Like everything else, eating out with small children just isn’t the same as eating out as a childless couple. There are now small people along with you, with needs and preferences of their own, and part of your dining experience will be dedicated to helping them get their needs met in an unfamiliar place filled with lots of unfamiliar people. While you might not spend your dining experience gazing lovingly into your partner’s eyes over soft candlelight, you can actually have a pleasant family dining experience in a nice restaurant. Here’s ten tips to help you have a successful family meal out at a restaurant.
1. Timing is everything. Go early! You’ll get your pick of tables and your kids won’t be cranky and ravenous before the starters arrive.
2. Bring toys. When my eldest daughter was about 2 years old she had a plastic tiger she LOVED. He lived in my handbag for months, coming out when we were on long car rides, on the airplane, in restaurants and on long walks in the stroller. He was perfect for playing with at the table while waiting for our food to arrive. He would roar, eat the menus, drink water, and generally stalk about the place being fierce and tiger-y. This was a great way to kill time between ordering and eating, and the tiger was easy to carry around with me.
3. Bring snacks. If you have a baby who has just started solids, bring your own soft foods or purees. Toddlers definitely appreciate having a few raisins or a graham cracker to nibble on while waiting for a meal to arrive. Familiar snacks also double as a backup plan in case you find yourself with a child who hates everything on the menu and won’t eat a bite.
4. Practice good table manners at home. It’s more difficult for kids to behave well in an unfamiliar situation if they don’t know what is expected of them. If you know you have a meal out at a nice restaurant coming up, practice using utensils, saying, “please pass the butter,” and draping a napkin on your lap while you’re in the comfort of your own home. Try having a formal meal at home first, with linen napkins and the fancy china. Even multiple forks! Practicing formal table manners at home can be a fun way to honour someone’s birthday or a holiday at home too.
5. Remind kids of the behaviour you expect before you go into the restaurant. After you’ve done your homework and practiced good manners at home, remind kids before you go into a restaurant that you expect them to use their good table manners. It may feel a bit redundant, but it always helps to make your expectations as clear as possible, especially with young children.
6. Order food they like. Expecting a small child to eat part of your spicy entree is taking a risk with a hungry kid in a public space. If you know they like what you’re ordering, sharing is great. But if not, order something you know they will actually eat.
7. Include kids in the conversation. Kids don’t like to feel left out, and sitting at the sidelines while everyone else discusses things they don’t understand can be frustrating. You don’t have to limit yourselves to toddler topics, but do encourage preschoolers to talk about their day, etc. This not only engages children at the table and keeps them from getting bored and wanting to wander around, but it also helps increase their vocabulary and emotional intelligence. The same benefits are found when children are part of a daily family meal at home.
8. Breastfeed at the table. Yes! Babies eat in restaurants too, and not just out of bottles. If you have an easily distracted baby you might want to find somewhere calm & quiet, but that is for you to decide, not for anyone else to determine for you.
9. Be mindful of your mess. Kids are messy. Babies drop food. These are facts of life, and one of the nice things about eating out is that you don’t have to clean it up afterwards. However, remember that someone else does. Try to minimize the mess by picking up dropped utensils and making a reasonable effort to tidy the uneaten food at your table. At the very least, apologize for the mess and leave your server a nice tip.
10. Recognize when it’s time to go home. Overtired kiddos are no fun, whether you’re out at a nice restaurant or plonking a pizza on the table at home. Being able to recognize the tired signs before a full-on meltdown hits can save you, your child and the rest of the diners the joy of a public tantrum. Children have every right to be out in public, but knowing when to call it a day and take them home makes the outing more enjoyable for everyone.