We have all been there. You go to a restaurant with your children and you can see it all about to unravel. Perhaps it’s not the exact right kind of chicken tender or maybe it’s taking a lifetime for the food to arrive. Potentially it’s just an off night and everyone is feeling a bit cranky. But whatever it is, you can see into your magic crystal ball that this is not the best night for a public display of your parenting skills in a tightly cramped eating environment. Given the preference for avoiding the stink eye from all the diners around you, the natural tendency is to pull out a tablet, or in times of dire need, a parent’s cell phone. There should absolutely be no guilt in engaging this emergency plan if necessary. But, there are ways to make family restaurant trips social and successful.
Eating is not only about nutrition and mealtimes are a special opportunity so engage socially with your child. Doing this in a public setting takes practice. So with a little bit of pre-planning, your family restaurant meals can be a reprieve from cooking and a chance for everyone to have fun, not just another opportunity for more screen time.
1. Plan ahead
The food is generally the most successful part of the meal. So, if you know that waiting to eat is still a skill that your child is working on, call ahead. That’s right, call ahead let the restaurant know that you will be there in 15 minutes and that you would like to have certain items ready when you arrive. I have done this many times when my children were small and requested that our favorite appetizers were waiting for us when we sat down.
2. Be Ready to Help Direct Conversation
Some children are born conversationalists. If you ask them about the best part of their day, they could go on forever (I have a few of those). Others need more scaffolding to engage in sustained conversation. For older children you could play Roses and Thorns and have everyone share positive aspects and challenges over the past day/week or have some conversation starters ready (I love this website: https://thefamilydinnerproject.org/conversation/). For younger ones, other games like I Spy (for example, finding something that is red and having the guessers find that object), 20 Questions, or going through the menu to see if you can find all the letters of the alphabet, can keep everyone engaged while waiting. I also love Charades, with the extra challenge of sitting while giving your clue, or Concentration where your children pick a category (think food, colors, names, flowers, places, etc.) and then work together to make your way through the alphabet.
3. Bring Along an Activity Bag
This should not be a doll house complete with the entire doll family. Rather, pick a few action figures, a small doll or two, any type of travel game, crayons and coloring book, or puzzle book. Engage your children to see what three activities they would like to bring. Unless your child is a super toy player (mine never were), expect each activity to last between 5-10 minutes. Bring activities that you can join in to play with your child. This is a great opportunity to socially engage and avoid screens.
4. Going Outside is Always an Option
If sitting and waiting for food is proving to be too difficult or if your child is too distracting (that is they are yelling, screaming, crying) for other diners, take a break outside. Go for a short stroll in the area to help your child regain composure and pass some time until s/he can return to complete the meal.
5. End with Success
Consider the age of your children and think about an appropriate amount of time that the meal should take. If your child is done eating in 20 minutes at home, requiring your child to hold out for a 90-minute, 5-course meal is not reasonable expectation. No need to necessarily rush and shovel food in, but 45 minutes may set everyone up for success. As the meal is ending, if you begin to see any wiggles starting, go ahead and get the bill ready and pay early so you can leave on a positive note.
Successfully eating in a restaurant is like every other skill; it must be learned. If you are going out to dinner because you want to have the chance to take a break and enjoy a fantastic meal, chat with a spouse, or catch up with friends, consider getting a babysitter. If you choose to bring your children with you, be ready to help them achieve success and be actively engaged with them during the meal. So be ready for mistakes, have lots of patience, and maybe, just maybe have that phone ready just in case.