Eating out with small kids is always a gamble. You can pick a place they love, where the wait staff is friendly and the food comes out quickly, and still run into the very real risk that your child will be too fidgety or cranky for you to enjoy your meal (or even the first round of drinks).
Expectation management is key here: if you’re looking for a relaxing evening with your partner, spring for a babysitter. Even the best night out with the kids is no substitute for alone time.
But if you’re going to go family-style, there are a few ground rules that will make the experience more enjoyable.
1. Consider the early bird special your new best friend.
“Go at 5 or 5:30 or whenever a restaurant opens,” says Brendan Spiegel, long-time Brooklyn Based writer and Narratively co-founder. “Almost any place is going to appreciate having butts in seats at that point, there are fewer other patrons to bother, and plus you know, we’re done pretending we stay up late like the cool folks.”
Order immediately and get an appetizer. Scope the menu in advance, have a plan. Hungry kids are unreasonable, restless kids.
2. Figure out your family’s rules and stick to them.
A friend with two kids allows her five-year-old to watch shows on a smartphone or tablet…until the meal comes. Then he’s expected to engage with his food and the conversation at the table. Another friend makes sure to bring books and art supplies for her elementary school-aged son in case he gets bored, but no screens. Talk about the rules before you head out the door and restate them once you get there.
3. Keep the situation developmentally appropriate.
My two-and-a-half-year-old is not big on sitting. We practice at dinner time every night at home, but even then, 15 minutes at the table is a major accomplishment. Right now we don’t do a lot of eating in restaurants, and when we do they’re outdoor, snackbar type deals where he can run around. But we know this is temporary and all those weeknight dinners will eventually pay off.
4. Play “The Game.”
If you’ve reached the age where they can actually sit still, but the food is taking an incredibly long time and you’ve exercised all other entertainment options (or have forgotten them entirely), play what BB publisher Nicole Davis calls “The Game.” Hopefully someone has pen and paper with them–if not, the restaurant should be able to oblige. Rip up the paper into the number of pieces in your family, and pick a person who will choose the first topic–something like “What’s your favorite food? (or sport, or movie or thing to do in summer). The person then collects and reads all the answers out loud, and the child or parent to their right takes the first stab at guessing who said what. The goal is to trick the guesser into picking someone else. So if the topic is favorite food and everyone knows your son loves mac and cheese, write that down as your answer. For every correct guess, you guess again, or move on to the next person. The Game is best when played with at least four people, and if you have someone in the family who can’t yet write, he or she can whisper their answer in a parent’s ear, who can write it down for them.
If all these fail, smile a lot and leave a big tip.