20 Ways to Get Your Kids to Behave in a Restaurant

Kids in a restaurant

Kids ruin everything. I say it (mostly jokingly) all the time. Kids are the light of our lives, yet they are also the darkness that descends upon a good time in a matter of seconds and often without cause (at least without a good, reasonable cause). One of the things kids ruin faster than anything else is a good restaurant experience.

Trust me – as the mother of four kids, I can attest to the fact that sometimes, taking the kids out to eat is the least fun experience on the planet earth. I’d almost rather birth them four times over than take them in public (and our kids are exceptionally well-behaved children).

Kids in a restaurant

That’s the thing, though. It doesn’t matter how well-behaved your children are on a regular basis…they always have their moments. You will experience one or two mind-blowingly horrible dining experiences over the course of your parental career whether your kids are total s**** or they are angels.

It will happen (I’m sharing the two times it’s happened to us later in this article). We’ve been taking our kids out to eat since they were born, and they’re good at it. They know what to expect, what we expect, and how to behave in a restaurant, and I am certain that’s why we have such an easy go of it.

Too often, parents are afraid to go anywhere with a baby because they’re not sure about behavior. This translates into some hermit-like behavior (I would be a hermit if I were allowed) and it also forms a habit of not taking the kids out in the future.

They won’t learn if you don’t take them out – and trust me when I tell you that taking newborn babies out and doing things with them is the easiest thing in the world. If they cry, change them, feed them, and then burp them right to sleep.

It’s cake. Trust me. But if you’re not taking your kids out and teaching them to be people, they’re not learning. Restaurants will never be fun again – we don’t want that.

Kids in a restaurant

Kids Will Be Kids

Listen, you’re not taking the kids to a Michelin-star restaurant during their toddler years. I mean, you absolutely can. We did a few fine-dining experiences with our kids when they were toddlers, but you won’t enjoy yourself.

Nope. Not a bit. Even if they are angels then entire time, you’ll sit at the table on edge and filled with anxiety and ready for the ball to drop…it’s just not enjoyable to dine (or spend that kind of money on an experience) while everything is puckered and tense. Don’t do this to yourself.

Children will be children. They will amaze you. They will set your teeth on edge and form wrinkles you’ll need to increase your Botox units to erase. Kids will behave one day and act like absolute feral animals the next, but if you don’t take them out, they never learn. To the parents with small children, I promise you that it gets easier.

It does get easier, more enjoyable, and you will have pleasant dining experiences with your children one day. I’ll be completely honest with you – family vacations and dining experiences were work for us until about two years ago when our youngest (the twins) turned six.

Now, all four kids are older, more fun, and they behave exceptionally well. Dinners out are fun. Vacations are fun, and it no longer feels like work. Until then, here are the 20 best ways to (hopefully) ensure your kids behave while dining out. On that note, don’t feel like you can’t bribe them and/or negotiate with them. You can.

Kids in a restaurant

1. Set Expectations

Expectations are always a win. Start in the car on the way to the restaurant. Discuss your expectations so they are clear, concise, and easy for the kids to understand. This way, there is no confusion about what you are looking for – which means they’re less likely to misbehave.

Kids in a restaurant

2. Discuss Proper Behavior Beforehand

Different from discussing expectations, discussing proper behavior is key. This is the part where you talk to your kids about what’s acceptable, what’s not acceptable, and what they can expect if they choose to break the rules. Every action has a consequence.

Kids in a restaurant

3. Worry Less About Taking Them Out and Just Do It

One thing we learned early on is that you cannot let your children dictate your schedule every moment of every day. Your schedule changes the moment you have a baby. A new one is formed, but you also make the rules and your children learn to adapt to the lifestyle you expose them to. Taking them out to restaurants from the start is the best way to ensure good behavior.

Kids in a restaurant

4. Manage Your Expectations

How old are you children? It’s far easier to expect good behavior from older kids, which is where managing your own expectations is important. Sure, your 10-year-old is capable of sitting at a table for 90 minutes without becoming restless, but your two-year-old is not. There will be moments you question your decision, but understanding that perfect behavior is out of the questions helps you remain calm and in charge.

Kids in a restaurant

5. Choose Family-Friendly Restaurants

Listen; I have four kids. I get it. You want to dine in upscale restaurants, but it’s better to take your smaller kids to more family-friendly establishments until they’re a bit older and more refined in their own behavior. Our kids are 14, 11, 8, and 8, and only for the past two years have we been able to go to upscale restaurants as a family without a care in the world.

The twins were just too young before that, and they were too loud, too messy, and it stressed us out. Even if they did behave wonderfully all evening, the experience is ruined by our own anxiety. Choose family-friendly establishments.

Kids in a restaurant

6. Choose Distractions To Bring

It’s a personal decision, but we don’t allow our kids to bring their iPads to dinner. When they were smaller, however, we did pack a restaurant bag for them. Coloring books, paper and pens, little games and activities they could play at the table together…and it worked like a charm. We didn’t always bring it out, but sometimes a distraction is necessary.

Kids in a restaurant

7. Head Outdoors For a Break

There might be moments when a small child needs a break, and it’s all right to take one. A trip outdoors for a few moments of release and running around might make the difference between a great restaurant experience and a poor one.

