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Raising a Kid With Restaurant Manners (and Managing Behavior Expectations)

Raising a Kid With Restaurant Manners (and Managing Behavior Expectations, too)

By Amalah

Hey there,

Bit of an odd one for you, but I’ve long since promised myself not to spend a lifetime divining what is true from Google and to trust your advice blog instead.

It’s about going out for food. My 21/22 month old boy and going out to eat to be exact. What should I expect from him at this age in the sitting down and not needing to do (accompanied) laps of the restaurant/pub garden for most of the meal, if I’m trying to teach him to be one of those kids who you can actually take out for food without turning the place into a zoo? What can I do to help him, especially as he grows up, so that he’s able to sit and have a semi-civilized meal complete with coloring books by age 5-slash-25?

He’s pretty well-behaved, as in he eats well and he can generally play with some of the toys we bring for him (like putting pom poms in a bottle), he doesn’t screech, but once he’s done with his food he is DONE. He wants to get down, and no amount of fun distractions or asking firmly will help, only trigger actual screaming (same at home, he doesn’t want to be in the high chair or stationary at all once he’s done with food). We don’t live in the states, so family friendly restaurants are not common, and there are some times when it can’t be avoided (family birthdays etc). It’s worse as he’s the only child of an only child of the only child-bearing child so there’s no-one to compare him to or hide behind. Do we just wait it out until he’s older and grin and bear the few times we need to get indigestion at a pub lunch? Help much appreciated!

D

Not an odd one at all! Babies/toddlers/kids in restaurants can be pretty hot-to-divisive topic, so I’ll just lay my personal bias out there and say that we regularly take our children out to restaurants, and have since they were teeny tiny. And while we’ve certainly had a few restaurant outings go slightly south on us, for the most part we’ve had really excellent experiences and today our kids really, really love eating out at restaurants. They also fully understand though, that it’s a privilege and a treat, and they need to behave accordingly.

Restaurant behavior expectations for older kids

Our behavior expectations for them now, as older school-aged kids, are admittedly pretty high. You say please and thank you to the waitstaff, you stay in your seat, books/coloring/screens don’t come out until after we order and generally get put away when our food arrives, with the occasional exception. And yes, I will still yank someone outside for A Talk for anything disruptive or excessive whining (no, I’m sorry the Indian restaurant doesn’t serve hot dogs, order some chicken and get over it).

But all of that didn’t happen overnight, and of course I never held a two-year-old to a five-year-old’s standards. I did make sure that my two-year-old got regular exposure to eating out, and focused singularly on making it a pleasant experience for HIM. Which might mean I took most of my meal home in a doggie bag, but building on previous pleasant “restaurants are fun!” experiences was an important stepping stone to future pleasant experiences.

Restaurant behavior expectations for toddlers and younger kids

Right now, your son is too young to enjoy restaurants for most of the reasons we enjoy restaurants. Trying new/different foods tends to not exactly be a toddler’s jam, and since he already doesn’t have to cook or clean up, that convenience is kinda lost on them too. But he can learn to enjoy the social aspect, though at this age you will need to have a pretty realistic view on his attention span. So no, there isn’t a TON you can do with a toddler who wants out of his high chair and wants out NOW, other than doing whatever it takes to avoid screaming unhappiness. (And not just for his benefit; you definitely have a responsibility to your fellow diners to make sure THEIR experience is pleasant and scream-free.)

The key to a well-mannered kid in a restaurant is a kid who has regularly been taken to restaurants.

Restaurant strategies with toddlers

You can dole his food out slowly, alternate between eating and toys/entertainment, and take him out of the high chair for a walk while the adults are waiting for their food to arrive (so he’s not finishing his right when it’s time for everyone else to eat). I always had a special stash of “restaurant toys” that I swapped out every now and then, updated with new, high-interest items.  (I’d buy a ton of inexpensive Matchbox cars so we’d always have a new one in a package to crack open — doubly great when I had a car-obsessed toddler and a plastic-packaging-loving baby). But I knew even the coolest toys in the world still only hold their attention for a short period and we would always end up spending part of our meal with a kid on our lap or walking around the restaurant looking at more exciting things like…the ceiling fans.

In time, he’ll learn more and more about How We Behave In Restaurants and also that Restaurants Can Be Fun

But overall, I think you should just keep doing what you’re doing, and rest easy that his attention span and ability to stay seated WILL increase with age. The key to a well-mannered kid in a restaurant is a kid who has regularly been taken to restaurants. Too many parents get too stressed out about it — what if he cries, what if he throws food? — and decide just to avoid eating out altogether. But like you said, it can’t always be avoided. Restaurants are a vital part of our social and family lives, and shouldn’t be off-limits to your child (also a vital part of your life).

