Dining, learning with children

By Paula Johnson

Photo: Teaching your little ones basic social skills in a restaurant ensures a more enjoyable experience for everyone

Q: Still looking for restaurants with family sections so we can have dinner without being interrupted by screaming children, which is annoying especially when paying a premium price for food. Some of these places are like “Romper Rooms.” Their parents sit looking at their phones while screaming kids chase through the rooms. I’m sure I am not the only one who keeps asking for these sections. Thanks for your suggestions!

—Pamela Duncan, via ContactUs@DaytonCityPaper.com

The eye roll. The sighing. The look of resignation and disgust as we are led past the many well-dressed dining couples to our booth. Why? We were well dressed too. But we brought along that most unwelcome of accessories: our children. And I completely understand the reaction. Children in restaurants are a problem, right? I mean, you’ve gussied up and are spending big bucks for a quiet, intimate time to enjoy chef-prepared food, and now, a whining, cacophonous mood-killer is cheating you of what you came for.

When it comes to restaurants, there are few issues that hit such a raw nerve. But I’m not going to wade into this one—I am doing a double pike off the high dive. I am going to argue strongly for taking your children to restaurants. How else will they develop an appreciation for food and the social skills to dine in public?

Of course, I am not advocating children in restaurants who shriek like banshees while playing hide and seek behind the coffee station. But the problem is not children in restaurants; it’s when children are taken to restaurants without proper preparation and supervision. This one’s on you, parents. The idea that little Cameron is the center of mommy and daddy’s universe and others should cater to Cameron’s whims and desires is absurd. Teach little Cameron that, especially in places like restaurants, they are absolutely not at the center, but are part of something that involves a whole lot of other folks. It’s a parent’s responsibility to help prepare these small beings for adulthood by teaching social rules, behaviors, and manners from early on. And restaurants are perfect places to do just that.

There are places where a little rambunctiousness is acceptable and encouraged. Chuck E. Cheese or McDonald’s Playlands come to mind. But when you are in a non-kid friendly environment, how can you make it a fun learning experience for your child, and relaxing and enjoyable for you without disturbing other diners and restaurant staff?

I’ve experienced this firsthand raising my own children and I’ve got some solid advice. As I glance in the rearview mirror of parenting, there are many failures, but I aced this one. Restaurant staff and other diners almost universally praised my kids. They grew up food-literate and now are adults who are comfortable in and enjoy restaurants immensely. This didn’t happen overnight, though, or without trial and error. Invest some time trying these ideas, and you’ll likely also garner some kudos for your amazing parenting—and you might just convert the naysayers.


Here’s my No. 1 trick, the one rule that is more than 50 percent of the whole battle:

1. At the first hint of fussing take the child outside—and stay outside—until they are calm enough to return. Repeat as needed. At every first hint. Yes, that means you might not have an uninterrupted meal the first few times, but things will most likely improve after that.

2. Involve your child by preparing them for where you’ll be dining. If it’s Chinese, look at a map, find out about what kinds of foods will be on the menu, practice with chop sticks rubber-banded together. If the child can read, make a game of how many vegetables, etc. they can find on the menu. Talk about who works at the restaurant and what their jobs are. Discuss rules and expectations and explain that there are different standards for restaurants that are not of the Chuck E. Cheese variety. Share your own excitement over food and going out as a family.

3. Avoid notoriously unhealthy kids menus. How can you develop food literacy when all you know is greasy, sodium-laden, fried food, bland starchy pasta, and chicken nuggets? Pick restaurants that offer small plates for everyone to share, or order a few side dishes extra for them.

4. Institute the one-bite rule—one bite to taste, without making a face or saying yuck. No need to interrogate if Cameron liked it or not. If they did, they will ask for more. This normalizes tasting. Practice at home to get used to new tastes and flavors.

5. Teach the child to order for herself. Child-server interaction teaches so much, especially that these folks are not your servants. It’s demeaning to the server to address a child and have the child not answer or make eye contact. Practice by role-playing at home.

6. No getting out of the chair once seated. I was once a server and I attest that hot coffee and free-range children are not compatible. It’s basic respect.

7. Limit electronics. This one is tough because of electronics’ built-in babysitter factor, buying you that elusive, uninterrupted adult time. But the lessons learned in restaurants are valuable and won’t be learned with electronic immersion. As an alternative, maybe bring a pad and pencils to write a story or draw what the child thinks the chef is doing in the kitchen, or mad libs to share with everyone at the table.

8. Try to be sure your child is hungry when you get to the restaurant. They will be much more receptive to taste. This is a tightrope walk because hunger encourages fussy behavior. It will require you to keep your child engaged and anticipating something special. Delayed gratification is a hard concept for a little one, but you’ll sabotage your efforts if they arrive with a full stomach.


A restaurant meal is about leisure and relaxation, something that obviously doesn’t come naturally to a child, and as with all things that don’t just happen, it must be taught. And what a great gift you are teaching them—they will learn about the art of dinner conversation and how to treat a server. They’ll learn how to taste and be curious about new cuisines. Dining out helps prepare them to transition into adulthood: think of the young person on a job interview or meeting over dinner who’s never been to a nice restaurant and has no idea what fork to use.

Maybe the kids don’t go every time—that’s what sitters are for. But when they do go, it can be amazing to watch them practice what you’ve taught them and explore new culinary adventures together. Bon appetite, mes enfants!

If you have any questions for DCP Epicurean Empress Paula Johnson, reach her at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.


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Dayton City Paper Dining Critic Paula Johnson would like every meal to start with a champagne cocktail and end with chocolate soufflé. As long as there’s a greasy burger and fries somewhere in the middle. Talk food with Paula at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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