Remember the days of dining out with just adults; laughter, conversation, lingering over dessert and coffee? Once baby hits the scene, or maybe more accurately, toddler, leisurely dinners often become a distant memory. And, although the “leisurely” part of the meal may be too much to ask, a pleasant meal out as a family does not have to be a thing of the past. Here’s how to have your cake and eat it, too.
• Practice at home. If your child is not required to sit at the table and eat with the family regularly, using manners and acceptable behavior your child will have know idea what you expect in a public setting.
• Plan ahead. Make sure your child is rested and not hungry, before you go. Yes, I know you are going out to eat, but you are also going to have to sit at a table and wait for food – something that doesn’t typically happen at home. Let your little one have a bite before you leave the house and a couple of crackers or cheerios once you sit down. Try to keep your wait for a table to a minimum by picking a less busy time of day, or sending someone ahead to sign-in, especially if your child is unable to move around outside at your chosen spot.
• Choose the right venue. It doesn’t have to be McDonald’s or Chuck E. Cheese, but a spot with at least a moderate noise level and a few other high chairs creates a more relaxed atmosphere for everyone.
• Treat the high-chair or booster like a car-seat; once you are in, you do not get out until the meal/trip is over. It is unsafe for children to move about in restaurants – children, patrons and servers are all at risk when children are allowed underfoot. Besides, the people at other table did not go out to eat so they could dine with your child hanging over their booths or standing at their table. The truth is, you love your little one madly, but strangers do not, especially during their dinner.
Your child cannot run around if the restaurant or patio area is empty. It’s unlikely those spaces will remain empty for your entire meal and you will eventually have to corral a toddler who does not understand why it was ok to wander about just moments ago and now they must be secured in a high-chair, stroller or lap. To avoid confusion, keep the rule consistent; when you are eating at home or away, you sit at the table with your food, when you are in a restaurant you sit at the table during the entire visit.
• Bring a table treat. Put a special bag together with a couple of things that your child only plays with when dining-out, something that holds your little ones attention.
• Converse. Include your child in conversation, and offer your attention. Observe the setting together. Acknowledge good behavior and frustrating events. Save leisurely dining to adults-only outings, even in the best of situations, it is difficult for little ones to sit for extended periods of time.
• If all else fails – Leave and take your food to-go. Do not let your little one act-up without consequence, this is how bad behavior builds. When misbehavior occurs, offer a reminder about the expectation, and if your child does not comply, swiftly and matter-of-factly pick them up, tell them their behavior is inappropriate and it is time to go home. Take their table activity away and leave their food behind. Do not relent if your little one begs to stay, you already gave a reminder, and now you must follow-through.
Restaurant expectations, like all expectations, must be taught, practiced and upheld. In the preschool years, perfection may elude you, but enjoyment will not, if you set everyone up for success.