If you have young children, you know that taking them out to eat requires a lot of patience and humor and napkins.

Some parents chose to forgo this experience altogether by leaving the kids at home when eating involves a menu and a waiter.  Not me.

It’s not that I enjoy the disapproving glances of other patrons; it’s not that I like getting down on my knees, sheepishly, to pick up half-eaten pieces of bread, broken crayons and greasy forks.  It’s just that flavor becomes skittish and makes itself scarce when I put on an apron in my own kitchen.  When I cook, it usually doesn’t turn out so well.  And you can only eat so much frozen pizza.  So I’m left with few options, save the early bird special at our favorite diner.  (Or so I tell myself to justify the money we spend eating out.)

Here are some tricks we use to increase the odds that our time out is more fun than frenetic:

  1. Give your kids a sizeable snack before you leave the house. What’s the point of feeding your kids and then paying for additional food at a restaurant, you ask?  Well, one way to retain your sanity is to remember that eating out with kiddos is as much about socializing them to the experience as it is about putting food in their bellies.
    Unlike adults, kids have not yet developed a restaurant schema, or mental script, regarding what to expect when eating out.  As a result, they will likely be more interested in their surroundings than in their food.  If you remember this, you’ll be unfazed if they don’t touch the mac-n-cheese.  And you’ve given them some morsels at the house, anyway, so why sweat it?
  2. Order a variety of foods—some familiar, some novel. Eating out provides a wonderful opportunity to expose kids to flavors and textures they don’t often have at home.  But whether yours will actually touch that agedasi tofu or mole burrito is a crapshoot, so be sure to order a few old standbys, too.  That way, your kids will have the benefit of seeing you eat new, unfamiliar things (which is excellent role modeling), but have some safe and edible options if that calamari is just too weird for them to fathom.
  3. Prepare your children by talking about what to expect, as well as how to behave, before you get to the restaurant. Children are much more likely to behave if they have a clear understanding of what is expected of them, because knowing the rules helps them feel safe and secure.  In the car on the way to the restaurant, you can remind your kids that, while you’re excited to be going out to eat as a family, you’ll all need to keep in mind the basic rules: no running, no yelling, no instigating food fights with those at the neighboring table.
    You could also talk about the procedural side of things, like how to order from the waiter, or the fact that sometimes it takes a little while for the chef to prepare the food.  This is especially important if your kids eat out infrequently and have little idea what to expect.
  4. Let other patrons serve as role models for you.  I don’t mean that you should rely on that nice couple sitting next to you to referee a fight between your sons.  But sometimes, instead of getting into a power struggle, you can look around the room and gently say, “Do you see other people yelling in a loud voice?”  “Is anyone else in the restaurant throwing pieces of broccoli?”  This technique will help your children associate the rules with the situation (being in a restaurant), rather than with you (the mean and demanding parent).
  5. Decide, in advance, what you will do if your child has difficulty following your instructions. That way, if your kid has a meltdown, and you’re certain that ever person in the room is thinking, that is the most incompetent parent I’ve ever seen, you’ll have a plan; you won’t have to rely on your ability to spontaneously concoct an appropriate reaction, because you’ve had the foresight to identify one in advance.  The technique you decide on should be consistent with what you do at home (e.g., taking your child outside for a conversation or using a time out) to the extent that this is possible.  But try to avoid public humiliation, which is usually more damaging than helpful.
  6. Bring toys as well as your imagination. It’s not reasonable to ask kids to sit through too many courses or too much conversation.  So if you anticipate a leisurely dinner (which might be ill-advised when kids are present, anyway), be sure you have distractions: toys, puzzles, coloring books, crayons.  Also, have in mind some games to play, such as I Spy or Going on a Picnic (remember these?).
    I don’t recommend video games or movies, however, because they are so engrossing, and tend to isolate the viewer and discourage communication.  If you feel that your child is getting antsy, or if her behavior seems to be increasingly antagonistic, consider that she might be at the limit of what her development will allow.  Rather than condemn or punish her for it, end the meal quickly or take a break by going on a walk.

It’s not rocket science, and it really boils down to just two things:  be prepared (you and your kids) and have realistic, age-appropriate expectations.  And possibly extra cash, since it’s always a good idea to leave a generous tip (both to assuage your guilt about the volcano of food that erupted under the table, as well as to ensure that the restaurant isn’t suddenly “booked solid” the next time you and your loud brood walk through the door).

Bon appetit!

Photo by Courosa via Flickr’s Creative Commons License.