Taking children to restaurants doesn’t have to be stressful, but there is a learning curve for both parents and youngsters. Our family loves eating out, and after years of trial and error we developed some house rules to better enjoy the experience.
Practice, practice, practice. At home, reinforce restaurant manners by using cloth napkins regularly, and reminding kids to stay seated at the table.
Set expectations low. When you’re out, order a cocktail to relax, and remind yourself that conversations may be truncated and food might be eaten cold if there are multiple detours to the restroom.
Sell your kids on the perks of behaving at a restaurant: They may get to order a Shirley Temple or grilled shrimp or another treat.
Don’t encourage picky eating of any kind. A good rule is, “You have to try everything, but you don’t have to like anything.” In restaurants, avoid the dumbed-down kids’ menus, and let the kids order themselves from the appetizers. It gets them more vested in the experience, gives them a better appreciation for why they’re there, and encourages them to look the waiter in the eye (another good social skill).
Game on! Run rounds of what we call “Kiddie Quiz,” a point-earning game with questions like “Name five farm animals.” The competition keeps going until the food
Consider the context that day. If one of the kids has had a rough afternoon and moods are bad all around, abandon the restaurant plan and order in.
The so-called witching hour, when meltdowns can occur, is feared for good reason. Pushing the boundaries never works. If you get a late start, or there’s a wait for tables, go to Plan B.
Bring in the reserves, or what we call “a zone defense,” such as grandma or an aunt, who are often happy to take a turn walking the grumpy one. The more, the merrier.
Employ an absence-makes-the-heart-grow-fonder toy strategy. When Polly Pockets and Smurfs come out only at the restaurant, playtime lasts a little longer.
Finally, if things aren’t going well, don’t wait for the situation to disintegrate completely. Leave the restaurant. You’ll be surprised how quickly the waiter will wrap your food to go and bring your check.
— JILL RADSKEN