Eating out with kids: How to make it fun for everyone

With four fairly young children, we have typically had our hands full when we have eaten out. Still, we’ve found some ways to make the experience downright enjoyable… or at least good enough that the villagers don’t chase us out with pitchforks!

Here’s what works for us.

Bring props. A restaurant can be a boring place with nothing to do except stab things with salad forks. It will be well worth it if you keep a bag of small (silent) toys just for restaurants, waiting rooms, and other times when you need a happy toddler. Some ideas are tiny “magic writers,” crayons and a little notebook, small books, dollar store games and such.

Babies love to look at other babies, so filling a small photo album (the sort that hold one photo per page that slides in) with pictures of loved ones and babies can be a great diversion for them. Plus, they wipe clean and you can change them often!

Ask for food right away. A hungry toddler is a cranky one. Ask for crackers as soon as you sit down, and consider bringing a small bag of Cheerios, fruit snacks or other nutritious treats. Your toddler doesn’t need to eat supper at the restaurant if he’s a picky eater. We often ask for extra plates and share with our kids. In our case, kids meals would be wasted and it’s much easier to just share the parts they like instead.

Talk about it beforehand. Even a very young child can understand if you explain that restaurants are places where we must have very good behavior. Right before entering, remind your child that nobody is allowed to be noisy or run around in restaurants. Act like it’s an exciting treat to go out to eat, which it is. Let them know that as long as they’re well behaved, they get to come with you. Don’t be too negative about it, just serious.

Go at off times. If you go when it’s a little quieter, you’ll be served more quickly and have less chaos to overstimulate your child. Besides, if he does have a meltdown, there’s less of an audience!

Respond to trouble before it happens. This is the biggest way to keep your child well behaved in restaurants. If you wait until she’s climbing the back of the booth and trying to sit on someone’s head before you freak out and drag her to the bathroom, you’ve lost. Instead, pay attention to her cues. When she starts to get fidgety and whiny, step in and find a way to redirect her and correct her behavior.

Walk around. We rarely go to restaurants without going on at least one stroll. I sometimes take a child in each hand and we slowly wander in whatever direction we’re not going to trip a waitress or annoy anybody. Many people enjoy seeing the kids slowly making their way around and will stop and talk. It gets the kids out of their seats and lets them stretch, relieves boredom, and kills time while waiting for food. If one of the kids is starting to get too cranky, I’ll take him to the bathroom or outside. There I let him unwind a little, talk to him nicely about acting a little better, and do something fun and loving (hugs and kisses, bounces on knees, little stuff). This can mean different things with different ages — such as letting her know how much I appreciate how good she’s being and how proud I am of her, or even just nursing the baby till he’s happy! After we’re both happy we head back in.

Practice beforehand. Host tea parties or fancy suppers to teach kids proper manners. Let them dress up if you like and make it fun. Explain about how grown ups eat and what good manners are. It will be much easier for them to act polite in restaurants if it feels like old hat.

Pick child-friendly restaurants. This doesn’t just mean fast food. Some restaurants tend to be less crowded and more laid back. The Eastern Buffet in Mankato, for instance, has staff who bring their young children in while they work, complete with a playpen and toys in the corner. When the employees’ little ones are toddling around, it’s generally pretty safe to assume your little one is fine to toddle!

Make it quick. No child, no matter how well behaved, will sit nicely on her hands for an hour and a half. Be realistic when you choose a restaurant and a time for going. Sometimes my husband takes the kids outside to play as soon as he finishes, just so I can eat the rest of my meal without gobbling it or refereeing.

Don’t allow any wild behavior. The minute you let your child go running down the aisle with an embarrassed grin and cajole her into coming back to sit down, you’ve lost. She’ll only get worse. If restaurant visits have consisted of chasing, hissing and holding them down, it’ll be harder to teach them that you mean business now but it’s still possible. Let them know firmly that restaurants are ONLY for people with good manners. Period. It is simply not fair to other diners to have to put up with listening to a little person shriek or having even the cutest child trying to climb over the edge of the booth onto their heads. Explain that to your child, and let her know that you know it’s hard to act nice but from now on it is a rule. If your child acts up, then the minute he starts, scoop him up and remove him from the situation. You don’t need to punish him. You just have to remove him to a place where he will not bother anybody. Explain to him that he was upsetting people and when he’s feeling happy you can go back. You may need to help him get happy if he’s particularly cranky. He may need to run around or get a hug or just get lots of loving, but children get cranky for a reason and they can get cheered up if you attend to it. If he’s truly awful, get a doggy bag and wait a month to try again. Some things take time, and some days just aren’t the right times for high expectations. There will be another chance for everybody at a later date.

Remember that it’s not a battle. You are not enemies at war with each other. You are your child’s ally! If she starts to misbehave, then lovingly find a way to help her act better. Threats, insults, ignoring or hitting will only give you a more upset child. You can be firm without being unfeeling, and you can discipline and still be loving and caring.

Have fun! This is the biggest one of all. Happy children are easy to handle. Be silly, make it enjoyable and your child will naturally be much easier to deal with. And remember the biggest thing of all to keep in mind with little ones: This too shall pass!