Taking the entire family out to a restaurant is nothing if not an adventure. No matter how well-behaved your children usually are, there’s always some element of the unknown to be contended with. Will someone refuse their pricey meal? What if the order takes longer than expected to arrive? Will a drink be spilled? (If your kids are anything like my own, the answer to that will be: yes. Without a doubt.)
Despite the unknowns, there are plenty of ways to make sure your dining experience is enjoyable for both you and your neighboring restaurant patrons. After all, nobody wants to be THAT table: the one with unruly, disruptive kids and flustered, scowling parents.
Here are some tips to help your next restaurant adventure feel less daunting and more relaxing.
· Have a conversation ahead of time. Remind kids of restaurant rules that are simple and easy to remember: speak quietly, stay seated, don’t stare at the other clientele as they try to enjoy their privacy, and by all means, if you need to use the restroom, don’t shout specifics across the table.
· Arrive prepared. One small toy per child – like a figurine or matchbox car – can alleviate the tedium of waiting to be seated. Many family-friendly restaurants provide a few crayons and activity sheet, but it doesn’t hurt to have your own collection of crayons and a notepad just in case. Anything that will help keep the kids busy while waiting for either seats or food.
· Request a table with actual chairs, instead of a booth. Kids love the couch-like comfort of booths, it’s true, but they also love to writhe and lay and bounce. Chairs provide an easier way to keep the kids seated properly while bringing them close enough to the table-top to reach their food with a minimum of messes.
· If possible, choose a familiar venue. Knowing the menu in advance will make it easier to order your children’s meals right as you’re seated so they can receive their food more quickly. Ask the server to bring the kids’ meals as soon as they’re ready, instead of waiting for the entire table’s order to be served at the same time. Many kids will take longer to eat anyway, so letting them have a head start will solve both the pre-meal boredom and the post-meal scramble.
· Provide sweets. There are few incentives for little ones to stay quiet and eat well that will work as effectively as the promise of dessert. But when families eat out together, the cost of extra plates of sweets may be prohibitive. Find a few favorites that travel well in small portions, and let the kids dig in when they’ve finished their meal. This is also a perfect way to let the adults have a few more minutes of relaxation before heading home.
· Keep practicing. No group of small children will be perfectly behaved in public situations every time. If you’re nervous about attempting a nice dinner out, start small. Go to restaurants that are overtly family-friendly to give yourselves a chance for practice. It takes time for kids (and their hopeful parents) to learn the ropes in new situations. Understand that learning curve, accept it, and learn as you go.
Soon you’ll have your own stash of tips and tricks that work well for your family, and going out to eat will only ever be cause for excitement.