Remember when going to a restaurant meant lingering at a quiet corner table with your sweetie, playfully debating who should get the last morsel of crème brûlée? Nowadays, it seems the only thing lingering is your car at the pickup window, while your two-year-old howls for the blue toy instead of the red one.
If you’ve been avoiding real restaurants because your last foray as a family served up a trying combination of waiting, whining and withering looks, you’re also passing up a great break: You don’t have to shop, cook or scrub dishes, each kid gets to eat what she wants, and everyone can actually sit down together at the same time. So park the car and grab a booth by the window (the view keeps kids occupied). Here’s how to enjoy eating out, no matter how young your dining companions are.
Toddlers have an attention span of about twice their age in minutes, so short outings with lots of diversions are best. “Once babies become mobile, they want to experience every part of the world,” says Don Giesbrecht, director of the Assiniboine Children’s Centre in Winnipeg. Plan for your child’s need to explore and prepare to interact with him — everyone’s meal will go down easier.
Dine where they like families. Telltale signs of a welcoming restaurant include a children’s menu, high chairs with straps (so toddlers can’t try a radical descent) and, well, other families. You won’t likely face an audience of scowls when Jane fusses for a feeding, and staff will think it’s cute when Dick pleads for “girled cheese.” Dining at a kid-friendly place shows good manners on your part too, since the choice respects other patrons, according to Paula Wilhelm, of In Good Company, who teaches etiquette to kids and adults in Toronto and Burlington, Ont.
Keep them busy. Nancy Regan, a Mississauga, Ont., mom, leads off with a “restaurant orientation tour” for Korly, nearly two, and Nate, nine months, to kill some time while husband Joe orders dinner for everyone. She also keeps a container of toys specifically for restaurants and airplanes, pulling out one toy at a time rather than offering everything at once. Aim for speed. Toddlers aren’t known for their patience, so waiting can be a challenge. Cathy Byers of Calgary goes before the dinner rush to the spots she knows well, so she can order upon being seated with two-year-old Ridley. Another trick: Start with your child on your lap during the wait, or he may be ready to ditch his high chair just as the food arrives. It also helps speed the meal to ask for dessert when the server comes to check on your entrees, and request the bill as dessert lands.
While kids in this age range have a greater capacity to sit, they can’t endure a two-hour soiree. Booths allow children to move around with minimal disruption. “We know it’s not polite to point or stare, but this age is still learning about social expectations,” Giesbrecht says.
Practise at home. “Give children the tools to be good,” says Don Pare, who runs a small Toronto daycare and lunches out once a week with his six young charges. The kids are reminded, before they walk into a restaurant, that the gang will have to leave if they behave inappropriately. “If a child knows what is expected and what the consequences are, you have it made,” he says. They’ve never had to leave.
Be a good model. Erica Kim Lalonde of Montreal minds her table manners since she knows her four-year-old son, Sebastien, is watching: She’s noticed him dabbing at his mouth with his napkin, just like Mom!
Correct quietly. Your child asks: “Mommy, why does that lady look funny?” Resist the temptation to reprimand her just to satisfy offended onlookers. Would you want the boss chewing you out in a meeting for making an innocent error? “I lean in and tell the child what they said was hurtful to that person, but I do it in a respectful, private manner,” Giesbrecht says. “It’s OK for kids to be inquisitive.”
In this age group, kids are hungry for interaction, whether that’s sharing moments from their day or teasing a sibling. And if you’ve been selecting your child’s meal up to now, that’s about to change: “This is when kids are going to want more autonomy,” Giesbrecht explains, though you can expect shy types to be reticent about placing their orders with the server.
Let them be assertive. Encourage your children to order their meals as practice for conversing with other adults. A rehearsal at the table before the server arrives might help a timid child feel more comfortable.
Avoid food fights. Lead by example to help kids learn to make their own wise nutrition choices — so opt for the salad or baked potato to accompany your grilled chicken. But if your gang is accustomed to french fries, don’t suddenly impose a french-fry ban just as the waiter appears. She wants pop, you push water — maybe you compromise at chocolate milk. At a buffet, teaching kids to take small portions demonstrates politeness and healthy eating habits.
Engage them. When her three boys were this age, Reta Bean of Thornhill, Ont., used to plant a parent between siblings — a great trick for cutting out horseplay — then invited the kids into the conversation. “They have to feel a part of the party or they’ll find some other way to get your attention,” observes Maria Raios, owner of a Mr. Greek restaurant franchise that caters to families in Toronto’s east end.
Even if the announcement “We’re going out to dinner!” elicits cheers from your five-year-old, don’t be surprised if an older sibling sulks with her iPod. Maybe she had a bad day; perhaps she doesn’t adore the menu at your usual spot. “You’re not going to see the outbursts of a younger child,” says Giesbrecht, “but, at this age, you’re going to get some attitude if they’re unhappy.” And boredom can spur some kids to plug into a portable game player to tune out conversation.
Ask for input. Preteens definitely want a say in activities, so ask if they have any venue preferences. “They don’t control the process, but they can add to it,” Giesbrecht says.
Plan for amusements. When Tracy Biggs of Saint-Lazare, Que., dines out with her four kids (aged six to 14), they chat and play games together. Winnipeg’s Ramona Kerr invested in a Game Boy Advance SP for her eight-year-old son, Evan. “The time flies for him — dining out has never been easier,” she says. Of course, you’ll have to decide how much electronics use is acceptable in your family, and Wilhelm believes that when kids plug in, they’re missing out on learning conversation skills they’ll need for events when games and music players are not permitted. As a compromise, Giesbrecht suggests allowing games or music before the food arrives, then packing them away for the remainder of the date.
Mom and Dad crave a change from chicken burgers and paper napkins. But can you risk venturing into the hushed realm of fancy restaurants — the kind with sommeliers and white tablecloths? Or should you and your kids stick to the noisy, welcoming confines of your local family diner? Watch for these signs of readiness:
Age Although yours may be the rare exception, “when children are in their preschool years, it’s not fair to expect them to sit still for an extended period of time and not make any noise,” says Don Giesbrecht, director of the Assiniboine Children’s Centre in Winnipeg. He recommends holding off on haute cuisine until kids are seven to nine. (Use your judgment: Some children will be ready sooner, some not until much later.)
Taste buds If your kids only eat meat that comes between a bun, they may not appreciate what’s on the menu at a high-end bistro.
Previous experience Only when children can behave at fast-food joints and family-friendly restaurants should parents reasonably consider taking them to a more formal restaurant.
Your willingness Many parents admit they prefer to reserve chic restaurants for parent-only date nights. “I want to take my time and enjoy myself,” says Cathy Byers of Calgary. “I don’t want to be trying to entertain [my] and keep him busy.”