My husband and I took our two youngest (ages 18 months and two years) out to dinner with us on my birthday. Not only did we survive, we enjoyed ourselves, and would do it again. To top it off, we were complimented by a woman who was seated near us. I felt like Mom of the Year!
We have five children, but we sure don’t have this parenting thing all figured out. We’ve had our share of glorious public meltdowns and times we didn’t want to claim the screaming child as one of our own. Still, over the years, we’ve learned a few tricks to help little ones through a restaurant meal without disturbing the peace.
We eat around the dinner table at least four nights a week with the television off. Our kids began sitting at the table with us as soon as they could be propped up in their highchairs (even if we fed them earlier). We expect our two-year-old to stay in his seat until he's finished eating and to use his utensils and napkin by himself. We don’t have a lot of rules and we aren’t strict. We simply model manners and address undesirable behavior immediately.
We go to loud, colorful places that cater to children. We don’t take our kids anywhere we would go on a romantic date and if we arrive at a restaurant and find out it doesn’t have highchairs, we’re out of there faster than you can say, “Where’s the kid’s menu?”
That’s our motto for life with little ones. When we go out, we pack our bag with snacks, crayons, and small toys in case we have to wait. We also always bring sippy cups to avoid a milk-covered table. My husband and I are in agreement that we will leave at any time if one of the kids becomes disruptive. Our escape plan is for one of us to take the kids to the car while the other pays the check and gets the to-go boxes.
If the hostess tries to sit us next to a grumpy-looking older couple or a table that's too small, we ask to be seated elsewhere. We try to sit in a corner where we can spread out or near other families with children.
The first thing we do when we sit down is move the “stuff” completely off the table. Silverware? Gone. Condiment caddy? Goodbye. Plastic sign that has pictures of all the desserts? No, thank you! Then we encourage the kids to look around and watch people. We don’t pull out the toys unless they start to get restless.
We order our kids’ food the first time we see the server and ask for the food to be brought out when it's ready. Then we take a look at the menu and order our food when the server returns with our drinks. That way we're able to cut the kids’ food and get them settled and eating without our food in front of us – in the way and getting cold.
Suckers are our secret weapon. Once our food arrives and the kids are done eating, we pull out sugar-free suckers, which keep our boys occupied while we eat our dinner. Our two youngest rarely get candy so this special treat holds their attention long enough for us to finish dinner and pack up. Of course they get sticky, but we have baby wipes to clean up and it's so worth it!
We are kind and friendly with our server from the moment we sit down and we factor at least a 20% tip into our dining out budget. We typically need special attention (extra napkins, a new spoon to replace the one that fell, taking the “stuff” away from our table, etc.) and we make a mess of the table and floor, but we try to make up for it in cash. Having a server on our side adds one more to the grown-up’s team and increases our odds of enjoying a tantrum-free meal.
Having a small child doesn’t have to mean hermit living. A little courage, a plan, and a few lollipops can turn a seemingly risky venture into an enjoyable experience for everyone (including the couple seated next to you). I’m cheering you on to pack a few toys in your bag, pick a fun restaurant, and give it a try. Worst case scenario, you go home with a meal in a box that you didn’t have to cook!
What are your tricks and tips for keeping little ones happy in a restaurant?