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Dining Out Can Still Be Fun . . . Okay, How About Relatively Uneventful?
by Kim Green-Spangler

Are you tired of being the menu planner, chef, bus boy, dish washer and kitchen recovery person for every single meal? Just because children have been added to the mix, is no reason to completely abandon the idea of having others wait on you for a meal every now and then. With the following tips you'll be eating out regularly in no time. Yes, with them.

Getting Started

If you have wee ones, getting them into the habit of eating out can begin before they're even out of an infant carrier. A favorite is to feed and change the baby before arriving at the restaurant so he/she will sleep through the majority of the meal. But to be safe, schedule this outing with someone who won't mind lending a helpful hand if needed. Baby will learn to get accustomed to the atmosphere and venturing out won't seem foreign as he/she grows up. As toddlers, get them used to behaving while eating at home. Sitting at the table and not grazing, using age-appropriate utensils, remaining seated until others are done (within reason, or course), using conversation level voices, and remembering manners. It may help to practice eating out at home by making it a game. Create menus, have an older sibling/family member act as the waitperson and see how they do. Remember to praise good manners and provide non-verbal cues and quiet reminders along the way.

Before You Head Out

When venturing out for a family meal with young patrons, it pays to be prepared. Many restaurants consider themselves family restaurants, but the ones with crayons, kid's menus, and doodle-able placemats are fantastic! However, it's ideal to BYOGB - Bring Your Own Goody Bag! This is a bag that stays in your car, diaper bag, tote, etc. This bag has wipes, a bib, a flexible plastic placemat, and items that are age-appropriate such as crayons, a pocket-sized magna doodle, or a small coloring book, etc. It contains whatever can be used to keep the children quiet and happy until they are eating, and while you are still enjoying your fare. The goody bag is in short, a dining out parents' lifesaver. Oh yes, and don't forget the pre-restaurant pep-talk. The talk could consist of a reminder of manners and/or a short-list of appropriate behaviors.

At the Restaurant

For children under the age of five (or older, depending on attention-span), try to select a restaurant that is child-friendly, at a time where there is no wait or a very minimal one. Better yet, try to make a reservation, and arrive on time. A 30 minute or more wait to be seated, along with the wait for food, and the possibility of having to linger even longer waiting for mom/dad to finish their meal, is an outing that is doomed from the word GO. If there is any inkling that things could go awry, ask to be seated as out of the way as possible, perhaps someplace close to a restroom or door, in order to stretch legs, or beat a hasty retreat.

As soon as you're seated, do not relax; break out the goody bag, or if the restaurant provides their own, save yours until the novelty of what was provided wears out. It will wear out and you'll be glad you have more. Order as quickly as possible. When the nice waitperson asks if you want the child's food to come out first politely decline. While the thought is to get them eating first to keep them occupied . . . the best outcome is for all of you to be done eating at the same time, but since you'll be cutting things up, doling out condiments, and adjusting bibs, etc., the children will probably finish first. So, don't give them too much of a head start.

Many parents use restaurants as the place to try new foods, but what if the child refuses to eat the new food? Should the parent insist (that'll create a scene), or allow the child to leave their food (that'll result in a hungry, bored, child with too much time on his/her hands!)? Perhaps, let the child try a new food from your plate, or ask for a side order along with something you know he/she will eat. At a family restaurant with a good staff, the child is center-stage, so good behavior will bring praise from outsiders as well. The kids typically eat it up. (Excusing the pun!)

Dessert or speedy departure? If the meal has gone well, you still have the room, and it appears as though the munchkin can stand it - order dessert, but pay for the meal and take care of the tip when it is delivered to the table. That way, as soon as everyone is done, you can leave. Or, if you sense restlessness, order something that will travel well and take dessert home with you.

Contingency Plan

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If the witching hour arrives before the meal has been enjoyed, don't be afraid to ask for a doggie-bag and call it a night. Especially with younger children, sometimes a restaurant visit that has taken a turn for the worse cannot be salvaged. So, if things start heading south, ask for the check, pack up as quickly as possible and leave as quietly as possible. If you have an attentive waitperson, he/she will work with you to make things happen quickly.

Instead of everyone leaving, if your adult companion does not mind finishing his/her meal, alone, leave the restaurant with the child and wait for your companion to complete his/her meal. Note: many children (toddler-aged or older children) only have to experience the hasty departure once, to get the gist of what mom/dad will tolerate as acceptable dining behavior. If they're old enough they'll remember the scenario and won't want it repeated.

With practice it gets much easier. If you're able to establish an eating out routine, say once a week or twice a month, the children will come to know what is expected. Age will also help the situation. Eating out as a family can be an enjoyable experience for everyone involved. Like everything else - practice makes perfect. So don't be afraid to keep trying.

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