Restaurant Dining With Your Kids

November 20, 2008 at 7:34 am (Published)

Published in Garden and Hearth Magazine, August, 2003


If people marvel at how well my kids behave at restaurants, it’s mainly because they’ve been eating out their whole lives.  My husband and I never “decided” it was time to start bringing the kids to restaurants…it was merely part of our lives the kids adjusted to, through experience.  We’ve all certainly witnessed cases where children were misbehaving at a restaurant, asked ourselves what the heck those parents were thinking, and possibly secretly hoped they’d give the kid heavy cough medicine or a straight jacket.  Here are a few pointers to help out if you’re one of those parents the rest of us are wishing would have left your tots at home.  Your level of success will depend on how old your child is and how well she follows instructions.  If your child is under 18 months old, for example, you can expect to be taking him outside when he gets too loud or refuses to sit down.  It also goes without saying that any food allergies in the family should be taken into account beforehand.  Planning according to these factors from the outset will help you a lot…Bon appetit!.


Practicing at Home.


One fun suggestion is to practice at home, before you even try to take the show public.  Put out extra silverware, and “fancy” linen napkins.  Pretend to be the server.  Ask your children to dress up fancy for dinner, because you are pretending to go to a fancy restaurant.  When it’s time for dinner, call your children to the table, but before seating them, make sure you ask how many are in their party and suggest they should follow you to their seats.


You can either spend time with the kids beforehand coloring some menus for use in this exercise, or simply progress right to the dinner part. You are their server.  Stand beside the table and explain that your name is Mommy, and you’ll be their server this evening.  Tonight’s specials are meatloaf, fried monkey meat, and meatloaf.  Inserting monkey meat into the middle will not only elicit a giggle, but distract your kids from the fact that meat loaf (or whatever you fixed for tonight’s dinner) is really the only thing you’re serving.  If they should, however, happen to point out that you already said meat loaf, explain that of COURSE you did, because the restaurant is called “Mommy’s House of Meat Loaf.”  Prepare to stifle a giggle when the kids suggest they’d rather go to Long John Silver’s…


If there are two parents in your household, the seated parent can be the one who interjects to the kids how they act toward the “waitress,” and reminds them to put their napkins on their lap.  In single parent homes, the server should periodically step out of character and sit in their chair at the table to perform this role, which will distinguish the two in the children’s minds.  Good skills to try out during this trial run include ordering the food, talking using inside voices, staying seated, using napkins and utensils properly, and saying please and thank you.  (Hopefully, there will already be a basic standard of behavior your kids will be familiar with, which can now be applied to this situation.  If not, you shouldn’t begin with practicing at home, but with teaching your kids basic table manners.)  When the kids are successful with your home practice, the waitress should inform them that well-behaved children are entitled to free dessert.  Now, would they like ice cream, fried monkey meat, or ice cream?


Start Small.


Obviously, the first time you take the kids to a restaurant, it shouldn’t be a five-star place.  Your perfect target place to teach kids about restaurants will be something better than fast food, but not as advanced as a mid-level venue…perfect examples of good chains to start with are Denny’s, Marie Callender’s, Steak and Shake, and International House of Pancakes.  These places are generally designed as family-friendly and will provide things like crayons and coloring books upon your arrival.  They also tend to be casual enough that a few minor behavioral slip-ups on the part of your progeny won’t result in a snooty Maitre-d giving you the evil eye.  And when your server does approach, wait until after the day’s specials have been recited to ask whether they serve fried monkey meat.  The kids will howl with laughter at the continuation of the inside joke, and for the server, it’ll be re-assuring and show from the outset that you have a sense of humor about this outing.


When your server introduces himself, make sure you note his name.  If your child is old enough to read, she should be expected to review the menu for herself and personally order her food; if she is too shy to comply, ask her politely to tell (server name) what she would like for dinner.  You may need to have others order first, and then come back to the child, but teaching a child to ask politely for what they’d like from a server is a valuable lesson.  If your child is too young to read, choose three things you’d like to see him order and explain them to him as his choices.  Then, when it’s his turn to order, he’s responsible to ask (server name) for what he chose.  Some places will give you picture-coded children’s menus, in which case the child who can’t read should be able to order verbally based on the picture they see; you should confirm that the child understands what he is ordering, though.


