Eating at a restaurant has you coming home more stressed than relaxed. Learn ways to enjoy a restaurant meal with kids, even without screens.
With three kids, I’ve had my fair share of restaurant madness. Just last night, one of my three-year-olds kept switching seats and wouldn’t stay put. It didn’t help when he dropped one of his burger buns before he even had a bite of it. Definitely not easy.
But each time I’ve gone, I pick up more tips to enjoy a restaurant with my kids. Now, for the most part, they behave well in restaurants.
What makes our situation unusual is we don’t rely on common “distractions.” Things like smart phones or tablets, snacks or walking them around the restaurant. We don’t even limit ourselves to “kid-friendly” places—they’ve eaten at loud diners and fancy tea rooms.
And I rarely bring snacks to restaurants. I time our outing so we arrive right when the kids should be hungry. I also want them to enjoy the restaurant’s food, not a box of raisins or apple slices. And I want them to enjoy the restaurant for what it is than to see it as something to get over with.
How to enjoy a restaurant meal with kids
If we can’t enjoy a restaurant with kids, what’s the point of taking them? So, without screens, snacks or kid-friendly restaurants, how can you enjoy the experience?
1. Go at a good time
Timing is the first thing I consider when going to a restaurant with my kids. Currently, our ideal time to go is arriving at 4:30pm. By the time we’ve settled in and our food arrives, it’s 5pm, the time they eat dinner at home.
Sometimes it’s hard to time your meals, or it just doesn’t work out. A few months ago, I joined my siblings at a steak house that didn’t end up serving dinner until 6pm, well past hunger point for my kids. In those cases, rely on bread and appetizers, as well as engaging them in conversation.
You’ll also want to go to a restaurant after your kids have had their needs met. This means after a good nap, a clean diaper or potty break, and relaxing downtime at home.
2. Set expectations beforehand — and set them high
A positive restaurant experience begins with the expectations you establish, even before you enter.
Talk to your kids about sitting at a table while someone takes your order. Behaving because other people are trying to enjoy their meals and waiting for the chefs to cook your meal.
If you’ve been to the restaurant, describe what they might see. Talk about the food they’ll likely eat, and which cuisine it’ll be. Paint a picture of what to expect so the experience is less surprising for them.
Not only should you establish expectations, you should set them high. Let your kids know that eating at a restaurant is a privilege and a treat. That any misbehavior means they won’t be able to do this as often. And that you believe they’re capable of behaving well.
Kids will meet our expectations, whether we set them low or high—might as well set them high. They’re more likely to feel like we trust them to behave. If they feel like you already assume they’ll misbehave, then they’ll do just that.
3. Encourage your kids to feed themselves
Let’s say you still have to cut your child’s food. Spend a few minutes up front to cut them up, then encourage her to feed himself.
You’re giving her the autonomy she craves to eat whatever way she wants. You’re also saving yourself time from spooning food into her mouth. And you’re able to enjoy your meal while she enjoys hers.
And of course, if your child is old enough, encourage her to feed herself. Hand her a fork and a safe knife to cut her chicken, or a spoon to scoop her rice. Never mind if it’s not how you’d do it, or if clumps of rice end up on the table.
4. Alternate feeding and eating
If your child is still too young , alternate between feeding and eating yourself. Don’t wait until your child has finished his meal before starting yours. Not only will your food be cold, but now he’ll have to wait a while until you finish your meal.
Instead, eat together. Scoop a spoonful into his mouth, then eat your meal right after. The best plan? Alternate with another adult so that both of you take turns feeding the baby.
5. Order quickly (and ask for the check soon)
You know how at restaurants, the waiter asks for your drink order, brings it, and then takes your food order? Save time and order all your meals in one conversation.
If you can, scan the menu ahead of time, whether online or on your phone in the waiting area. That way, you can place your order with your drinks a few minutes after settling in.
Then, once you get a sense that you’re wrapping up your meal, ask for your check. You can even ask for your check once they bring your order. But I tend to wait until it looks like we’re about to finish up.
6. Talk to your kids
Dinner time, whether at home or at a restaurant, is a time to engage as a family. Talk to your kids, and not with a mindset of distracting them from boredom. Instead, have a genuine interest in what they’re thinking.
What did you do at school? Why is that napkin folded that way? How many people do you think are in the restaurant?
Talking will help you enjoy your time more than if you sat impatiently waiting.
Encourage good table manners at home
Before you step into a restaurant, your child’s behaviors will reflect your own dinner table. If you allow him to throw food, get in and out of his seat or yell at home, he’ll do the same at a restaurant.
Instead, set high expectations of how they should behave at the dinner table. Dinners at home will be more relaxing than at a restaurant, of course. But you should still establish responsibilities and expectations at home.
For instance, don’t allow gadgets that would distract them from conversation with others. Expect polite behavior and kindness to one another. Don’t tolerate rude comments about the food. And use the time to reconnect after a day apart.
Good behavior starts at home and will translate well into a restaurant experience.
No more embarrassing outbursts or weird glances from restaurant patrons. No feeling more stressed in what should be a relaxing family meal.
You can enjoy a restaurant with kids, even without distractions. It may even be the absence of those distractions that will teach your children to behave well.
It’s about planning your outings well and focusing on family interaction. Teaching your kids this is a privilege and a positive experience, not one to get over. Expecting good behavior both at home and out and about.
And soon, you’ll be able to enjoy a restaurant outing with your kids—and actually eat your meal while it’s hot.
Get more tips:
- Restaurant Etiquette: 6 Tips for Well-Behaved Kids
- Do You Know What to Do when Your Child Acts Out in Public?
- Why Technology Is Unnecessary for Your Kids (Even In These Modern Times)
- How to Get Rid of Picky Eating Once and For All
- What to Do when You’re Unhappy Being a Mom
Tell me in the comments: How do you make sure you enjoy a restaurant meal with kids?
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