Dining out at a favorite restaurant is usually a treat. But, when you have young children, enjoying a public meal can be a challenge. Boredom, tantrums, picky eating habits and glares from annoyed patrons are just some of the difficulties that parents face when dining out with their little ones. The good news is that you don’t have to stay home. With a little planning, practice and patience, it is possible to chow down in peace.
A positive restaurant experience starts before you leave home. Pediatric psychologist Robert Kline says parents can create a mock restaurant setting to practice good behavior in a low-stress environment.
“You can have them sit at the table. You can pretend to take their order,” Kline says. “Role play is a fantastic learning device for young children. Teach the do’s and don’ts at home, not at the restaurant.”
The next step is to put together what Kline calls a “restaurant bag.” Parents can fill the bag with crayons, books, games and small toys that will keep a child entertained while they are waiting for their meal. Another tip is to give your child some exercise before heading out. A game of tag, tossing a ball or riding around the block on a tricycle are a few ideas. Kline says five to 10 minutes of physical activity should keep them from bouncing off the walls. If your child starts to get restless while at the restaurant, take them outside for a short walk.
“It’s a good opportunity to get their hearts going and get some of their energy out,” he says.
Parents should set fair expectations for their children. Kline says age and temperament are the biggest factors in determining how a child will behave at a restaurant. He divides children into three personality categories: mild, medium and spicy.
A “mild” child tends to be more attentive, adaptable and controlled. “Spicy” children are determined, adventurous and strong-willed. Kline says most kids fall in the “medium” group. They can be lively and sociable, but also respectful and orderly. According to Kline, 20 to 35 minutes is a reasonable amount of time for most 2- to 5-year-olds to tolerate being at a restaurant. A child with a “spicy” personality might last half that time before acting out.
“You’ll have issues if you don’t consider a child’s age and personality,” says Kline. “A 2-year-old who is ‘spicy’ and a 5-year-old who is ‘mild’ are totally different situations.”
Even with the best preparation, things can still go wrong. Kline suggests correcting poor behavior by first saying “No” in a firm voice. If your child is crying and screaming, take them outside. This allows you to control the environment and avoid the embarrassment of other diners staring at you. Kline says positive reinforcement is more effective than punishment.
“If the child is getting yelled at or punished, it becomes too stressful,” Kline says. “Don’t punish your kid if the restaurant experience is a disaster. It just means that you need to practice more, or they just aren’t ready yet.”