The first time my wife and I took our newborn to a restaurant, time seemingly stood still. Sweet elderly ladies “oohed” and “aahed” over our little bundle of joy. Waitresses stopped by our table to take a peek, amazed by his long eyelashes and quiet manner. Heck, even a few rough-looking grown men—the type you don’t want to cross—cracked a smile.
It was, in one word, “wonderful.”
Fast forward two years, and restaurant visits were no longer the highlight of our week. Yes, our son, Graham, was still precious, but instead of sleeping, he was randomly putting pepper shakers in his mouth. Instead of calmly drinking a bottle, he was stubbornly tossing macaroni on the floor, wondering why Mommy and Daddy were stressed and the people at the next table were laughing. Then there was the time when we ordered our food and he immediately began pitching a fit. Unable to calm him, we boxed up all of our food, hopped in the car and drove home.
Not every instance with our then-2-year-old son was taxing, but there were enough tough moments that we began evaluating what we could do better to make visits to restaurants more enjoyable.
My family views “eating out” much the way people viewed meals during Jesus’ life—as a time of leisurely fun and fellowship. We’re not there simply to eat. We’re there to talk and enjoy one another.
So, can a family of small children eat out regularly without chaos ensuing? Yes.
Here are a few tips that helped us … and may help you, too:
1. Practice at home. When my daughter was 2, she had a bad restaurant habit: not staying in her seat. She would get up and walk around the table, greeting each person with a kiss. Cute, yes, but not if all of the kids are doing it, over and over. So we began practicing her table manners at home. Eventually, after a few tears, she learned.
2. Choose your restaurants wisely. Perhaps you and your family act wonderfully at nice Italian restaurants. My kids don’t. It’s just too quiet, and at most of them there’s not enough visual stimulation. Here’s what works for us: restaurants with outdoor seating, restaurants with instant appetizers (read: Mexican), and restaurants with a loud atmosphere. If my wife and I want Italian, we get a babysitter. But most everywhere else, we’re fine.
3. Choose your mealtime wisely. For restaurants, my kids (ages 7, 4, 4, newborn) are at their best in the morning, after naps, and after a physical activity. This means we eat breakfast and dinner a lot and we only eat lunch if we’ve, say, been to the zoo or gone on a hike. By then, the kids will be hungry … and ready to sit down.
4. Clear the table. Yes, literally. And quickly. See that nice silverware arrangement? That vase of flowers? Those packets of jams and jellies? If you have a young one, they all will be on the floor before you even sit down— and your meal will be ruined before you even order. If we’re near a window, we place table items on the windowsill. Otherwise, the items go on one end of the table, the kids on the other.
5. Use distractions when needed. I loathe our society’s addiction to screens, but when I’m at a restaurant and have shelled out hard-earned money for a meal, I sometimes bend the rules. This means my kids, after they have finished their food, may get to play games on my smartphone. It extends our mealtime a bit, keeps the noise level down, and even gives my wife and I a mini-date.
6. Be patient. Kids, after all, are still kids. Even with all of the preparation in the world, your visit may still be a disaster. Sometimes I wonder if kids misbehaved around Jesus—particularly after His famous “let the children come to me” statement. I’m sure there were a few kids tugging on His robe or interrupting His talk. And if so, we’re all in good company.
Michael Foust is an editor and writer who blogs about parenting and fatherhood. He loves his family and also really likes college football, midnight debuts of Star Wars movies and pretty much any 80s group that involved big, wild-looking hair. Interested in re-posting this in your publication or on your blog? Email me: michaelfoust (at) gmail.com. Also, check out my video section.