Some restaurants across the country have started banning children or implementing "No Screaming" and "Be Respectful" edicts for pint-size diners. Sure, kids can be unruly at mealtimes and they can make eating out less than relaxing for everyone in the dining room. But how do you teach kids to behave in a restaurant if they're not welcome? Learning how to act in different situations is important for children -- it improves their confidence and helps them develop social skills-- and proper restaurant behavior at a young age gets them off to a good start. Whether you have a toddler or an older child, see if she's ready to begin eating out in a restaurant. Prepare her by trying these helpful techniques for a stress-free outing.
Not all restaurants embrace children; some are explicit about that, others are not. Play it safe and call ahead. This is a good opportunity to check that there is a children's menu or something on the regular menu that your kids will eat. Some places will tailor dishes if they don't have a children's menu or leave out ingredients that are too complicated. Others go out of their way to accommodate small customers, with stroller check-in and portable DVD players to keep them entertained.
"Mealtimes are so important for families, especially in cities where everyone is short on time," says Marc Murphy, who, as chef and owner of the Landmarc restaurants in New York City, has made his eateries both adult- and child-friendly. "I have kids, and I wanted to create restaurants that welcome families and that have enough stuff for kids to eat, but that don't make adults feel like they're eating at Chuck E. Cheese's." Just don't wait until you're sitting at a table to find that out.
If this is your first foray into dining out with the little ones, choose somewhere nice, not too fancy, and family-friendly. In the beginning, order just one course (skip the appetizers and desserts). "Most parents can gauge what their children can handle," says Jessica Ritz, creator of Taster Tots LA (tastertotsla.com), a blog that lists child-friendly restaurants with adult-friendly food in Los Angeles. "By a certain age, some kids enjoy dining role-play too, like placing a cloth napkin in their laps." Murphy adds, "Don't underestimate your kids -- they really enjoy being treated like adults!"
An overtired or over-hungry child is no fun for anyone, so hit your favorite spot in the midafternoon, after your little one has had a nap, or while the Early Bird Special is still available. The restaurant will be quieter, you'll be less likely to disturb other diners, the waitstaff will be less frazzled, and (best of all) your child won't be exhausted. "There's no such thing as being too early to eat dinner in a restaurant with kids, especially if they are very young," Ritz advises. A 5:00 or 5:30 p.m. dinner also means staying on track with evening routines and allotting extra time in case the evening's plans get derailed.
Just in case boredom or restlessness sets in, pack a few toys, books, tools for coloring, or anything that will keep your kids quiet and won't make noise that will distract other diners. Murphy cautions against electronics, though. "Coloring is fine, but please leave the iPads, iPods, DS games, and any other electronic device at home, Parents want peace and quiet when they eat, but the way to get that to happen is not to reinforce that children will get to watch a movie if they scream loud enough," he says. Even though Ritz agrees that a low-tech outing will pay off in the end, she admits to pulling out the iPhone in moments of desperation.
Before you leave home, tell your kids what kind of behavior you want to see at the restaurant as a sign of respect to other diners. Even if your child is too young to understand, try to convey what you can or demonstrate what you expect. Expectations may vary from parent to parent, but children of all ages should be told to sit up at the table, keep the noise down, use good manners, and eat their meal with utensils.
Explain how long the outing will be (45 minutes is a reasonable goal if you're just starting out) and explain that no running, shouting, or throwing food will be tolerated. "I can't stand it when parents let their kids run around a restaurant because 'they're just kids,'" Murphy says. "That's not a fun dining experience for anyone. If you don't tell your kids how they should behave, they'll never learn and you'll spend more time chasing and reprimanding them than eating dinner."
Request a corner table rather than one in the middle of the room or ask your server where the least conspicuous spot in the dining room is. Your kids will be out of the way of other diners and more contained in a private area. This will also help keep any kids' noises or disturbances from being too noticeable and make the overall experience more enjoyable.
If your children act up, act on it, but try not to make a scene. "The sound of loud kids is only surpassed by the voices of stressed-out parents trying to restore order," Ritz points out. Remove upset tots from the table as soon as their behavior gets disruptive and take them into the bathroom or outside to calm down. But be prepared to leave if you can't restore order. Your fellow diners and the staff will appreciate your consideration if you ask very nicely for your meal to be wrapped up to go, and stop the mayhem and take the meltdowns home instead.
"What better setting for adults to model and teach good manners than in restaurants?" Ritz asks. Take the opportunity to explain how important it is to say "please" and "thank you" to waiters when making a request and to say "thank you" again to the restaurant host at the end of the meal. If the kids are old enough, teach them about tipping for good service, and get them to help count out the tip. "If you can spare a minute before you leave, make an effort to tidy up your area a bit," Ritz says. "Especially if it's a place you want to eat at again!"
Kirsten Matthew is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, New York Post, InStyle.com, and NYmag.com. You can read her blog at kirstenmatthew.com/blog.