Restaurant Etiquette for a Peaceful Family Meal
Eating out more frequently has become part of what we do as Americans, says Patrick Whalen, operating partner at Nan and Byron’s restaurant in Charlotte. “I don’t know if it’s good or bad, it just is,” he says.
But as routine as restaurant dining has become, it still serves as a special occasion for families. Parents can use eating out as an opportunity to act as role models and teach children how to socialize and behave in a restaurant environment. Here are suggestions for how you can work on restaurant manners with your child for your family’s next dinner out.
Practice at Home
Alice Cunningham, owner of Alice’s Place, a teahouse in Winston-Salem, says restaurants provide parents with an extended environment in which to model the good manners they should already be practicing at home.
“Good etiquette is good etiquette,” Cunningham says. “You don’t separate restaurant behavior from day-to-day behavior. It’s not like a dress you can take on and off.”
At home, Cunningham advises turning off the TV to fully enjoy a family meal and focus on good behavior and conversation. “If it’s done day-to-day, it’s not as traumatic when you go out in public,” she says. “What you do at home, you automatically do ‘out there.’”
Susan Caldwell, founder of Lil’ Chef Kids Cooking Studios in Raleigh, says “Etiquette is a spin-off of what we do every day. … Kids feed off praise and recognition.”
Before going to a restaurant, parents should prepare children for how they’re expected to act. Cunningham encourages parents to tell their children to be mindful of others, to stay in control of their behavior and to think twice about misbehaving, which will not be tolerated.
“When you set clear boundaries at any age, they know from your voice that you mean what you’re saying,” she says.
Caldwell, who has an 11-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son, recommends role-playing at home to prepare your child for dining out. She even prints out a placemat to teach children how to set the table. (Try this one from emilypost.com.
“Advanced preparation is key,” Caldwell says. She suggests bringing a backpack of items that will keep the child occupied: toys, paper, pen, crayons and books, for example. “I try to be prepared for whatever’s thrown my way,” she says.
Whalen, who has a 3-year-old son and 4-month-old daughter, encourages parents to “be engaged with what your kids are doing — it’s part of the social process. You can’t just hand them an iPhone and have them disengage. It’s good to learn how to deal with impatience or not getting exactly what they want to eat. They need to learn the rules of the restaurant.”
If your baby begins screaming, take her out of the situation, Cunningham advises. Likewise, if an older child causes a commotion, talk quietly and firmly to him or her at first.
“If the behavior continues, then remove the child from the restaurant,” she says.
Whalen recommends that parents take the child outside, weather permitting, to calm her down. “People are more willing to be forgiving if the parent is involved in the socialization of the children and [is] correcting behavior, than if you’re disengaged and playing Angry Birds,” he says.
The jury is out on this one. Whalen doesn’t think parents need to clean up messes made by a baby or toddler when dining out because, “the whole point of going to a restaurant is to be taken care of,” he says.
Caldwell, however, suggests parents attempt to clean up, including taking baby containers home rather than leaving them on the table. Caldwell says if she can’t clean up the mess, she compensates by leaving a larger tip.
Whalen says a bigger tip is not necessary. “Families may not be in a position to pay more,” he says. “So don’t add to it by increasing the tip.”
(See below for how some of our Facebook fans handle this situation.)
Children’s readiness to order their own food depends on their personality, age and developmental stage. Whalen advises that parents take over when their child is hesitant or takes longer than 10-20 seconds. “It’s not quantifiable,” he says, but can occur “when the child feels comfortable to speak publically without infringing on the server’s ability to do their job.”
Good restaurant etiquette not only reflects favorably on your child and the job you have done as a parent; it also builds self-esteem, encourages self-confidence and sends your child into the world with life skills he will use over and over again.
“Children learn to respect themselves and others, and it helps with making good choices at home, school and in play,” Caldwell says. “A good foundation gives them the opportunity to learn and practice leadership skills, and it makes them more likable.”
FACEBOOK: Do you clean up after your family at a restaurant, or leave it to the wait staff?
We try to keep it clean, stack plates, pick up major crumbs, etc.
— Denise McEntee
I always clean up and make it as easy as possible for them to get the table ready for the next guest. I was a waitress for years and make sure that my children appreciate that waiters, waitresses, bussers, etc., are people too
.— Heidi Mulligan Walker
I stack all plates and silverware, put all napkins on top and move all drink glasses next to the stack. I pick up anything that was dropped on the floor by my children and I wipe down the table. I’m a tad OCD, but I have four kiddos so I feel like I should not leave a disaster for the waiter/waitress. My kids all help with the cleaning.
— Christina Beatrice Minnish
Unless we are leaving because of a meltdown we try to clean up. Thankfully we have finally passed the throwing food on the floor stage ... With having our three in three years it seemed like poor daddy spent at least 5 minutes crawling around under the table every time we went out!
— Covey Denton
I always clean up and stack the plates. I sometimes try not to but I can’t help it! Also, it shows common courtesy and speeds things up for the next person waiting for a table Besides, that way I can also make sure I did not leave anything behind!— Veronika Garcia
Alice Cunningham, owner of Alice’s Place in Winston-Salem, and Susan Caldwell, founder of Lil’ Chef Kids Cooking Studios in Raleigh, teach the following table manners to their students:
- Always put your napkin in your lap.
- Chew with your mouth closed.
- Don’t slurp your drink.
- Cut your food into small pieces.
- Eat small bits of food with a fork.
- Don’t bang utensils or other items on the table.
- Start from the outside in when using utensils.
- Hold the chair for ladies.
- Cross your legs at your ankles.
Restaurant Etiquette Resources
- Emily Post Institute: emilypost.com/home-and-family
- Cookbook author Linda Stradley: whatscookingamerica.net/Menu/DiningEtiquetteGuide.htm
Emily Post's Etiquette, 18th Edition by Peggy Post, Anna Post, Lizzie Post and Daniel Post Senning
Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior (Freshly Updated) by
Judith Martin, illustrated by Gloria Kamen
Etiquette for Dummies by Sue Fox
For a list of local family-friendly restaurants in North Carolina visit:
Cathy Downs is a Triangle-based freelance writer.