Tips for Eating Out at a Restaurant With Your Kids

Waiters shrink from you, hostesses seat you in the far corner by the kitchen. Bad manners? No, just dining out with the kids. From newborn to adolescent, children create special challenges for parents and restaurant staff. If you plan right, though, dining out can be a satisfying experience for everyone, even that petrified waiter.

Subhead: Don’t set kids up for failure

Choosing the right restaurant is your first challenge. Look for a restaurant that is “kid friendly,” which doesn’t mean reflexively heading over to Chuck E. Cheese’s. A restaurant doesn’t have to have a jungle gym to fit the bill: Look for places with a children’s menu or one that offers crayons or other enticements upon entering. This at least indicates that children are welcome and that the staff will be trained to accommodate them.

Noise level is important to consider. Your kids may disturb the peace in a place where you could hear a pin drop, but they may self-destruct in one of the new breed of airstrip-loud restaurants. Make sure you choose a place where tables are widely spaced; booths can help pen in little ones with a will to roam. By law, restaurants must have a high chair, but toddlers often feel too far from the table in these. Booster seats keep them right there with the rest of the family but have a tendency to tip over. For the family that eats out often, most baby stores carry inexpensive seats that clip safely onto the lip of the table.

Go early, before the rush, and make a reservation as opposed to walking in and hoping for the best. This will cut down on loitering time when kids tend to run amok. As in the rest of life, your family only has one chance to make a first impression on the staff. If their expectations are low, your service may reflect this.

Subhead: Negotiating the menu

The cardinal rule is never take your kids to a restaurant when they are ravenous. It’s a surefire way to elicit bad behavior – for the little ones, bring a snack to keep them busy (crackers, Cheerios, carrot sticks or apples) and for older kids ask for a bread basket immediately. Another way to circumvent the hungry crazies is to order an appetizer (ask which ones require the least preparation time) right away for the table.

Once everyone’s hunger is at a manageable level, begin to look at the menu. Menu-speak is increasingly impenetrable even for adults, so children may be entirely flummoxed by the descriptions. Break things down to their lowest common denominator and describe them this way – “Entrecote napped with bÃ?©arnaise and served with tarragon-scented frites” becomes “steak with french fries.” This way kids won’t instinctively relegate themselves to the kids’ menu mac-and-cheese ghetto. A restaurant provides a low-risk opportunity to expand your kids’ repertoires and introduce new flavors. If they are apprehensive about ordering a dish, promise that you’ll switch with them if they don’t like it.

Help your kids learn to order for themselves. This builds confidence and adds an element of inclusivity to a meal out. Start small, having them simply request a straw or more bread. Review what they should say, have them practice before the waiter comes, prepare them for any choices (“Your entree comes with either french fries or a baked potato. Which one would you like? You’ll have to tell the waiter that.”). And be patient – if they clam up when the waiter comes, gently prompt, filling in the information as necessary.

Once your food arrives there are still a few landmines to watch out for. Heavy bistro silverware is unwieldy for little kids. Ask for the restaurant’s smallest salad forks (for toddlers you may want to bring their silverware from home), extra napkins and be sure to request all beverages in a short, less tippy cup. Sodas served in long, elegant glassware with a straw are destined to tip over – many kid-friendly restaurants will put drinks in to-go cups with lids.

Subhead: Be prepared for a quick getaway

Ask for the check {before} you want it. The lag time after dinner and before the bill is paid can be the most taxing for even well-behaved kids. It’s getting late, they may be all sugared up from dessert, they have been seated for nearly two hours – who can blame them? Don’t feel as if it’s an admission of failure to take the kids outside while another adult settles the bill. Making a graceful departure will add to your children’s sense of pride.

Once in the car, reinforce good behavior verbally (“I really enjoyed your company tonight. You were so well behaved.”) and gently note any significant lapses (“You were careful not to have your elbows on the table, but I noticed you talked with your mouth full several times. We’ll work on that next time we go out.”). If the outing was a success, ask your kids if they’d like to go back to that restaurant sometime, and set a date that you can all look forward to.

Sidebar: Laying in Supplies

Being restaurant-ready often means bringing along amusements for little ones. The trick is to pick the right toys to keep them occupied without disturbing other diners. At home, help each child to fill a small bag with quiet toys – stickers, stencils and pencils are great. For the sake of other diners, veto choices that have wheels, anything that is easily made airborne or anything that makes a noise or sings a song. Toys with lots of little pieces (Lego, Playmobile) are great for quiet imaginative play, but you may spend the evening hunkered down under the table looking for little pieces in the dark.

Many veteran restaurant goers have a small suitcase of toys that are designated “restaurant toys,” to be played with only when out. These toys should be rotated, adding new “surprise” things occasionally (especially exciting if they are wrapped) to heighten kids’ enthusiasm for restaurant outings.

When all else fails, start a conversation that everyone can participate in. Discuss an upcoming vacation, a movie you’ve all seen together, or start a story that each family member can add to.

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