As frequent restaurant patrons, we’ve see it all. We’ve seen the celebrators who have had too much to drink. We’ve seen the lovers cuddling in the corner. We’ve seen the professionals, pouring over their papers and devices. And of course, we’ve seen the families with young children.
As a parent, it can be tough to take your kids out to a restaurant. They don’t sit still, they make a mess, and they make demands for food the restaurant can’t provide. As much as you’d like to get out of the house, sometimes it’s easier just to stay home.
But you don’t have to! With a little preparation, you can enjoy a nice dinner out just like everyone else. Here are some tips to keep your kids calm while you eat out at restaurants.
1. Choose a family-friendly restaurant
That bar downtown may have the best wings and killer beer specials, but it’s not suited for children. The music is probably too loud. It’s crowded. And they don’t serve much kid-friendly food. Likewise, that fancy French restaurant probably isn’t for them either.
Choose a restaurant that expects to serve children. They’ve built an atmosphere that isn’t overstimulating, but expects kids to get loud occasionally. They have a menu with popular children’s items like macaroni and cheese and hot dogs.
You’ll get better service at a family restaurant, as well, because the server expects to serve children. He or she won’t be annoyed with your little mess-maker who doesn’t impact the check much.
2. Look for play areas
Many restaurants are tacking on play areas for young children. These can be as simple as walled-off section with toys and books, or as complex as multi-story slides, tubes, and a ball pit. These sections are perfect for distracting your child during the initial wait for a table and the wait for your food.
Plus, play areas that require them to be physical are great at tiring them out so they sit quietly and eat their meal.
3. Don’t expect much
It’s silly to require a child under the age of seven or eight to sit still for very long. Their bodies just aren’t made for it. They have immense stores of energy just waiting to be released. Moving around and exploring is part of being a kid anyway, so it’s good to let them do their thing.
You can make the experience nicer for everyone by reining in your expectations. Yes, your child is going to stand up in the booth, crawl under the table, and dance in the aisle every so often. He/she is a kid; it happens. While you can encourage them to sit down and entertain themselves calmly, don’t turn it into a big battle.
Speaking of calm play time…
4. Distract, distract, distract
Throw some essential distraction items in a bag for your outing. You could drop in some small toys, a coloring book, their favorite storybook, and even a handheld gaming system. But the trick is to not hand over the entire bag when you get to the table. They’ll pull everything out (making a mess) and tire of it all quickly.
Hand over one item at a time. When they’re finished, pull out another. If you brought enough items, you should have enough for the entire trip.
Some parents don’t like to use games/TVs/screens to pacify their kids, but there’s no harm in using these tools as long as you use them in moderation. Make the Game Boy or PSP a special treat that only comes out on airplanes, long lines in the store, and of course restaurants.
5. Don’t bring them on an empty stomach
You might think this is counter-intuitive, but hunger is distracting for a lot of kids. It can turn a fun and happy child into a whiny little tantrum-waiting-to-happen.
You don’t have to feed your kids a full meal before you get to the restaurant, but a light snack before you leave the house can help keep them calm and polite. Crackers, cheese and raw fruits and vegetables are great before-meal snacks because they satisfy hunger, give energy, but don’t make you feel too full.
6. Plan your meal around the sleep schedule
Like most families, your kids probably have some typical sleep times. Plan to dine out just after they’ve slept, but not too close to the next sleep time. A child who expects a nap is going to get cranky at the restaurant, which can turn everyone’s experience into a nightmare.
This is harder for parents with babies who nap more often, but once your child begins to take just one or two naps per day, you should be able to rely on a somewhat-typical schedule.
7. Request kid-friendly seating
When you first speak with the host or hostess, request a table that is near the edging of the dining room and out of the action. Children may be curious about other things going on, like servers or other diners. It’s best to keep them away from anything they might knock over, spill or break.
This will also limit how much you bother other people in the dining room if your kids become noisy, whiny, or start crying.
8. Set real limits
It’s easy to acquiesce to a child in the moment so they calm down, but this is a bad strategy in the long run. For example, if your child throws food on the ground and you ignore it, you’re just teaching him/her that food-throwing is an appropriate behavior at the restaurant. The next time you eat out, you’ll deal with the same bad behavior.
Do you have children? How do you keep them calm at restaurants? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter.
Image credit: Lars Plougmann/Flickr