This week there was a very troubling story on social media about a restaurant owner in Maine and a confrontation she had with a young family. The story goes that a family had a young child in the restaurant, that the child was crying loudly for a prolonged period of time and after hinting at the family that they should leave, the restaurant owner finally “had it” and yelled, “This has got to stop,” in the direction of the family. This has led to lots of angry exchanges on social media but the real lesson is that restaurants need to set families up for success and families need to understand how to dine out respectfully with their children.
Fortunately with a few simple strategies we can all be enjoying our favourite restaurants with our children. Here are my top five tips for families dining out with children:
1. Dress Rehearsal
To have a stellar performance it is vital to rehearse. I recommend having a “fancy dress” rehearsal dinner (ideally two or three) at home to practice, making sure to go through all the steps the children would experience at a restaurant. Set the table, make a menu, let the children order, make them wait — it may take a few tries but once you’ve really practiced, you and your children will feel confident taking their restaurant ready skills for a test-drive.
2. Timing is Everything
No one is happy when they are “hangry” and that goes double for children. I recommend booking as closely as possible to the time your children would typically eat that meal, so for dinners for example I like the earliest reservations, ideally around 6:30 p.m. Other timing tips include; order as soon as you arrive (online menus can help here if you decide in advance) and don’t plan to stay too long, under an hour for children under 6 and 1.5 hours is a good target for older children.
3. Flattery will get you everywhere
We all love a good compliment and the same thing goes for children building a skill. So praise and reward often for every little step they’re taking towards being dining dynamos. Sitting nicely, napkins on lap, saying please, excuse me, thank you. Congratulate them on every one. Tell them how proud you are and let them know how much you love spending time together out as a family.
4. When in Doubt, Distract
Delays are inevitable at a restaurant, so to manage the wait savvy parents should come prepared with various distractions including active conversations, I-Spy games, crayons and paper, small books or puzzles and in the event of emergency — an IPad (on silent) at the table is better than a child having a meltdown but clearly a sign that more “rehearsal” is required.
5. Have an Escape Plan
As any veteran parent will tell you despite your best intentions and preparations, there is always the chance that your idyllic family dinner out takes a turn for the worse and the tears and crankiness begin. If things go wrong, signal your waiter hand them your credit card, ask for takeout containers and exit as quickly as possible. As parents, we all know when the party is over.
For Restauranteurs you can set even your tiniest diners up for success by creating an environment that makes them feel welcome. Children’s menus, quick service for families, and being empathetic to families if things do take a turn for the worse by helping them to settle their bill and exit quickly will all make a huge difference.
Using this approach I have been fortunate to have wonderful experiences in restaurants with my family, even when things took a “turn for the worse” with my kids. Even though it is well rehearsed — their dining etiquette is still a work in progress.