My kids are delightful and I love them dearly but for a long time, eating in restaurants was almost impossible because the youngest was born knowing all the swear words and the oldest always had to be convinced that pants were necessary.
Then one evening we went to a fancy restaurant in Seattle and some random lady walked by our table and said “I’d like to compliment you on how well behaved your kids have been.”
I swear to you, I thought she was speaking to someone else.
My kids? My kids hate each other every other minute. They fight constantly. My daughter’s favorite move is a rabbit punch to the gut while Mom and Dad aren’t looking. But I confirmed with the lady at the restaurant that no, she wasn’t kidding. She honestly thought they were well behaved. How did we do that?
I’ve given it a lot of thought. It’s probably mostly luck but I’ve identified a few habits that have helped us get there.
1. Practice by holding candlelight dinners
After a summer full of running around half naked and screaming (or in my son’s case, fully naked and screaming) it is helpful to plan a refresher course in table manners before the holiday season. Pick a night to dress up for dinner (or at least put pants on) and sit down together for a Candle Night. It doesn’t matter what you eat (cheese pizza is fine) but you have to eat it by candlelight. This is important. It sets the evening apart from other evenings. And kids get chatty when they eat by candlelight. I think the tiny flames might be slightly hypnotic.
2. Plan for success
Do your kids like change? Because mine absolutely do not. Even if that change is as simple as going out for dinner on Friday night. Secretly, I think they challenge each other to see who can get the crabbiest about it. To combat this, I’ve devised a 500-step plan called, “Remind the children at least 500 times about what will happen and when.” All available evidence indicates that children rarely listen the first 487 times you say anything. The extra dozen times is so that it really sinks in.
3. Arm yourself with knowledge
Do you have dietary restrictions that need to be met? Unless you’re eating in some hip, urban, spy-noir restaurant that’s only open during the full moon you’re going to find the restaurant menu online. Don’t waste precious time asking the wait staff to deconstruct every dish for you. Instead, read the menu a day or two before hand and call them if you have questions. It’s a proven fact that afternoon prep cooks have much more tolerance for dietary restrictions than Friday evening line chefs do.
4. Consider booking a private room for large family gatherings
Most upscale restaurants have private dining rooms and they aren’t that hard to book. Some restaurants only have a minimum party size required but if you meet that, the room is free. If this is your holiday gathering and you’ve got kids running around, having a room cloistered from the rest of the patrons is a surefire way to reduce overall stress.
5. Crayons are not enough
If you’re going extra fancy, we’re talking napkins-folded-into-little-swans-and-ambiguous-silverware fancy, you’re going to need some extra strength kid entertainment that isn’t a video game and does not make a lot of noise. May I suggest Legos? You don’t have to buy new ones. Piece together old kits and stash them away. Then when you get to the restaurant, pull them out and say “AHA! You thought you were going to be bored, didn’t you!?!” And watch as your kids slowly freak out (in a positive way).
Having an entire Lego kit to build right there at the table of a super-fancy restaurant is so awesome, it’s almost taboo. And no one is going to care that your kid is building a Lego kit, even if they make sound effects like mine do. Know why? Kids building Lego kits are happy, engaged and most important, not running around the dining room flipping the lights on and off.
6. Don’t be afraid to cut it short
You tried. You did your best. You walked everyone to the bathroom 14 times. You stayed positive and encouraging even though your eyes glazed over during the Ender Dragon speech and the littlest wouldn’t eat anything but ketchup. You know what? You don’t have to stay. Get your doggie bags, head home, get in your PJs and feed each other ice cream directly out of the carton. That’s the best part of the night anyway.