It may sound like I'm bragging, and I probably am to some degree. I'm proud that they behave well in restaurants and even enjoy going out. Perhaps we are lucky, but I think that their behavior is based on some hard work on our part. Tom and I have never avoided taking our children with us when dining out. Eating in restaurants is part of our fast-paced lifestyle, and we also see it as a way to expose the children to different types of cuisine.
The ease of takeout fare and restaurant dining is what attracts busy families, especially when both parents work. According to the National Restaurant Association, Americans over the age of eight eat away from the home more than four times a week, or nearly two hundred times a year. It's probably safe to say that many individuals and families don't dine out as much as statistics suggest, however. In fact, a survey by Restaurants and Institutions found that couples without children dine out about 30 percent more often than couples with kids. For some people, dining out is a rare pleasure to be savored and enjoyed. If this description fits you, you'll be tempted to leave your child at home when you crave a quiet meal and good conversation. But don't do it too often. Your son could become uncomfortable in restaurant settings, so that when you dine out with him, the meal is chaotic.
Strategies for Successful Dining with Kids
Tom and I have ways of handling the children in a restaurant setting that work best for us. We are not above using as many tricks and techniques as possible to ensure a more pleasant meal. The more prepared you are, the better. Here are tried-and-true strategies, some more obvious than others.
Choose a conducive restaurant with attentive wait staff. Eating establishments that cater to kids rank high on our list. Choose restaurants that offer good service and pleasant decor to get the most from your dining experience. We have several favorites that we know are accepting of children. We especially favor places that offer coloring materials and have high chairs and booster seats that are in good condition.
Request an out-of-the-way table or booth. When the hostess sees us coming, I imagine she's thinking about where to put us so that we won't disrupt the other diners, which is usually in a section designated for families. That's fine by me, as long as I can get good service. If you prefer a booth in a more central location, let the wait staff or hostess know your wishes.
Lower your expectations. Your significant other may be present and there may even be a candle on the table. Don't get any ideas. This is no romantic dinner. Save that type of dining for another time and focus on the children.
Go early. For the most part, we try to make it to a restaurant by 6:00 P.M., especially on weekend nights. Places are much less crowded, so it's easier to get the seating we need, the service is better, and the kids tend to be less cranky at that time of day.
Relax. You don't have to cook or clean up. What could be better? (Kids who behaved perfectly, maybe?)
Keep kids occupied. As my friend Cindy suggests, bring crayons and coloring books or paper, books, or small (noiseless, please) toys to keep kids from climbing the wall while waiting for their food to arrive.
Don't make them wait. Young children do not operate on your schedule. They can become very hungry while waiting for their meal. A hungry child can be whiny and unruly, so bring along some low-fat snacks such as carrot sticks, pretzels, or crackers to take the edge off hunger. Offer kids a roll or some snack chips while they wait. We order the kids' meals well before we place our order, and then get them a bowl of ice cream to eat while we're eating our meal. Since Tom and I rarely order dessert, this works out great as far as timing because everyone is done at about the same time.
Focus on the familiar, but encourage new foods, too. Children crave routine, and it's no different when they dine out. You may look forward to trying a new cuisine, but they may have other things in mind. As I mentioned, Hayley and Hannah typically request fried chicken nuggets and French fries or rice if they're not eating pizza, another favorite. Recently, we took them to their first-ever Thai restaurant, where the only offering close to chicken nuggets was chicken sate with peanut sauce. Being creatures of habit, I thought they would reject it. Turns out, they loved the chicken sate. They even went for our sticky rice, which had a different feel and taste than the boiled white rice we had ordered for them. At that same Thai meal, Hannah ate a healthy serving of noodles from our pad thai dish, also something new for her.
Include fruit or vegetables. You may not be able to get them to eat a salad or a side order of broccoli, but that doesn't mean dining out must be devoid of produce. Hayley adores the pineapple presented at the end of a Chinese meal and eats nearly the whole portion when it arrives. As long as fruit is on the menu in some form, you don't have to wait until the end of the meal to ask for it. Include a fruit cup with your child's meal, or order juice instead of soda. Baked potatoes instead of French fries are also a more nutritious option, even when covered in sour cream.