Kids in a restaurant

8. Engage Your Children

Let me just get up on my high horse for a moment. Talk to your kids. Engage them in your conversation. All too often, parents bring their children to dinner and expect them to entertain themselves, sit quietly, and let the grown-ups talk, but it’s not happening. Engage the kids. Talk to them. Ask them questions, and carry on a conversation. Believe me…when they are engrossed in conversation with you, they’re tool busy to misbehave.

Kids in a restaurant

9. Know What to Order in Advance

We call it the kid-timer. Little kids give you a certain amount of time before the timer goes off and they are done. When our kids were small, we knew what we wanted to order before we sat down. Whether we discussed the menu in the car on the way to the restaurant or chose our meals immediately upon being seated and ordered our meals with our beverages, we knew ahead. This minimizes the amount of time you’re in the restaurant, which minimizes the amount of time small children have to become bored and mischievous.

Kids in a restaurant

10. Make Early Reservations

And I do mean make reservations. Waiting for a table with small children? Hard pass. Our kids aren’t small any longer, and we still only dine where we can make a reservation and know the time we’re seated. Furthermore, if your children are small, make your dinner reservations for earlier in the evening. For one, there are very likely fewer people in the restaurant to begin with. Two, you are finished before everyone is too tired to enjoy.

Kids in a restaurant

11. Don’t Order Children’s Food Early

When our children were little – and still today – we are asked if we’d like the children’s meals to come out first. Absolutely not. Why? Because when their meals are delivered to the table in advance, this means they eat, finish, and want to go home before your meal is delivered. You will not eat in peace. All meals are delivered together. They can eat an appetizer if they’re hungry early.

Kids in a restaurant

12. Bring Baby Wipes

I still carry them around, and I never regret it. The kids, no matter their ages, are spilling something, wiping something on you, on them, or on something, and you’ll need wipes. ‘Tis better to have them on hand than wait around for your server to come back around and offer up a wipe.

Kids in a restaurant

13. Ask To Sit Away from the Center of the Room

Small kids are easily distracted, and sitting in the center of the room allows them to have too much stimulation in a restaurant. Ask for a table away from the center to minimize your child’s stimulation and keep them still, happy, and easygoing.

Kids in a restaurant

14. Choose a Booth When Possible

Booths are far easier with small kids than tables. You can keep your child more confined, everyone can reach everyone, and they’re not pushing their chair out too far, bumping into others, and getting up and running around.

Kids in a restaurant

15. Discipline Your Children

Do not hesitate to discipline your children in a restaurant. If they are misbehaving, it’s called for. Too often, parents don’t do it for fear of being judged by others. I assure you, while no one should judge another person, you’re absolutely being judged more for allowing your child to misbehave and disrupt a restaurant than you would be if you disciplined them.

Kids in a restaurant

16. Use Manners

When you use your manners at the table, you teach your children to do the same. They won’t learn to say please and thank you, to behave well, and to become good diners if you’re not modeling proper etiquette yourself. Getting your children to behave in a restaurant includes teaching them with your own behavior to do just that.

Kids in a restaurant

17. Have Necessary Items On Hand

What’s necessary? Well, that depends on your child. You know what they need and what they like when dining. Does your child freak out about messy hands? Have wipes on hand. Does your child still need a bib? Bring one. Does your little one have potty accidents? An extra outfit is something to keep on hand.

Kids in a restaurant

18. Don’t Eat Around Nap Time or Bedtime

Listen, it should be common sense, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t think it through. If your child is a routine-oriented little person who likes a nap and bedtime, don’t eat during those times. If you’re interrupting their regularly scheduled rest, they will not behave. It’s just how little kids work. You might manipulate your schedule and things don’t always work out in terms of timing, but it’s almost always a bad idea.

Kids in a restaurant

19. Remain Calm

When you are calm, the kids are calm. Well, they’re calmer than they might be if you are not calm. Do not panic. Do not let them see you sweat. The kids should think you’re calm, cool, and collected even if you are sweating bullets waiting on them to fall apart. Don’t let them see you panic. Just stay calm.

Kids in a restaurant

20. Don’t Be Afraid to Get Up and Leave

Twice. Two times. Four kids over the course of almost 15 years, and we’ve gotten up to leave a restaurant two times – and we dine out regularly. While our kids know how to behave in restaurants, they were two instances when they were smaller, and it wasn’t happening.

The first occurred when our oldest was around two. She was tired, she wasn’t having it, and she would not stop shrieking. We took turns taking her outside to calm down, and it wasn’t happening. We paid for our meals, had them delivered to the table in boxes, and left.

The second time was when our twins were four. We flew the kids to Texas for a long weekend to visit my grandmother for her 100th birthday, and we went to breakfast. Our twins and our middle daughter are obsessively good eaters – meaning they love fruits and veggies – and Texas fruit just wasn’t it that day.

Our son wanted fruit, but they only had a marginally disgusting-looking melon and a few blueberries that definitely saw better days a week or two before. He was so upset that they didn’t have good fruit that he picked up the blueberries and threw them across the table. I took him to the car and we sat there while my husband and the girls finished their breakfast.

If you need to leave – leave. Do it. Go. Don’t worry about what anyone else is thinking. Get out, get yourself comfortable, and remove yourself from the situation.

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