Eating out with your kids can be hard! Tis the season when suddenly families have time to be out and about. Holiday season any time of the year can be hell for parents.

Just when you think you’ve got this parenting lark nailed the meals-out-with -young-children holiday times begin!

One of the things I’ve observed over the years is how children’s behaviour can be timed to perfection to let you down badly when you’re in public.

If you’re an anxious parent this can make things doubly hard! The holidays are always super fun so your childrens’ energy levels are through the roof.

It’s ok when they’re in a highchair or the pushchair still. Even a tantrum can be contained, but once they’re preschool aged and heading towards school they’re flying free.

However as frustrating as this can be the simple fact is things begin at home. When helping children to have manners and eat out in public its about the 3 P’s.

Practice Practice Practice!

I can remember vividly aged about 10 and having a family meal out. When we got home my mum absolutely lost her cool. What had gone so badly wrong? Well my brother and I had behaved like a pair of animals at the family meal out. What then took place was a kind of ongoing boot camp for table manners.

The thing was though is my mum recognised it wasn’t actually our fault. We never had meals out as a family so we’d never had to be on show so to speak. It is actually massively unfair of us as adults to expect children to know what to do and how to behave in public if they haven’t practiced it or been shown.

In my many years working in Early Years education and running preschools one of my big things was always table manners. I don’t know if it stemed from my own early life experience of being massively shouted at by my parents. The simple fact is young children can have good table manners and young children can behave in public.

BUT it takes practice, and a bit of preperation.

I can remember an absolutely brilliant early years behaviour specialist visiting our setting to do an assessment for a referall. Her words have always stuck with me.

“It’s a bit like dog training; repetition, simple instruction and consistency”.

She actually said this! I couldn’t believe it but true!

It all starts at home!

You as the adult have to model good table manners. That means sitting down with your kids at the table. I’m guilty as hell for being a parent always on the go and family mealtime didn’t feature much once my son hit secondary school.

However running a preschool we always all sat with one adult and 4 children per table. Snack time and lunch time. If we were outdoors doing Wildschool we all still sat around with the children and modelled good manners and good sharing.

I know its hard to fit this kind of practice in every day if you’re working so try and do it a little bit at a time. Even if you’re a stay at home mom it’s very common to let the children eat first, then mummy eat later with daddy. Try to schedule in time to sit and eat with your children, even if you only have a snack.

No distractions

That means no background TV or music, no Ipads, no phones, no storytimes at family mealtimes. Again it’s unfair to expect children to behave with no entertainment in public if they are constantly distracted at the table at home. Using the Ipad as a babysitter is making a rod for your own back when you’re out. By all means pack some books or colouring for before and after the meal, but at home they need to practice being sat at the table with no distraction.

This also goes for us as parents. When the children are eating it’s a great time to tidy up or blitz the kitchen. Try to pause for a moment and sit with your children. You’re showing them how it’s done.

Timing

Timing is everything with children as they are creatures of habit. If your kids are used to eating at 6 then it’s going to be a nightmare for you in you’re booked in to a busy restaurant at 6. The food could take 40 minutes to arrive.

Believe me, I’ve also done years of front of house work in pubs and restaurants and seen this happen over and over again. Tired, hungry children are whiny and always close to melt down. Again this isn’t their fault. You’ll end up feeling embarressed as a parent and appologising to other diners.

If you’re having a nice meal out with friends be organised and order the children’s food with the starters or avoid starters all together when you’re doing practice runs. Book in for at least half an hour before you would normally eat. You know that at home your children benefit from thier bedtime routine. Children however benefit from all routines and that means when you’re out for a meal too.

The thing about meals out and family time’s is it’s usually a big event during holiday times. Busy working lives means we often save up these times for special occasions. You’ll find things a lot calmer if you practice going out to quiet cafe’s during the daytime at weekends from when your children are very little onwards.

Don’t over face them

This is actually a horsey term for “don’t make the fence too big for the horses ability”. Same with children. One of the areas I see this a lot is the amount of food on children’s plates. If you’re child only picks at home they will likely only pick when they’re out. You’ll save yourself a whole heap of money and frustration if you just get a spare plate and they can have some of your food.

I’m personally very anti children’s menus in pubs and restaurants which serve awful processed crap. That is just a personal opinion but if your children get used to eating the same things as you at home then it’ll be a breeze when you’re out and about.

Consistency

Isn’t it great when it’s the summer and kids can run wild in the beer garden. Um no! The meal time bit should remain the same all year round whether picnics, lunches out or evening meals. Again because it’s unfair to expect children to differentiate.

Children need structure, routine and boundaries to feel safe. When you drop the ball things quickly go out the window with regards to behaviour. That’s actually the same rule that needs implmenting in all areas of a child’s life not just meal times.

Repetition

Children learn from observing you as the parent. So stick with it and you’ll soon see the benefits. Older children are generally more flexible however they still need a good foundation in place. Children learn the good stuff and the bad stuff by repeated experience.

Avoid the fizzy drinks

If you don’t do fizzy sugary drinks at home then it’s unfair to expect your child to behave if they suddenly have them as a treat when they’re out. As boring and structured as it sounds this is one of the things you have to be rigid with. My son would turn in to a complete monster if he had coca-cola. So I simply had to ban it. Yes I was a mean mum. It made things easier and kinder on him in the long run. Some children are just really sensitive to these kind of things. A treat and special time can very quickly descend in to an overstimulated nightmare.

Practice using proper cups and plates.

There is a wonderful array of brighly coloured plastic stuff for cups and plates for children. The marketing for it was a huge success! You’ve probably got cupboards full of it. The thing is that all kids do with it is play with it because it doesn’t break. This technically makes your life easier. Until you want to eat out!

Even our 2 and 3 year olds at preshool used china cups and plates. The rules were quite simple. We don’t play with our cups and plates or they’ll break!

Have fun!

It can still be fun practicing these things. We used to do fancy high teas and pretend we were eating with the Queen. They felt really ‘grown up’ sitting with the grown ups and eating nicely. It was a fun way to practice our table manners. As adults we’d role play along too. You can still make things fun, playful and lovingly connected together. By making it fun you get to pracitce without resorting to shouting or getting stressed out.

Children will be children.

It’s the one thing they are awesomely good at! You take your eye off the ball for 5 minutes then they’ll do what kids do, and that’s play. Play is a wonderful thing but the dinner table isn’t the place for it. So have a simple rule in place that once everyone has eaten then they can get down and play. Even small children can do this but again it’s unfair to expect them to not get distracted if you’re distracted too.

and finally….

Keep practicing with them and modelling the behaviour you wish to see. Both parents need to try and do this too. Behaviour goes out the window if daddy is the fun one and mummy is the strict one or vice versa. Doing the ground work will pay off heaps in the long run.

Parenting is hard but you got this!

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