So consider taking him out to eat more, but outside of the big family/social gatherings where your attention is pulled in multiple directions and you’re under more pressure to expect grown-up manners from a 22 month old. Take him out to eat with just you and your partner, so you can take turns keeping him fed and entertained while also reinforcing age-appropriate restaurant rules like using his inside voice, don’t throw food/toys, say hi to the waitstaff, etc. And then when he hits the wall of DONE, you can just leave without being embarrassed about leaving someone’s birthday. I promise, in time, he’ll learn more and more about How We Behave In Restaurants and also that Restaurants Can Be Fun. And with each positive (or even slightly) positive experience, you’ll feel more confident in your abilities to keep him wrangled and happy, and what to do when a behavior disaster does strike. (Outside for a quick cool-down? Distract with a diaper change? Pull out some secret stash of super amazing special treat food? Try ’em all out solo and see what works!)

Manage your own expectations

We’ve all been there, by the way. And as long as you’re not that parent who simply ignores their screaming child or lets him run around unaccompanied until a waiter trips and dumps a tray of cocktails everywhere, your fellow diners are going to be more understanding then you’d expect. (It’s like the baby on airplanes thing. We’re all actually rooting for you, save for a cranky asshole or two, and are willing to help out and be your temporary village.) I remember one dinner out at a fairly nice but still casual Italian restaurant where I literally spent the entire meal on edge and stressed out because I thought my toddler son was being too loud and annoying people. (We ate there all the time pre-kids but I just remembered the atmosphere being so much LOUDER. I was convinced we’d made a massive mistake and were ruining everyone’s meal.)

Near the end of the meal, the waiter brought over two glasses of wine from a nearby table and an offer of ice cream for our son, because of how well-behaved he’d been and how much they admired how we were interacting with him and blah blah good kid, good parents. It was amazing, and something we’ve done on occasion since to pay it forward, in honor of every parent trying their hardest to raise a kid who knows how to behave at a restaurant.

(And as a former server, there are way too many fully grown human beings who STILL have no idea.)

Amalah
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch

Amalah

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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Comments

  • HeatherHR

    One thing that has worked for my stepson, Sam, especially in the 18mo-3yr range was focusing on the important behaviors and letting the rest slid. Early on, we focused on quiet, indoor voices and staying in/near our seat. Everything else that wasn’t awful we let slid (eating with your hands- okay, playing with toys- great, not eating at all- whatever works for you dude). Every few months we would evaluate and add a behavior or two to our expectations- say please and thank you, try to use the fork, etc. Going for everythign at once is a recipe for disaster. We also ask for a highchair or booster seat but we only use it for eating food. Sam wouldn’t like to stay in it that long (fair enough- hard plastic or wood isn’t that comfortable) so unless he was eating, he was on the soft chair or bench between us or between on of us and the wall. We also have the rule at home that no one leaves the table until everyone is finished which translates well to restaurants. I hope this helps!

  • Kendra

    My son is the same as the OP’s. Just turned two and when he is done he
    is DONE. Because of this we rarely take him out, which does kind of
    suck because my daughter (5) is great at restaurants. Great suggestion
    about the Matchbox cars! He is obsessed with cars so that would be a
    great thing to have on backup once he is finished eating so maybe the
    rest of us can enjoy it as well.

  • A.L

    I would also add– practice at home where the stakes the a little lower. We eat as a family around a table every night and we expect basically the same behavior there as we would at a restaurant. My kids must use indoor voices, use a fork/spoon, stay at the table till they are excused, etc. We demonstrate every night that the table is a place where we talk with one another and listen to each other. If you practice general table manners every day, even at home, it will help reinforce the habit that will translate to restaurants too.

  • Roselyne

    Kudos for ALL of this advice.

    My daughter is currently 27 months old (so, just a wee bit older than your kid), and we unintentionally followed the steps listed in this advice. Worked super well. 🙂

    I highly recommend taking Kid+a friendly adult who likes Kid to a lunch restaurant at some point, since that tends to be more low-key and also cheaper, so great for teaching the progression of ‘how we behave in restaurants’ (we have a local low-key souvlaki joint with AMAZING fries and tzatziki that does lunches under 10$, for example – my kid has been there regularly since she was 6 months old). It started off being 15-minute meals, and gradually worked up to over an hour, at this point. It’s a progression. You can’t expect an hour starting out, so you need to find ways to give them the opportunity to progress without the pressure. (side effect: I have a toddler who requests tzatziki on pita as a snack)

    And, obviously, there are nights when we leave before dessert because she’s exhausted and imitating a howler monkey and the other people in that restaurant do NOT need to listen to that, so bye! No shame in that either. MUCH better to retreat and try again a week later than to be obnoxious to all around.

