Unfortunately, the three-pack of crayons and word jumble on the back of the menu usually isn't enough to distract young kids through an entire meal, so it's up to parents who want to dine out with their little people to weigh the circumstances and arrive at restaurants stocked with patience, creativity and distractions.
That said, dining out with children really can be a good experience for everyone -- even for the kid-less couple at the next table -- if parents plan ahead and use good judgment. Of course, young kids are emotionally unpredictable, so sometimes even the most vigilant parents get stuck with a mid-meal melt down, but hopefully these tips will decrease the chances of that happening. (But if it does, know that you are not alone -- it's happened to all parents -- and the best thing to do in that situation is to leave.)
Tips for successful dining with kids:
Never arrive hungry. Famished children are notoriously cranky, so feed your kid a snack a half-hour before going to the restaurant. Pack a stash of munchies, and not the same ole' Cheerios, just in case the service is slow and their hunger pains return before the chicken fingers arrive.
Pack favorite or, better yet, new toys. Make careful choices when packing toys for a restaurant. Bring toys that are small, quiet and a sure thing. Some parents have a special bag or lunchbox filled with small toys that's set aside just for dining out. Inexpensive new toys are great to whip out when the kid becomes fixated on eating or throwing sugar packets.
Dine early. A 7:30 p.m. dinner reservation means potentially tired kiddos and more annoyed looks from the fashionably-late diners around you. That kind of pressure will only make things tenser at your table, so just give in and eat with the old folks at 5:30.
Let your child pick the restaurant. Older kids love the opportunity to weigh-in on family decisions. It makes them feel like their opinions matter, which builds confidence. Narrow down your desired restaurant destination to a couple of places, and then let him or her make the final call on where to go. Often times, this will ensure less complaining.
Keep a sense of humor, or at least look like you have one. If the experience doesn't go the way you'd hoped, try to keep a smile on your face even if you don't feel it -- losing it in public will only make you feel embarrassed or more frustrated -- and don't hesitate to pack up your kid and go home.
Recognize the small victories. It's important for kids to eat in restaurants so they learn etiquette. (And family dining keeps lots of servers employed.) Even the crabbiest child diner absorbs valuable information about public behavior and boundaries. A "bad" dining experience is still a great learning experience.
Have realistic expectations for table talk. When adults go out with kids and hope to have adult conversations, Murphy's Law says disappointment is inevitable. However, if you go with the plan to engage your kids and some adult conversation happens anyway, you'll feel more satisfied with the experience.
Quit going to restaurants for a while. A lot of parents stop dining with their toddlers when they're 2 or 3 because it simply isn't worth the stress of shushing them or chasing them around the restaurant. These phases pass quickly, so even if you don't dine out for six months or a year, you can always order take-out.
Don't be overly concerned about other diners. Pick restaurants that are kid-friendly, and do your best to enforce age-appropriate table manners, but beyond that, don't worry too much about the cranky guy at the next table. Over-focusing on the annoyance of other diners will only make your situation worse. Remember that some people just don't like kids, and they forget or don't care that they were once one of these beautiful and challenging creatures, too.
Tip well and clean up your table. Reward a patient server with a good tip and help out with the mess as much as possible. If parents are proactive and responsible, dining with kids can be a nice time, not a nightmare.
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.