be a fun, shared experience. They’re happy, they do and say funny things, they get to have new experiences, and it’s just another way for the family to be together and bond.
On the other hand, bringing kids to a restaurant also always has the potential to be a nightmare. With younger children especially, they can be fussy, uncooperative, and whiny. They can balk at any effort to control them and launch into meltdown mode, which of course is all the more unpleasant and embarrassing to deal with when it occurs in public.
So how do you maximize the likelihood of the first and minimize the likelihood of the second? Here are some tips to help make your experience a positive one when you dine out with children:
1. Choose a kid friendly restaurant.
This is as important a factor as any, and there are multiple components to it.
Some restaurants go out of their way to be welcoming to children by having playground equipment, arcade games, etc. Think McDonald’s, or even more so Chuck E. Cheese. This is the exact opposite of the kind of stuffy, rigid environment that kids often find intolerable. Other restaurants might have games or puzzles of some kind for kids to have fun with at the table, or at the very least crayons and a placemat that can be colored. That’s a lot less than having a whole play area, but it’s better than nothing.
There’s also the question of the kids menu. Some restaurants don’t have one, some have a perfunctory one with almost nothing on it, and some have an elaborate one with lots of pictures and food that’s comparable in quality to what’s served to the adults.
Sometimes a good clue is simply to see if there are many children already in the restaurant. Kids are often more comfortable in an environment where there are plenty of other kids. It can make a restaurant seem less forbidding and grown up to younger eyes.
2. Practice at home.
Children are more likely to behave appropriately in a restaurant if the behavior that’s expected of them is fairly similar to what they’re already used to at home. If meals at home are conducted in such a way that throwing food is not allowed, standing on the chairs is not allowed, everyone speaks in their “inside” voice, the same kind of cutlery is used as in a restaurant, and so on and so forth, a trip to a restaurant is not going to stand out as something overstimulating or intimidating.
3. Time your trip carefully.
Generally you want your children to be hungry enough to focus on eating and not fuss or reject their food in the restaurant, so you should avoid letting your children snack at all close to meal time. On the other hand, if children are too hungry, there’s a danger that even the smallest wait for a table or for their order to be served will give rise to discomfort and whining. So you don’t want them starving either.
You know your kids better than anyone. You know if a child behaves better certain times of the day than others, or how much of a factor it is if they had their nap. If possible, eat out when there’s reason to believe your children will be at their best.
4. Bring distractions.
You may be lucky and the restaurant will have plenty to occupy your child, but it’s not a bad idea to let them bring a toy, video game, doll, puzzle book, or something else that they can enjoy when they otherwise might be bored enough to act out.
5. Keep things moving.
Dead time is your enemy. Avoid going to a restaurant during its busy time when you’ll have to wait to be seated, and avoid going to a restaurant with slow service.
You can further help the process along by being ready to order when the server approaches your table. Ask for the check during your meal rather than after everyone is finished, so you’ll already have it when you’re ready to go.
6. Hold out the promise of rewards.
It’s not foolproof, but as a rule of thumb kids will typically behave better if they’re convinced there’s something in it for them. If they know that a stop at the ice cream parlor on the way home is dependent on how well dinner in the restaurant goes, that little bit of incentive might make the difference.
7. Sit strategically.
You’re looking for just the right balance between overstimulation and understimulation. Maybe for your child that means sitting next to the window where they can look out at the ocean or the street scene or whatever’s outside. Maybe it means being in a quiet corner of the restaurant. Maybe it means being in the loudest section of the restaurant near all the action.
There’s also something to be said for choosing a booth and sitting on the outside seat of it with your child on the inside next to you, though some parents might not like the implication that they have to confine their child like that to keep control of them.
8. Have multiple responsible adults.
Especially if you have multiple children, sometimes it can work wonders for someone to take a bored child away from your party and walk them around outside, finding distractions for them until your food arrives. If you have multiple adults, you can work as a team like that. One person can keep tabs on what’s going on at the table, while the other can walk a child to the bathroom or whatever needs to be done.
9. Don’t force your kids to eat.
It’s great if your kids eat everything on their plate, but that’s an ideal that’s rarely achieved. Young kids especially order things they think they want and have already changed their mind when it arrives at the table, or they pick at their food, or they run into the horrific situation where two different of their foods are touching each other.
Do the best you can encouraging them to eat, but accept partial victories, because usually that’s the best you’ll get.
One thing you can do is let your child sample some of what you’re having. This can give them (and you) an idea of whether it is something they might want to order themselves in the future.
10. Tip well.
Even relatively well-behaved kids routinely make an unholy mess in a restaurant. Almost always a party with children is significantly extra work for a server, and for a busser and the staff in general.
Your server deserves a little more than your usual tip for putting up with that. But what’s even better than putting up with it is when a server actually puts forth the extra effort to interact positively with your kids, make them laugh, show them a good time. If you’re fortunate enough to get a server who genuinely enjoys children and has a natural chemistry with them like that, then that’s really something to appreciate. Make sure your tip shows you appreciate it.
11. Be aware that sometimes nothing works and you just have to fold your hand.
There are times you exercise your best parenting skills, you use every trick in the book, you cajole, you plead, you bribe, you put on your stern face, and it’s just not your night. The meltdown cannot be averted, and cannot be quelled when it comes.
It’s not the end of the world to occasionally admit defeat in a situation like that. You should always have in the back of your mind in a restaurant that the meal might have to be aborted. Apologize for any scene that’s occurred, have your food boxed up to go, and live to fight another day.
“7 Mistakes Not to Make When Dining Out with Kids.” Fodor’s.
“10 tips for taking kids out to a restaurant.” Shine.Yahoo.
“Restaurant Dining Etiquette: Taking the Kids.” Etiquette Scholar.