  • abbie

    We have a 13 month old that we take about about twice a week. Once is with just my husband and they do a weekday breakfast, which is great because it isn’t too crowded and expectations seem pretty low at breakfast. Also, people seem to be extra nice to my husband because he is out solo with the baby (don’t even get me started on that double standard). The other time out during the week is usually a family meal but I must admit we try to avoid really crowded times, so we will go to dinner at 5 or something. I hope, as others have indicated, the early exposure pays off in the future. We make sure there is lots of food he likes and we will sometimes bring a few outside food items for him that we know will keep him happy (blueberries, blueberries, blueberries) and then we also have a few toys on hand. I must admit our meals are usually fairly quick or sometimes once he is finished one of us will take him outside and walk around while the other person eats.

  • IrishCream

    Amy’s expectations and strategies are great. And in my experience, you only have to remove a child from a restaurant once (and I do mean remove–heading home early or waiting in the car until others are done, no backsies) to make a big impression that will ensure good behavior in the future. I wouldn’t deploy that option with a todder, but around 4 or 5, when they’re old enough to have some self control and understand cause and effect, it’s very powerful. It’s a bummer for you in the short term, since your meal is ruined too, but it sets the expectation over the long term that you mean business!

  • Homegrown

    If you are ordering something that takes modifications/a lot of time and your kid orders a plate and serve. Ask them to bring the child’s food first, or crackers if you have a eat and done child.. Also, try just water until food is brought otherwise they’ll fill up and not want to eat. I also recommend like many commenters to let them know ahead of time of reasonable expectations and if they don’t follow them, leave. Whether you already paid or one leave with the child and the other stays back and takes care of it. Take children as often as you can to teach them. Let them know that there are other people enjoying a meal.

  • guest

    Definitely go out early when the restaurant isn’t as full. We would go out around 5pm for dinner or right at 11am for lunch. Expect to eat quickly – don’t do a multi-course meal. If you can go someplace that understands kids, that’s better, and if it is a place that has sides that come with your meal, ask for them right away. Like, if you go to a burger place, ask for the fries right away. Also, always know what you want to order before you get to the restaurant. That way as soon as the waiter comes over, you can order. And, always leave a big tip if your child makes a big mess. That way, they’ll still be more than happy to welcome you back next time.

  • rachel

    And for the love of everything: if you give your kids a screen, turn the volume OFF or give them headphones.

  • I also recommend brunch buffets if there are any near you. They are great for learning restaurant manners in a place where the food comes quickly, and so does the check 😀

  • Oh! Also, sticker books. The really really big and colorful ones.

  • Erin

    First: we have now “eating out” bag that has special toys we only see when eating out, plus wipes, a bib, kid spoons, applesauce, etc. it’s super great and very handy now that I don’t take a diaper bag everywhere.

    Second: take him when he’s likely to be amenable. Our son is much better behaved at lunch, so that’s when we tend to go out. It gives him practice eating out when he’s already in a pretty good mood rather than right before his bedtime when he’s likely to be crabby and tired. As he gets older, I’m sure he’ll get more flexible that way, but this is good practice!

  • Jennifer

    Totally second (third or fourth by now I think) finding the toy(s) they can play with quietly before and after the meal. Our kids our generally well behaved; we’ve taken them out since they were babies and have always make a point of teaching restaurant behavior as soon as they were old enough to start to understand. Our 2 year old likes to test his boundaries so keeping him quiet and on the bench next to me instead of using it like a jungle gym was starting to become difficult. (he decided a couple months ago he is a big boy and won’t use a high chair or booster seat) Recently as a ‘no more binky’ present we bought him a tractor (he LOVES tractors) at a store before we went to a restaurant to meet Grandparents. I gave my husband grief for giving in and letting him take the not very small toy into the restaurant, but he stayed occupied the entire time driving it around on the table and we had to take it away so he would eat. Now we always take a couple (smaller) tractors for him anywhere we go where he need to be occupied, works every time.

  • bookworm81

    For my kids a good way to practice was to stop in somewhere like a coffee house for a snack/treat while we were out running errands. If all you’re having is coffee and a pastry there’s basically no waiting, the food is a treat for the kid so they want to eat it, and the expectations are lower because you’re not planning on staying that long anyway.

  • guest

    One more thing – ask for the check as soon as your meal arrives. As soon as little one is done eating, they are going to be bored. If you have brought enough stuff, you can entertain them until you are done eating, but having to wait several extra minutes for the check to be delivered, you to pay, and get it back to sign, is prime melt down time. Save yourself the trouble by having them do this while you eat so you can just get up and leave before any melt downs occur.