I teach Etiquette to children and I have found that these suggestions work when going to a restaurant with your children, so I wanted to share them.
Before you go to the restaurant
• Play games. With grade-schoolers, you need to walk the line between respecting their needs as children (who will be bored and fidgety if the wait for food is long) and getting them to respect the needs of their fellow diners, including their own parents. Keep a pair of dice (for playing math games) in your purse or pocket, and be ready to play "I spy with my little eye," simple clapping games, or tic-tac-toe.
• Pack it up. Let your child pack up her own tote with a book, some drawing and writing supplies, or another quiet, compact, and discreet source of amusement. Anything that makes noise (such as handheld electronic games), takes up too much of the table (board games), or just seems rude (iPod or CD player with headphones) is off-limits.
• Pick the right restaurant. Choose a kid-friendly restaurant — one that's casual, loud enough to absorb some noise, and with either a kid menu or a varied enough menu to appeal to children and adults. Let your child choose the restaurant once in a while, or at least consider her preferences.
If possible, make a reservation so there's no wait for a table. Or go some place fun. Fondue is an entertaining way to eat melted cheese — a favorite of many children. Restaurants that cook tableside can mesmerize kids, and you might even be able to introduce sushi by going to one of those places where you pluck the prepared sushi from little boats floating past the dining counter. (Your child might enjoy warm noodles more than your favorite sashimi roll.)
• Set some ground rules. If you establish realistic, age-appropriate guidelines at home, you're more likely to see your child following the rules when dining out. You've probably been preaching good manners since your child was a toddler, but starting now you have the opportunity to begin shaping lifelong habits.
Practice volume control and the way a speaking voice should vary depending on the surrounding noise. Talk about the differences between appropriate conversation for restaurant dining versus the family dinner table. Demonstrate the correct way to move around in a restaurant (this is good for a laugh too) — walking quietly and directly to wherever you're going, whether it's to the table, the rest room, or the exit.
Once you're there
• Don't dawdle. As soon as you're seated, ask for bread and butter. Don't worry about her filling up before the entree arrives — it's hard for kids to behave when they're hungry, and this isn't an every-night thing.
• Keep it moving.Don't expect your 5- to 8-year-old to wait through the adults having a salad course and appetizer while she just waits or nibbles on croutons. As soon as you sit down, order an appetizer you can share with your child, or skip the appetizers and go straight to the entrees, avoiding the gap between courses.
• Let them eat cake. Reserve certain special foods or drinks for restaurant dining only. Allowing your child to have something that's normally forbidden at home — soda, for example — will not only occupy her attention but will reinforce the idea that going out is a privilege.
• Put on the Ritz.To motivate your child to maintain some decorum while dining out, demonstrate more formal table manners than are expected at home. A linen napkin placed in the lap, while not that important in and of itself, is a signal that a restaurant is a serious place where children should be on their best behavior.
Whenever your child gets up (to go to the rest room, for example), remind her to quietly push in her chair. Encourage her to sit up straight and use silverware properly. For a really impressive flourish, teach your child to pull out Mom's chair when you first reach the table.
• Have them do the ordering.Bigger kids like to exercise their autonomy. Encourage your 7- or 8-year-old to order for herself, make healthy selections, and say thank you when the food is served. She'll feel more engaged in the whole process as a result.
• Strive for peace.The goal for parents, and children, is to have a positive experience when dining out. Accordingly, it's important to remember that your child is, in fact, a child. Each time the family eats out is a learning experience.
Avoid going to war over minor transgressions. A restaurant is not the place to have a battle of wills over a breach of etiquette. Instead of expecting perfection, just strive for progress.
• Focus on the big picture. One of the most enjoyable aspects of dining out, as your child gets older, is that it offers the opportunity for meaningful conversation. There's no telephone, no television, and no one has to get up to refill the drink glasses or replace dropped silverware. Kids love it because they can have whatever they want to eat. Parents love it because someone else cooks, serves, and cleans up.
Take advantage of the downtime to talk to your partner and your child. When you consider the value of an uninterrupted evening with your family, the meal is really just a bonus.