Before the Meal:
Once we’ve arrived inside a restaurant, we face a whole new world: one where anything can happen—and typically does. Having a “bag of tricks” that includes crackers or other small finger foods to keep young diners occupied can help keep everyone sane. Hunger and boredom are explosive combinations. Sitting your child facing a window where they can look out at the people, cars, and trucks on the street can be a wonderful distraction.
Try to encourage your child to make friends with the waiter or waitress, such as saying, “Our waitress has a ponytail, you have one too!” or “What do you think the waiter had for dinner tonight?” This helps children appreciate the social experience of eating out, while taking their mind off their increasingly hungry stomach. Not to mention, it helps get the waitstaff on your side! Ordering your child’s meal when you sit down, or at least getting an appetizer going, can be a good diversion for children and can also ward off hunger.
There are different views about letting children out of their seat to walk around the restaurant while waiting for food to arrive. While doing so enables children to stretch their legs and burn off a little steam before the meal, it may also result in potential hazards if they walk into waiters carrying large trays filled with hot food (not to mention disapproving looks from other diners who may have trouble seeing your children’s developmentally appropriate, but socially annoying behavior as “cute”). Young children are creatures of habit—if they walk around at one restaurant, they are going to want, and expect, to do the same at others.
Try to keep your child in her seat for as long as possible by using diversion tactics until the meal arrives. If you have to get up and walk, an outside stroll that doesn’t interfere with other diners is a safer bet than letting your child walk inside the restaurant.
During the Meal:
At last, the food has arrived. To help the meal go smoothly, the adults at the table should try to be involved in meal management. If your child demands constant attention, take turns so one of the adults can eat while the other attends to the child. And remember: always have a stash of napkins within arm’s reach!
If your child flings pieces of chicken tenders that land at the next table, apologize to those diners for your child’s pitching skills (here’s where a parent’s sense of humor really comes in handy), and handle the situation with your child just as you would if it happened at home. Remember that children crave consistency, and this means that if reprimanding is what you do at home, do it at the restaurant as well.
What do you do when your child screams, “I’m done. No more food. Time to go home” at the top of her lungs? Take that as your exit cue, ask politely for the bill, and start packing up. At this point, as is often the case in parenthood, quit while you’re ahead.
Stomaching Challenging Restaurant Situations:
Perhaps your child has decided to show you that she knows how to yell—and she chooses a nice restaurant to show you this new “trick.” Perhaps she flings herself out of the booster seat like a torpedo, or chooses to amuse herself by seeing how far she can throw food across the dining room. Or siblings decide to wage battle, or conspire to take “top this” silliness to a new level. Whatever it may be, don’t panic. Odds are good that you are not the only parent in the restaurant to have experienced this.
The manager of a chain of family-friendly restaurants sums it up this way: “I think the most important thing to remember is to not cause a scene yourself. It is embarrassing both to you and the people around you. Remaining calm, but in tune with what is going on with your child, will ensure that everyone enjoys their meal out.”
Summary Tips for Enjoying a Meal out with Your Child:
- Practice or rehearse good restaurant behaviors at home.
- Go when your child is well-rested and not starving.
- Have realistic expectations and concede before you go that eating out with a young child will never be like eating out with adults.
- Bring a bag of tricks filled with small, quiet activities: crayons, a favorite stuffed toy, a small book, hand-held checkers, or a toy truck can really work magic.
- Take other adults with you who can help entertain your child.
- Children tend to do better in restaurants that have fun décor, such as colorful lights, big mirrors, and happy music.
- See if you can get a table away from other diners.
- Stick with the old food standbys: now isn’t the time to introduce scallops or mushrooms to your children’s palates.
- Make hats and animals out of napkins.
- Treat eating out as a reward, where good behavior is not only expected, but required.
- Relax and try to enjoy the experience—your child will pick up on your cues.
- Practice makes perfect; don’t let a challenging restaurant experience get you down.
Sometimes, the people in the restaurant will decide for us how to handle a sticky situation, through their stares, glares, and comments. In the end, remember to keep your sense of humor and perspective—it’s one meal at one restaurant, and you have plenty of time to give it another try.