The icy stare. You've seen it before. Maybe you've even given it. There's probably no place it's dished out more than a nice restaurant when a family approaches with their kids. Diners fear riots, extreme noise levels, flying food and impromptu games of hide and seek. But you don't need to limit yourself to fast-food and rest stop experiences any longer -- dining out is a fun family experience when everyone learns to practice good table manners.
"Taking young kids out to eat can be like feeding a pack of wild animals," says Robi Ludwig, Psy.D., a Care.com parenting expert. "You need to be patient and have fun, knowing there is a big learning curve as you are socializing your kids on how to behave in public." Don't put tons of pressure on yourself or feel like a failure when your normally docile 5-year-old squeezes ketchup into your purse. Table manners take time. And ketchup stains can (eventually) be removed.
We asked Dr. Ludwig and Louise Elerding, author of You've Got Manners! a children's book series, for tips on turning uncouth dining experiences into ones that are (somewhat) poised.
1. Start at Home
Both experts agree that sitting for meals as a family at home is wonderful practice for restaurant trips. Aim for at least once a week when you can teach meal manners during home meals. Work on, placing a napkin on your lap, eating with utensils (not hands!), talking to each other, not burping, eating with their mouth closed, and not scurrying from the table when the food is done. 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.
2. Choose the Right Destination
"Do not dismiss the family-friendly restaurant," says Dr. Ludwig. You might not get the farm-to-table meal you crave, but places that expect lots of kids are best for testing the dining waters. The positives: food is often served quickly, kids' cups come with covers to prevent spills and crayons and paper are usually put on the table. When kids received their own menus it makes them feel important. Allow them to choose and order their own meals (within reason) and they will feel especially grown-up. And keep the outing short. A two-hour dinner is not the place for young children.
3. Give Technology the Boot
You're glued to your BlackBerry. Your husband has an iPhone growing out of his palm. We all love our smart devices but kids and adults need to know that it's not okay to have them at the dining table. "It makes me irate to see people using phones when dining," says Elerding. "When a child sits and eats a meal he is learning to extend himself to another person and engage in conversation." If his face is buried in an iPad, he'll miss the opportunity to connect with everybody else.
It used to be that families turned off the television at the table. Now we all need to leave our phones in the other room. Dr. Ludwig agrees that dinner is practice time to talk face-to-face. It helps them build great social and school skills.
4. Pass the Peas and Qs
You like your steak done well and it was served medium rare. Before you cause a commotion about the meat or talk snidely about the chef adding too much salt to the soup, take a deep breath. The fuss will only teach your children that you have a sense of superiority and a quick temper. Model for them how to appropriately express your displeasure as well as how to be courteous to the wait staff. Say "please" and "thank you," make eye contact and compliment them for a job well done. Eating dinner is a way to share your values with your kids and teach them how to respect others, not just an excuse for ordering extra cheese fries.
5. Keep them Busy
Sometimes kids just can't sit still. When they start to wiggle in their seats or migrate away from the table you need to be prepared to draw them back in. Start a round of I Spy, 20 Questions, round robin storytelling, or play Hangman.
Even the topic of table manners can be a fun game, suggests Elerding. Assign kids to be the Manners Police to make sure adults are following the rules. They can prevent plate crashes by making sure everything is passed to the right and traffic moves smoothly. Need salt? Never pass it without the pepper! These two spices are best buds and etiquette calls for them to stick together, even if a person requested just one.
Other Care.com parents suggest bringing a special "restaurant bag" of toys and games that are only played when you're out to eat.
6. Teach Proper Etiquette
- Keep mouth closed while eating: "Address the matter with kindness," says Elerding. "Let them know they have permission to take their time when they are eating and asked to answer a question."
- Stop burping: Remind them to quietly say, "Excuse me" and move on. Everyone else at the table should not draw attention to the noise and act as if nothing happened, or you might receive a belch symphony.
- Wait to eat: Talk about this respectful rule before you arrive at the restaurant. If the last person waiting for her dish gives permission for everyone else to start, it's perfectly fine to pick up your fork and begin. Make it a game and have everyone sit on their hands until all plates are served.
Reviewing the menu as a family can start a conversation about healthy eating. Can your son pick out the veggie with the most vitamin B? Which entree does he think would be the most unhealthy? Talk about good eating habits and agree to order an app or side dish for the family to share that's super good for you or one that has a food no one has tried before.