If there’s one thing our family has loads of practice in while traveling, it’s eating out at restaurants. Yet, I’ve found the number one place most families fear taking their kids most is to a restaurant with their children.
I imagine it’s because a few things are happening…
1.) They fear (or know) their children will not be able to act according to societal standards of eating out.
2.) They fear they’ll be judged for it.
3.) They don’t want to negotiate or deal with the age appropriate tantrums or outbursts, so they’d prefer to avoid it.
Here are ways to thrive while eating out with children:
Plan to go to restaurants before their actual mealtime. Part of the meltdowns that happen for children at restaurants is that they arrive hungry. Children (and adults) have a hard time waiting when this resource is low, so arriving or scheduling dinner plans at a time before they actual get hungry is highly beneficial!
Bring activities or request the coloring options. Most restaurants are hip to the power of coloring books and activities while the children wait for their food, but traveling we have found that many restaurants don’t invest in this perk. This is something we carry with us, especially if we know we will be going to a restaurant ahead of time. Worst case, ask the server for a paper and pen and play tic tac toe or hangman! Coloring with your children can be calming for both you and the kids. We also use fun games like ‘I spy’ where one person describes the color of something they can see and the others have to guess it. We also enjoy telling childhood stories or making up new ones. Sometimes we play pretend and let them take our order! The creativity is endless.
Include children in the conversations! This seems to be the toughest for most families and the least likely done. Many times, it’s the adults who have chosen to gather, so children aren’t necessarily friends or they don’t have the practice of engaging in the realm of a restaurant. I recently heard my older daughter tell my younger at a restaurant, “Let’s talk sissy!” And they began conversing in ways adults do. The children want to be included, but it may feel like the conversation is either not child appropriate, not inclusive or that they won’t be heard if they asked a question or insert a thought. Find ways to include your children on the socialization and they will enjoy eating out much more. You can also spend some extra time with your child before the outing so they’ve had time to connect, before they feel you transition to connect with others.
Turn off the electronics. I know many use electronics as a digital crutch that helps us have adult conversations that many of us parents who spend so much of their time in isolation are craving! But I can tell you now, distracting your children during times of communication and missing opportunities to model behavior at a restaurant will leave this phase continuing beyond the time frame that you want. We have a strict no technology at the table rule and we think this is a crucial one. Children don’t need to be distracted with devices, many times they just need or want to be integrated into the conversation. The sooner they learn how, the sooner the restaurant trips are more pleasant. Devices aren’t all bad, but saving them for the most crucial times is clutch!
Validate their experience. Waiting can be boring, annoying, difficult. Restaurants can be loud, over stimulating, uncomfortable. Tuning into the atmosphere and your child’s honest experience and perception will help to offer some fair validation of what they’re feeling. This validation will help your little humans feel heard and understood. This feeling has the potential to bring down the stress levels and overwhelm to find calm in this environment. Once calm, you can redirect them to coloring, a friendly chat or point out things about the ambience.
Avoid micromanaging their food consumption. It can feel quite embarrassing and disempowering for a child to be corrected and demanded of in front of family friends or new guests. This can bring up unrecognizable frustrations in your child and can be the seed for some unwanted behavior as well. When ordering with then, have a private conversation on what their options are and allow them to journey on with their food in peace. A simple, “How is your food?” or “Do you feel satisfied?” is enough to determine whether they are still hungry or not.
The post food mood. We have all had the feeling of over consumption that leads us to lean back and want to rest our heads. Many children are still getting in tune with their bodies and will have many times where they miscalculate their intake and get into a post food mood. Possibly ready to go before others, or needing to run it off a bit. This is normal and may find a stark contrast to the parents post food mood, which may still be in conversation and connection mode. Dealing with this difference can be a bit tricky, but negotiating a bit for each side is fair. Some days, you honor the child, others you can request the child understand your want to connect with your friends more. ( allowing children to leave their seat and move around the table and take our order)
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, you have to experience it to get better at it. Children are authentic and spontaneous creatures of beauty, so the domestication of their spirits to conform to collective restaurant experience is truly understanding how to allow them to be them in an environment that may be asking for something different. Each experience at a restaurant is room for the beautiful reminder that this is a temporary space in which we are choosing to play a game with the rules of the restaurant… that we sit, get waited on, communicate, connect, eat, maybe wait some more, then leave. Give realistic expectations helps to nurture the understanding and giving them the option to exist amongst this with full awareness that they do not have to conform by dropping their soul, but understanding the rules of this game, is key.
I truly enjoy eating out with family and friends and truly enjoy sharing this with you!
Do you have any additional ways that you help your child thrive in restaurant environments? Leave them in the comments below!