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Screen free meal time at a restaurant.

Updated: Dec 17, 2019

Let me preface by saying that I'm all for a show, movie, iPad game, you name it in the sake of your own personal sanity. When I was pregnant with my second child, I lived for TV time so I that could rest and not have to entertain a 23 month old around the clock. No shame that my son wasn't over two years old like the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends for screen time. No guilt that he was getting way more than the allotted 1 hour per day either. I never thought twice about it.

In fact, during my second pregnancy, I had terrible morning sickness, and pretty much had the TV on the majority of the time. The morning sickness was so bad that one day during a walk with my son, I vomited on the sidewalk in front of a neighbor and nearly fainted. She kindly walked my pregnant self and son back home in which I quickly switched on the TV. It was a life saver.

That being said, I resort to screen time in restaurants at a bare minimum and only as a last resort. I am a stickler for table manners and even more strict in a restaurant. Both of my children were seated at the table for breakfast, lunch, and dinner in their high chair at 1 month old. No one is allowed to leave the table until everyone is finished eating then they need to ask to be excused.

We all have our things!

So when it comes to eating out at restaurants, I have very high expectations because they have had ample practice. I have had many parents share their challenges when going out to eat with their children. It becomes stressful, too much work, a scene, and overall a waste of money. It is a shame because going to a restaurant is a nice privilege and treat that many people cannot afford to do often, if at all.

Apart from the desire to have an enjoyable meal out, there are huge life lessons being taught at the table. One of my dear family friends is the director of a prestigious preschool. For every meal, the children were seated together with delicate china, glassware, and silverware properly placed at each place setting. The children, some as young as 3, were expected to sit and enjoy their food together with a beautiful table scape. The teachers and director fully trusted that the students were capable of learning how to do so together. And not surprisingly, they did just fine! They practiced how to ask for items at the table, use utensils, drank from cups without lids, and engage in conversation with each other. These are lessons that go beyond the school walls and carry with them in life.

So, if you are looking for ways to increase your child's positive behaviors at a restaurant, all while doing it screen free, then check out these helpful tips below!

Steps for happy and engaged kids (and even happier parents) while at a restaurant:

1. Lay the foundation early. I seriously believe that my kids do so well in restaurants because of how strict I have been about our meal time at home. When you set up the environment at home as a 'norm', it will continue to be a 'norm' somewhere else. They will be fully aware and familiar with how to sit at a table, where their voice level needs to be, what to do and not do with their utensils (although my music loving son still tries to get away with using them as drumsticks at no avail), and semi comfortable being patient while others are talking/eating/or waiting for the check.

2. But as all great people say, its never too late for change! Just because some of that foundation hasn't been put forth does not mean you can't make strides now. Think about what target behaviors you would like to see at meal time. Maybe the most important thing is all sitting together for 1 meal/day. Next, create a plan and verbalize it to the kids, "I would like us to sit and eat together for breakfast every morning". And do it! Even if you need to give yourself extra time in the morning, even if it means sitting with the kids at the table while they eat their cereal and you drink your coffee. Its YOUR goal and if it is important enough, you will make it a priority.

3. Verbalize the expected behaviors to your children. Before you enter the restaurant, please have a mini pep talk with the kiddos. Not in a I-am-already-angry way, but a gentle reminder that you have age appropriate expectations for this meal. Something like "We are going to meet my cousin for lunch at X restaurant. I would like to keep an inside voice and stay seated until we get the check". By doing so, they are aware of what the environment will be like (where you are eating, who will be at the table) and what behaviors they should exhibit.

4. Next, prep for positive and negative behavior. No matter what age your child is, you should have pre-identified consequences and rewards so that you are not left struggling to evoke the behavior you want from your child. Whether you bring your 6 month old baby and discuss who will hold/feed/entertain him when he starts to fuss, or your 10 year old who will earn video game time to be used later that night for doing what you said in step 3. Here are some ideas:

  • Rewards: Dessert, earn stickers for every 10 minutes they exhibit the behavior you requested, and positive praise "I am so proud of how you are using your inside voice".

  • Consequences: Remove them from the table and have them take a break for serious behavior faux pas, redirect child's attention, or remove problematic items (Ill often take away the utensils when my kids wont stop banging on the table with them).

Keep in mind that you don't want to make the behavior worse or heighten any negative behaviors. This is often done when the parent becomes angry and starts verbalizing how the child will lose XYZ privileges. Think "That's it, no birthday party this weekend!". This often gets the child more upset and causes big emotional explosions. Try to stick to immediate things that promote positive behavior (circle back to lots of praise or redirection).

5. Pack table friendly activities. Have you ever packed small, quiet, and new items for your child to play with at the table? This is the best way to speak your child's language (play!) and evoke happy entertainment. My son will not use the crayons and paper that is often provided in restaurants and the baby eats them. So ill put together a restaurant kit before we go out to eat. Simple items such as play doh and mini dinosaurs to create footprints in the play doh, a pad lock and key from the dollar store for my kids to try to unlock, a mini etch a sketch, mini Legos, Polly Pocket, Water Wow, the list can go on and on. As long as it is small, quiet, and grabs the kids attention, you can't go wrong. Oh, except things with wheels. Those go rolling off the table and create more problems- switch those out for things that fly. Bring those out one at a time or as needed for peaceful entertainment.

6. Last but not least, keep it short and sweet. If this is a new outing for you and behaviors in restaurants have been very challenging in the past, choose a more casual restaurant and sit outside! Bring someone else along to help out (partner, grandparent, supportive friend).

Don't give up! The more frequent you expose the kids and yourself to positive experiences out, the more your family unit will feel confident and enjoy the experience! Doing this without the electronics will give you all a chance to engage in pro social behaviors and learn more about each other! Not to mention important lessons on table manners.

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