How to take your children to restaurants

It’s one of those BC (before children) moments: you’re sitting in a restaurant, watching in amazement as the kids at the next table yell, wander about and devour their food in a way that gives new meaning to the word Neanderthal. You think to yourself, ‘No kid of mine is ever going to act that way. My child is going to have manners’.

And now here you are, a parent, and you realize that your six-year-old doesn’t instinctively know to place his napkin in his lap or say ‘excuse me’ when leaving the table. (Or, frankly, to chew with his mouth closed and not say “Eew, gross!” when he is served something he doesn’t like.) So is the solution to not take your children to a restaurant beyond the culinary level of Chuck E. Cheese before they reach their 10th birthday?

No, according to Louise Fox, owner of Etiquette Ladies in Toronto and host of “Kids learn by experience, and I do think it’s important to take them to restaurants. I took my kids out to eat from a very young age. It’s a wonderful thing to do as a family, and can be a nice way to mark a special occasion or reward good behaviour. Parents just have to use some common sense.”

For example, choose casual places, especially at the beginning. Avoid places where you might have to wait for a table – a 10-minute wait can be an eternity for a hungry kid. Go early in the evening, and make sure to bring a few things with you to placate and entertain your little one while you wait for dinner to arrive: a few crackers, a book or a small, quiet game.

Start by modelling table manners at home, says Louise. “As in nearly everything, kids look to their parents for what to do. If the parents use proper manners, it just becomes normal. Don’t save good manners for special occasions or dinners with grandma.” (If you’re not sure about certain aspects of table etiquette, maybe a little refresher course is in order.)

A few other home dining tips will make restaurant eating more pleasant:

  • Take the time to focus on the food and each other.
  • Turn off all electronic devices, don’t answer the phone and just have pleasant conversation.
  • Make mealtime a positive experience. Don’t expect perfection; if your children make mistakes, don’t berate them.
  • Try the ‘sandwich technique.’ Compliment a good behaviour, then make a suggestion of where they can improve next time, and then end with another compliment. Think of every meal as an opportunity for children (and parents!) to practise their manners.

Top ten tips for restaurant dining

Good manners are about respect for the people who share our meal time. Go over what’s expected of your kids before you leave home; they don’t want to be nagged at the restaurant (and the people at the next table don’t want to hear you nagging them either). Here are 10 basic table manners that everyone in the family should master:

  1. Place your napkin on your lap immediately after you sit down. If you go to the bathroom, leave your napkin on your chair. At the end of the meal, place it on the left side of your plate.
  2. Treat your server with respect. Wait until it is your turn to order, and speak slowly and clearly. Always say please and thank you.
  3. Always eat with utensils, unless the food is meant to be eaten with your fingers.
  4. If you have to leave the table, ask to be excused.
  5. Wait until everyone at the table has been served to begin eating.
  6. If you drop a utensil on the floor, leave it and quietly ask your server for a replacement.
  7. Eat quietly, and with your mouth closed.
  8. Don’t reach across the table – ask for things to be passed.
  9. Don’t make negative comments about the food, whether yours or someone else’s.
  10. Pace yourself so you finish your meal around the same time as everyone else at the table. When you are finished, place your knife and fork diagonally across your plate, at the “20 after four” position.

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, November 2012.

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