Work your way up from there to an Outback Steakhouse, Spaghetti Warehouse, Olive Garden, Damon’s Place for Ribs, or Red Lobster.  While these places are a bit more specialized and generally nicer than a family-style, standard fare chain, they still court families with activities and crayons for the kids.  This is where you introduce the notion that “we are practicing for when we go to a very fancy restaurant.”  (Don’t say that in front of your server, though, unless you expect to find something mysteriously floating in your drink.)  When these places have been mastered, try a three star local restaurant, followed finally by the fanciest of places, at which time your family will be pro’s at this restaurant stuff.


A Word on Foreign and Exotic Foods.



Don’t be afraid to throw curve balls at your kids, once they are used to going out.  Expanding your kids’ exposure to different places and different kinds of foods will make their tastes more versatile.  If you search the menu well enough, and think outside the box, every restaurant serves items even “picky-eater” kids will like, even if the place isn’t one that passes out balloons or crayons.  And be sure to also let them sample from your plate, because doing so is a non-threatening way to allow them to taste other things which they may or may not like, and don’t have to finish a whole plate of if it turns out they don’t.  For instance…


Restaurant / Item Kids Might Like

Sushi / Cucumber rolls, veggie rolls, rice

Chinese / Fried shrimp tail appetizer, fried rice

Indian / Flatbread, mild yellow curry dishes

Greek / Olives, gyro meat, hummus

Thai / Jasmine rice, pad thai, mild red curry

Polynesian / Pu-pu platter*, sliced pineapple


*Be prepared for laughter and jokes about the naming of this dish, which you can calmly explain comes from another language.  The number of different convenient finger foods on this tray makes ordering one worth any embarrassment that might ensue.


A fringe benefit of going out to foreign restaurants is, you may be introducing a family element into a restaurant where they’re not used to serving children.  If your children are well-behaved, they’ll notice and become more receptive to children at their restaurant.  If they glare at you the minute you walk in, it’s up to you whether you should push the envelope.  However, in my family’s case and since our kids are now very well-behaved at restaurants, we narrow our eyes like Clint Eastwood and ask the low-down, dirty punks to seat us.


Spills and Thrills.


If a child makes a mess or spills something, calmly encourage the child to apologize, and help clean it up.  Don’t take the server’s word for it that everything’s OK and they’ll take care of it.  You could have them clean up, but be prepared to tip 30% at the end of the meal.  The restaurant staff will be more appreciative of parents who take active responsibility for their kids’ behavior.  This is an example where your reaction will directly determine what kids learn about social situations.  Spills, dropping silverware…this stuff IS GOING TO happen, and you need to keep your cool in order to show your kids that apologizing, calmly solving the problem and continuing with your outing is the best way to handle various little pratfalls that inevitably arise.


In cases where the restaurant offers snacks prior to the meal, like chips and sauce, limit the amount your children eat or you’ll be taking more food home.  Chances are, the child will not finish his food anyway; get the remainder wrapped up, and make sure the child eats these leftovers at her very next meal.  (This will teach the children to eat what they order and also not to waste leftovers.)  With beverages, explain that they only have one (milk, juice or lemonade) to last them their whole meal, after which they get water; while this may sound draconian, it will keep them from sucking down four glasses of their beverage before their meals even show up.  Also, don’t make dessert a must…reserve it only for special occasions.  Chocolate milk as a beverage can make an inexpensive and effective “dessert substitute” sometimes, if you give the kids a choice between having chocolate milk with their food OR a dish of ice cream after they finish their food.


If your child is being unusually loud and does not comply with requests to use their inside voice or be quiet, the child needs to be removed for a time-out, in deference to other diners.  If there is more than one adult present, then adults can rotate the responsibility for taking the “attitude adjustment walk” (which also applies if a child must go to the rest room). In cases where only one adult is present, flag down your server and explain that you’ll be taking your child to the rest room for a moment, and thought you should let her know why the table will be empty for a few minutes (so they won’t think you walked out on your check, or your dinner doesn’t disappear by the time you return).  If there is one adult and two children present, then both children need to accompany the parent.  If there is one adult and more than two children present, I’m afraid you’re gonna be monkey meat….


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