BY ELAINE STONE
"Americans have been dining out in droves spending roughly half of their families total food budgets and consuming nearly a third of all calories away from home," states the American Academy of Pediatrics.
So, it is likely that your child has or will soon have the experience of eating out. Everyone has had the collective experience of children run amuck in a restaurant, or the screaming baby that doesn't bother his parents, or the active toddler who throws things. We were all born missing the gene for acceptable social behavior. Everyone has to learn what behaviors do and don't cut it in social establishments. Children have to practice and be exposed to the experience to assimilate it into their behavior scheme. Parents could have a more successful dining experience by considering a few things before venturing out.
Consider the family budget; decide what type of restaurant is affordable. There is nothing worse than a bill higher than you wanted to pay. Don't let the experience be ruined by not thinking about the check. Everyone will be happier if it fits within the family's financial budget.
You'll want to schedule the meal according to children's sleep cycles. An early dinner is usually better for kids. They will have the physical fortitude to withstand the demands of a public appearance. Also, the earlier you go the fewer people at the restaurant, which means quicker service, more seating options and a bit more latitude in helping children learn the world of public dining.
Be sure to choose a restaurant according to your child's abilities.
"It's normal for toddlers to have a short attention span and an overwhelming urge to explore," explains W. George Scarlett, PhD, assistant professor of child development at Tufts University, in Medford, Massachusetts.
If a three-star restaurant is too quiet and few children eat there, do not throw your novice diner into the mix. Choose a place that will help them be successful at their skill level.
Talk to your children before arriving and give clear expectations beforehand. Talk about what it means to eat away from home. Review all the basics -- saying "please" and "thank you," chewing with her mouth closed and speaking in a quiet voice -- things she should be doing at your home dinner table. Give reminders since the atmosphere may cause distraction and normal routine is shifted.
Go prepared...expect a wait (making a reservation is always a good idea if the restaurant accepts them) and have a bag of tricks. Pack some snacks in case the wait is longer than a child's hunger pangs can hold or service is slower than expected. Cheerios taste mighty good to a depleted stomach.
When you get to the restaurant, check out table options, sit away from others, near restrooms, outside or choose a booth. These give children a little wiggle room.
Once seated, be prepared to order quickly even if this means preselecting your order on the web before you arrive. Ideally, place the order when drinks are offered. The quicker the kitchen gets your order the less time hungry children wait. Ask for bread/chips (Mex) or order an appetizer for everyone to share, if hunger is raging.
"The age of your children is a key factor in how quickly you are served in a restaurant. We once had a waiter in Canada who said, 'Could I get you your check?' and we answered, 'How about the menu first?' " ~ Erma Bombeck
When ordering, give kids three healthy options to choose from. Don't allow dining out to mean poor nutrition for children. There are better options than chicken nuggets, pizza or mac and cheese. Encourage healthier choices, and if old enough, let them make the decision. Giving some autonomy teaches children how to make decisions and usually pays benefits in cooperativeness. For healthier kid options, ask if the restaurant will do half entrees (many will), let children share an adult entree or order several entrees and share family style.
At the table
Always refer to your server by name. Introduce the server to the family and let children order for themselves referring to the server by name, if age appropriate. Remember, this is a learning experience.
Make sure to clear the table before you eat. Restaurants are rarely childproof. Survey the table and remove any unnecessary items to help keep the meal accident free. A few clues; candles (they hold a certain magnetism), knives, utensils in general based on age, anything that can be grabbed and hurled and any clutter that could precipitate spills. Then equip the table with objects brought from home necessary for success; plastic utensils, sippy cups, placemats and bibs.
Now that the table is prepared, make dining out family time, not coloring time for children and adult talk time.
"Often, when adults go out to eat, they think it's time to relax and have adult conversation. That's when a child starts to get antsy," says Jayne Bellando, PhD, a pediatric psychologist at the Arkansas Children's Hospital, in Little Rock.
Include everyone at the table in conversation, teaching children the fine art of conversing; talk about the day, art on the wall (make up stories based on wall art), colors in the room or round robin table games (complete a sentence, or make a story). Have some small quiet toys available, or make up games; "I Spy" or arrange letters/numbers out of sugars packets. Keep boredom at bay and use it as a time to genuinely connect. If children feel ignored, they will use any means to get attention, which means the rest of the room will be paying attention.
If your child acts up during the meal, simply step outside together until he regains composure. As one wise friend put it, don't expect to be seated and get up when you are finished. Expect to be out of your seat at least half of the time you are there. Use that as the measure of success. Children are children and learning is a process. Two cautions for family dining: 1) think of others by never changing a baby or toddler at the table and 2) if nursing, cover up and keep the baby's meal between you and your infant.
As you leave
Ultimate Tip, leave before the meltdown! Don't expect children to sit for hours. Watch for signs of impending doom and exit before hand. We all have our limits.
Be mindful to clean up messes around the table, not only will the staff love you, but it teaches children to take personal responsibility. Remember thank you's to the staff from you and the children and most importantly, tip large. Waiters normally will have more work when children are involved; special cups, extra napkins, incidentals and clean up. Reward their work. Some suggest up to 25 percent and never below 20 percent, if you are at a tipping restaurant. Tipping should be considered before you arrive as part of the cost, not as an afterthought at the end. If you can't afford the tip, you can't afford the restaurant.
When it's all done, remember to give your children words of praise for acceptable behaviors. With some positive reinforcement and parental guidance, children will learn to navigate the world of public eating. Dining out can be a positive family adventure filled with interesting conversation and changing cuisine. Take some time to make it enjoyable by preparation and forethought. Final piece of advice, NEVER forget the diapers and wipes. Go back home and get them if you do.
Eating-Out Essentials to Bring
- Snacks - It may seem odd to take food to a restaurant, but you'll be happy to have that container of Cheerios if you get stuck waiting for a table or for the food to arrive.
- Bath Books - Waterproof books are the perfect restaurant toy: You can wipe off any food or spills and they're soft so your child can't break anything with them.
- Books for older children, as well
- Baby Wipes - A small pack of wet wipes is a great way to clean a sticky table or sticky fingers before and after eating.
- Toppers To-Go - Stashed inside a disposable sippy cup are a fork, spoon, place mat, and bib -- everything you need for dining out easily.
- Quiet toys - coloring pages, stickers, Etch-a-Sketch or a drawing pad.
Kids Eat Free Websites
Put in area code or city and it will list all of the kids deals and on whaich nights they occur.
Elaine Stone, mother of three, lives in Spotsylvania.