Because our brood travels so frequently, we’re often eating away from home. We tackle a good portion of these meals picnic style—either on a blanket in a park or standing/squatting by a (food truck, or a) tree alongside a trail. For the rest, we dine at restaurants.
No, these eateries usually aren’t fancy. On any given trip, the bunch usually includes Greasy Spoons, upscale diners, pubs, pizza parlors and Cheesecake Factory-type spots. Because we do a ton of traveling in our home state of California, we’re also huge fans of hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurants. (I am grooming the girls to become habanero fiends, like I am.)
In any event, over the years, we’ve devised a number of strategies to foster and reward good behavior when we eat out. Here are our top few.
- Give them something immediately. Kids love immediate gratification; when they don’t experience it, they get antsy. For this reason, Powerwoman and I always travel with small snacks (Cheerios, nuts, etc.) to whip out as soon as we sit down. Once L and R have a few bites, they’re generally chill until their actual meals arrive.
- Ply them with crayons. Our dining-out bag of tricks (yes, we really have one) also is stocked with a wad of blank computer printer paper and two sets of crayons. We usually distribute these materials before the girls even ask for them. We carry two sets of implements so the girls don’t fight trying to share. We learned that one the hard way.
- Allow free play. Most of the restaurants we frequent have flowers, salt and pepper shakers, creamers and sugar packets on the table for all meals. We usually let the girls satisfy their curiosities and play with them. Yes, stuff usually ends up on the ground. When it does, we clean it up before we go (and leave a larger-than-usual tip).
- Be flexible. On a good day, we can get 45 to 60 minutes of sit-down time in a restaurant. On a bad day, that range can shrink by half. Powerwoman and I generally try to get a sense of how the girls are doing throughout the meal and adjust accordingly. If they’re chill, we linger. If not, we settle the bill right away, so we can leave whenever we choose.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t share another tip for managing restaurant meals on the road: Don’t force the kids to eat.
Granted, it’s super frustrating to order (and pay for) food that the kids might not eat. Still, trust me: Insisting that they shovel that food down their gullets is only going to make them miserable (which, in turn, is guaranteed to ruin your experience, as well).
During those rare instances where the little ones go on hunger strike, follow their lead(s), get a to-go box and offer them the food back at your hotel or during a quiet moment later in the day. Chances are they’ll eat the grub then. If not, your trip may be threatened by bigger problems (and, after a day or so, you probably should notify your child’s physician).
Finally, remember that for most children, dining out is like any other acquired behavior—doing it correctly takes practice.
The more you expose your kids to restaurant meals close to home, the more comfortable they will be in a restaurant setting, and the better they’ll behave when you explore eateries on the road.
IMHO, everybody wins from this “restaurant training.” Except maybe your skinny jeans.
What are your secrets for managing little ones during restaurant meals on the road? Please share your thoughts in the comment field above.