Eating out can be a great adventure for your family, an interesting change in the daily routine – or a total disaster if your little ones aren’t prepared for the experience and misbehave or melt down. Here are some tips for taking your kids to a restaurant and get through the meal with your sanity intact.
1. Talk to your kids about what eating in a restaurant is like before you go. If they know ahead of time they might have to wait to sit down and will definitely have to wait some more to get their food, they’ll be more prepared for it and more likely to behave. Offer to take them outside for a walk if they get too restless. Have an older sibling or another caregiver pretend to be the waiter at home and practice ordering.
2. Pack some snacks and quiet toys to get through the wait, just in case. Snacks will help satisfy your little one during a long wait for a table, or if they don’t like what they order. Books, coloring books, or dolls can help stave off boredom until your meal arrives.
3. Remind your kids of how you’d like them to behave while you’re in the restaurant, focusing on what to do instead of what not to do. If your little one asks why they can’t do something – for example, run around the seating area or play with their silverware – explain why they can’t do it. Don’t forget to praise good behavior.
4. Have a conversation with your kids while you’re waiting for their food to arrive. Asking them what happened at school or helping them find letters and words on the menu they know will keep them involved and help them behave.
5. Pick a kid-friendly restaurant for your family dinner. Restaurants that have a children’s menu or advertise “kids eat free!” specials can work better with rambunctious, messy, or overwhelmed toddlers than fancy places can.
6. Play quiet games around the table, such as a simple question game where the asker keeps everyone busy answering, or I Spy (especially good in restaurants that cover the walls in posters and knick-knacks). This will help take your kids’ minds off the long wait for your meal.
7. Make up stories about the people around you (if your children are quiet enough to do so politely, of course!). This helps encourage kids to use their imagination and improve their storytelling skills.
8. Use flash cards as a distraction that doubles as a learning tool. You can practice shapes and colors, teach your kids about new animals or plants, or practice new words while you wait for your meal to arrive.
9. If your little ones aren’t satisfied unless their hands are busy, bring a bunch of pipe cleaners. They can fold them into anything they can think of, and make fun accessories while they wait
10. Make a tiny theatre out of an old matchbox. That and some toothpick puppets will help you and your children make up silly stories to pass the time.
11. Tell knock-knock jokes, the sillier the better. Young children love this stripe of joke, and they’re very easy to make up on the fly.
12. Read a book aloud around the table, or on the bench while you wait to be seated. It’s so simple that many parents forget all about it, but story time is a great way to keep your children’s attention occupied and work some bonding time into the outing.
13. If you know some origami, grab a piece of paper or a spare napkin and get folding! Children will be fascinated by how the simple square turns into an flower or animal just by folding it, and teaching them can keep them as occupied as folding it for them.
14. If your little one can’t manage to behave, don’t be afraid to use a time out. Taking them back to the car to cool down for a few minutes will be more effective than just saying “no” over and over, and will give you a chance to talk to them about how to behave better when you go back in.
15. Stay flexible. Food’s probably going to hit the floor; someone’s probably going to start crying; the toys probably aren’t going to be enough of a distraction. Don’t expect everything to go perfectly the first time, and don’t let a bad experience stop you from trying again.