PracticalDad:  Training Children to Dine Out

While fewer are eating at restaurants, it’s still a nice change from the kitchen table.  But it isn’t so nice when the little ones are carrying on and drawing nasty glances from other diners and the restaurant staff.  But what can you do to teach good restaurant behavior so that it again becomes a pleasure worthy of the money being spent?

First,  understand that it – like almost everything else with a small child – is a learned behavior.  The typical child is utterly egocentric and wants to run roughshod while having fun and having to behave at a table while waiting for food is simply a bore.  So she is going to have to learn and that’s going to take time, effort and consistency.  That being the case, be sure that the training takes place at a restaurant that is neither fast-food nor haute cuisine.  The child needs to learn to use even a rudimentary menu and also wait for service.

Second, be clear about what you’re trying to teach.  Most kids are finicky eaters and the intent isn’t to expose them to different foods.  Your intent is to teach and reinforce a series of behaviors that will later permit trying different foods without the stress.  If Mac and cheese makes her happy now, that’s fine.  Also know that good behavior isn’t going to be perfect behavior.

Third, remember that this is going to be a process.  Expect that you’re going to have to step out of the restaurant to correct repetitive misbehaviors until she learns.

So, what can you do?

  • Set your child up for success by thinking ahead.  Most people go out for dinner during what is the witching hour for children, that time of day when they’re wearing out even if they’ve had a nap.  If she’s appearing overly tired, then consider shelving the dinner for another night. 
  • Think about what restaurant serves the purpose.  Consider a local family restaurant or a chain restaurant with decent lighting and a children’s menu.
  • Throw some crayons and notepaper in your pocket to occupy her in the event that the restaurant doesn’t have diversions of their own to offer.  Learning to sit and wait doesn’t mean that she can’t be quietly occupied.  Likewise, you have to be ready to spend time interacting with her and not just ignoring her.
  • Clearly talk about what you expect before you enter the restaurant and also talk about what happens if there are problems. 
  • Be prepared to routinely take her out of the restaurant for brief walks if things drag on.  This isn’t the same as disciplining her, but just giving her a brief break from the wait.  She needs to learn how to be patient and wait, but you have to also remember that she’s a small child with a finite capacity.  I routinely took the kids for brief strolls outside when they began to appear near their limit and these brief breaks helped control their behavior.
  • When she becomes disruptive, warn her clearly about the consequences.  Once, twice or three times is entirely at your discretion but remember that warnings without enforcement can lead to a sense that you aren’t serious.
  • If she doesn’t heed the warnings, remove her from the restaurant.  I’d take my kids to the car where I’d strap them in the carseat for several minutes while I waited outside the car.  They could scream, cry or sulk but they spent the time out of the restaurant and in the car.  After that interval, I’d talk to them, calm them and reinforce the rules before returning inside.  If necessary, I’d repeat the process although that rarely happened because they learned that if it did, there was no returning to the restaurant.
  • When the meal is finished, talk about the experience.  How was the food?  What did she like best?  Would she like to return there?  And part of the talk has to be praise for how well she did, provided that she did well.  Even if she had to be removed, find a way to praise her for how she did afterwards.  The more that she enjoys the experience, the likelier that she’ll behave the next time around.

It is a process and it does require work, because a child isn’t an adult.  But the effort and persistence are worth the effort when you find that you can take them to the nicer restaurants and actually enjoy the food, experience and company.


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