Dining out tips

Sunday, March 16, 2003

It's true that children should be on their best behavior when they're dining in a restaurant, but good table manners should be part of the daily routine no matter where the food is being served, says Cindy Post Senning, an etiquette expert.

"I talk about mealtime at home a lot. It's unfair to your children not to give them a sense of what mealtime is about," says Senning, a director at The Emily Post Institute and a columnist on children's etiquette.

If children are normally allowed to throw or play with their food, run around the table or scream at the top of their lungs when they eat at home, it's hard to get them to do a drastic turnaround when they're in a restaurant or at their grandparents for a special holiday meal.

There should be a standard good-manners climate at home that encourages polite mealtime rituals, Senning suggests, such as placing napkins on the lap or saying "excuse me" before getting up.

And, according to Senning, who is the co-author of "The Gift of Good Manners: A Parent's Guide to Raising Respectful, Kind, Considerate Children" and has worked for 30 years in education and nursing, the golden rule of parenting is for the adults to behave the way they want their children to act.

"You have to practice what you preach," she says.

Senning offers some age-based tips on preparing children for eating in restaurants:

Some babies are quiet and can go anywhere but some can't. Know the children and what their limits are -- and what their schedules are. If the babies go to a restaurant during their feeding times they will begin to make the right associations.

It makes sense to take 1- to 3-year-old toddlers on a test run to a fast-food restaurant before hitting any sort of formal restaurant. This way they can get used to sitting at the table -- not running around it -- but there won't be the seemingly endless wait for food to be served.

Once toddlers are ready for family-friendly restaurants (those with booster seats or children's menus), they also are ready to help pack up a bag of small toys to bring with them. If the children choose their own amusements, they are more likely to play with them and it's a sign of respect from their parents.

It's also OK to call the restaurant ahead of time and request to place at least part of the order by phone. This way appetizers could be on the table soon after the family has arrived.

By the time children are 6 years old, they should be eating out fairly regularly, and, as long as the family's budget allows it, they can even go to elegant restaurants. To prepare for the switch to a fancy place, parents should tell their children what to expect, such as the maitre d' pulling out the chairs.

And it never hurts to remind children to use their "pleases" and "thank yous."

The vendors at mall food courts are a good training ground for 11- to 14-year-olds, often providing children with their first independent meal experiences. They'll get used to ordering for themselves but they won't get hung up in tipping or how to split the check with friends.

The first time teenagers go to a full-service restaurant without their parents is often to mark a special occasion -- a friend's birthday, a prom. Parents should walk them through all the steps, from making the reservations, how to check their coats and how to tip.

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