With 3 small children (and a limited budget) we've been pretty wary about eating out. Going to a sit-down restaurant has become a real treat for my husband and I and we really don't want to spend it nagging the kids and entertaining them. There's no fun in that.
So we've been doing a little at-home training. We knew we were going to try for one meal out as a treat over the Christmas break. We wanted to be able to enjoy it. Like any skill, eating with manners is not something that comes naturally to kids. It takes some work. As cute as those spaghetti sauce covered faces are, they are better enjoyed on the home front.
We started with the basics: how to use a fork, how to use a knife, what napkins are used for (not your sleeves), how to wait at a table, taking your time to enjoy the meal, how to eat noodles in small bites...you get the idea. And yes, it was work, but work that is well worth it. As much as he balked at it, my 6 year old really started catching on. He wanted to go out to a real restaurant.
Once he got it (and our 3 year old started catching on to some manners too) we knew the next challenge was to pick the right place and time. Our daughter (11 months) is old enough that she won't sleep at a restaurant anymore, but busy enough that she doesn't want to sit for a whole meal confined either. We figured post-nap would be best, when she was fresh and smiley. We thought a late lunch at a kid-friendly restaurant would be best. Late lunches are great because there aren't a lot of people in the restaurant to bother. Kid friendly restaurants are easy to spot with their kid menus (and crayons), and high chairs. We found such a place yesterday afternoon, and made sure we went over our good table manners reminders with our kids before entering.
We've found there is a good window of opportunity for ordering. You don't want your little ones to run out of coloring space on their place mats before the food arrives. You want them to stay happy, not bored. While I like to experiment with new food ideas in my own ordering, I stick with kid favorites for their food. You know they are going to be happy eating what they already know and like. I also don't put the baby in the high chair, until my food comes. I don't want her squawking just as I'm taking my first bite.
Also, I'm not shy about bringing my own baby friendly food into a restaurant. Keep the baby happy, and the table will be happy.
I'm also not shy about disciplining my kids if they start to act up in a restaurant. They get a reminder, but if their behavior is unacceptable (screaming, fighting or whatever), I'll take them out to the car, no hesitation about it. Eating out should be a pleasant experience for all and I want to be mindful and considerate of the other diners. Fortunately, they were fantastic yesterday (I can only think of one time that I've had to carry this out, but it works)
Restaurants usually put drinks on the table ASAP. We have a 2 or 3 sip rule for our kids with that. They can have a taste and then put the rest of the drink aside until their food comes. Kids are notorious for filling up on liquids. I want them to eat the food they've ordered, not declare they aren't hungry anymore.
I have to say I was really proud of my boys, particularly my 6 year old yesterday. He was so diligent on concentrating to use his knife and fork to cut his meat. He was very polite and we made sure to commend him for it.
When it comes to the table mess and the tip, think through it carefully. We try to tidy up as best we can with the extra mess that comes along with having little ones at the table. We know it is extra work for the servers to clean afterwards as well, so we tip accordingly. You want to be welcomed back for future visits, not have the staff go "oh no, it's them!"
Eating out should be an enjoyable treat for all. I think with some prep work before hand, it can be something that a family enjoys.