We've all been there. You're trying to have a fun, casual dinner out, and your little explorer is all about roaming the restaurant. Or peering over at the folks in the next booth. Or worse, throwing food at unsuspecting diners.
"It may be cute initially," says Lisa Gaché, founder of Beverly Hills Manners. "After a while, it becomes intrusive, to your own experience and those of your fellow diners."
While your kid may not be ready for fine china and sparkling silver, taking him out for a meal is a great way to train him for future fine dining. Here's the scoop on how to keep the kid chaos to a minimum when eating out.
Know your child. "Some kids will read the same two books for two hours. Some get bored after five minutes. You know how long they'll last," says Emily Post Institute director Cindy Post Senning, coauthor of The Gift of Good Manners. "If your kid lasts 40 minutes, don't go to a place with a long wait time. Maybe even do fast food, if you have to."
Come prepared. This means pre-meal planning. "Make sure they've had a nap," says Senning. "If you're going at 6 and your baby eats at 5, go ahead and feed them ahead of time."
Before heading to the restaurant, pack a bag with snacks, games and toys to keep your child busy between bites. "Bring Cheerios or another fun snack," suggests Senning. "And crayons and plenty of paper, so they can just scribble to their hearts' content."
Variety is also key. Keep in mind, too, that to a little kid, "20 minutes is a really long time," says Senning. "Once they've eaten or played with the toys, they get bored. They're going to look for something to do."
Pick a child-friendly restaurant. Gaché also suggests picking a place "where they have a kids' menu, little toys, food they can eat with their hands," she says.
"And plenty of other kids and noise," she adds. "Make it easier on yourself and on your kids."
If you know your little one can't handle grown-up silverware, bring his favorite kid-friendly utensils. Or better yet, focus on easy-to-eat hand-held foods like pizza, chicken fingers or even BBQ. Don't forget to bring a bib or ask for plenty of napkins.
Practice makes perfect. Senning says trial runs at fast-food joints or casual eateries are a good way to train kids in how eating out works. "You sit at a table, you have a conversation, and the kids understand that you don't always eat at home."
"Note what you're putting down in front of them. Does it invite play?" asks Gaché. "Keep in mind that they've got little hands and short attention spans. Keep on hand things that are easy for them to eat: Veggie Booty, Cheerios, carrot sticks. Something that isn't messy or requires utensils that encourage flinging things."
No-nonsense communication is key. "A firm tone and the word 'no' is something that they should understand from 6 months on," says Gaché. "The behavior should be modeled at home, then carried out to the social setting."
If things escalate, and the child is not responsive to firm communication, "the No. 1 way to remedy that is to remove the child from the scene," Gaché says. "The parents have to understand that one may have to get up and monitor the child during the meal. They may have to take turns eating. Or it may be time to get the food to go."