When my kids have managed to behave in restaurants over the years, I’ve always assumed there’s been magic or luck at work. But wouldn't you know it, as with most other aspects of parenting, eliciting good behavior from your children in restaurants takes a little training and practice – for everyone.
If you’re on the road with young kids, especially in destinations where you may wind up seeing the same travelers and servers day after day – hotel restaurants, cruise ship dining rooms, or towns that you'd like to revisit without shame – here are some things you might want to try.
Practice at home.
If you don’t eat a lot of meals together as a family during your day-to-day lives and don’t encourage good table manners once you do get everyone to sit down, don’t expect practiced behavior once you all descend on a restaurant. “Sitting for meals as a family at home is wonderful practice for restaurant trips,” says Alonna Friedman, a contributor at Care.com, an online portal for finding caregivers. “Aim for at least once a week when you can teach meal manners during home meals,” she says, including such basics as eating with utensils and “not scurrying from the table when the food is done.”
The latter is much easier said than done, so start small by trying to get everyone – parents included – to remain at the table for at least five minutes after the meal is over, then gradually draw it out to 10 minutes or longer. Building your dinner table stamina as a family will permit you to set a good example for each other and may help discourage your younger kids from their annoying habit of constantly getting out of their seats during meals.
Etiquette master Emily Post long ago established a few prime directives for table manners, including the rule that you ought to “chat with everyone at the table.” Friedman concurs that “when your kids are used to having interesting chats during meal time in the house, it will come more naturally when eating outside the home.” Of course, this is also easier said than done, so if talking doesn’t come naturally for your family, try such conversation helpers as “I Spy, 20 Questions, or round robin storytelling,” says Friedman. My own kids have recently instituted several mandatory rounds per meal of “What’s Your Favorite…” (color, food, TV show) that not only elicits funny answers as we go around the table, but also keeps most of the attention focused where the kids feel it belongs – on themselves and their interests.
Use technology, but sparingly.
Some of the experts Friedman consulted discouraged the use of gadgets during mealtimes altogether, and it’s hard to disagree that, if you want to make conversation a key strategy for better dinner table behavior, you should probably pocket your electronics. Still, I’d suggest that, at a restaurant, you can try to keep the talking going for as long as possible and then bring in the gadgets at the end, especially if your youngest is getting restless and you hope to revisit your long-abandoned pastime of actually having dessert and coffee at the restaurant.
Make nutrition a thing.
More wholesome an idea than I ever would have come up with on my own is making nutrition part of your mealtime chat. “Reviewing the menu as a family can start a conversation about healthy eating," says Friedman. “Can your son pick out the veggie with the most vitamin B? Which entree does he think would be the most unhealthy?” One idea, she says, might be to “order an app or side dish for the family to share that's super good for you.”
Just let go.
While there’s a lot to be said for practicing good dining habits at home that can translate to restaurants, it’s also true that not every last good habit can be replicated at in public, especially when you’re traveling. In a blog post for TravelingMom.com (where I serve as a contributor), Holly Rosen Fink says that you shouldn’t “expect your kids to eat the way you do back home. There will be meals where they don't eat veggies. Some days they might have pizza twice on the run. You might sit down for meals where your kids don't eat anything, either out of fatigue or refusal. Don't worry about it, kids can skip meals! It's not a big deal.”
Fink goes on to say that “I wish that my kids would eat better sometimes, and I wish they would experiment in new cultures. They do sometimes, sometimes they don't. I just don't let it get to me anymore.”
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