Sitting through supper

Sunday, March 16, 2003

NEW YORK -- Bringing the whole family to a restaurant and breaking bread together should be a fun, pleasant experience for parents and children. And staff. And all the other diners.

Without proper preparation and cooperation, though, accomplishing this goal is nearly impossible.

Cindy Post Senning, co-author of "The Gift of Good Manners: A Parent's Guide to Raising Respectful, Kind, Considerate Children," says before the family is shown to their table -- even before they walk through the restaurant's door -- everyone should review their expectations of what the mealtime should bring.

For parents, that means setting reasonable limits for their children and for themselves, according to Senning, a great-granddaughter of etiquette expert Emily Post, a director at the Vermont-based Emily Post Institute and a former school principal.

It is more than fair for parents to expect children of any age to exhibit the same good manners they should be using at home: No food throwing, staying seated at the table while eating and not blowing bubbles in their milk, for instance.

But Senning says it's not reasonable to expect a 3-year-old to sit quietly while the parents linger at the table over coffee and adult conversation. And it's when kids get bored that the trouble starts.

"You have to strategize," she advises. "You have to anticipate. Ask yourself how to minimize wait times. Children don't understand 'We'll just be a little bit' or 'It's almost ready,' they don't understand much more than instant gratification."

Andrea Barbalich, executive editor of Child magazine, says parents need to come to a restaurant armed with distractions. "Bring books, crayons, small toys," Barbalich suggests. "Their attention span is so short so bring plenty of things to keep them occupied."

And, even if it seems a little unnecessary since you're going to a restaurant, bring snacks, which can serve as another distraction before the meal arrives.

It also helps to be early-bird diners since children are usually hungry on the early side of mealtime, there are fewer people in the restaurant and the food is often served more quickly, Barbalich says.

"Make it easy for kids to succeed. Talk to them beforehand about expectations, give them distractions and don't let the meal drag on for two hours," she says.

"Try and make it a positive experience, it will make it easier the next time because they'll want to go."

But parents have to be willing to leave a restaurant if the children really are acting up, Barbalich says, especially if that threat is on the table.

Barbalich notes that parents are taking younger children to better restaurants more often now than in the past, mostly because it's a way that busy people can spend time together as a family.

"The upside is children are getting used to how to behave in a restaurant at an earlier age; the downside is kids are still kids and sometimes they struggle with behaving like adults in an adult place," she says.

Chef Emeril Lagasse's first restaurants in New Orleans were targeted to adults -- there wasn't a children's menu or crayon in sight -- but he was happy to accommodate the occasional pint-sized diner with a plain pasta or chicken, or special dessert.

So, when he opened his first restaurant in Orlando, Fla., four years ago, Lagasse says he followed the same model. It didn't take long, though, to realize that a family destination such as Orlando required a much more family-oriented restaurant.

"I thought let's treat kids like little adults. I thought that was good, but we got a lot more younger kids than we thought and we weren't satisfying these 4-year-old guests," Lagasse says.

In an effort to win over the children whom Lagasse calls "future customers," the restaurant added a children's menu featuring tortellini, pizzas made in a wood-burning oven and chicken tenders. The menu is shaped as a miniature chef's toque which can later be unfolded into a coloring page.

"It (the menu) puts kids in the zone of being kids in an adult environment. It takes out the argument that there is nothing for kids to eat and it occupies the kids for 30 minutes," he says.

Lagasse adds: "Don't make eating in a restaurant a punishment by saying 'You can't do this, you can't do that.' Make it a special treat. Say to them on Wednesday, 'We're going on Friday to that great Chinese restaurant where they have that good dish you like so much."'

For his newest Orlando location, Tchoup Chop, which serves Asian and Polynesian foods, Lagasse is soliciting input from both parents and children about what to put on the kiddie menu since "there's no tomato sauce around."

Lagasse, who has two adult children and will be a father again this spring, encourages kids to taste new foods and flavors. And if these foods are adapted for little fingers and don't require knives, it's even better.

The same theory applies to restaurants, he adds. "If you don't expose your kids to new things at an early age, how are they ever going to know what these things are about?"

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