Restaurants that cater to children have become part of the American landscape, with birthday parties and children's entertainment the stock-in-trade of some national chains. At the other end of the spectrum are the high-end restaurants with quiet, formal settings, many of which don't allow children under age twelve. A good rule of thumb for parents is not to take young children to fancy restaurants; save that for when they're eight or nine and able to sit quietly at the table and practice good table manners.
Even in the most kid-friendly places, children should be taught to speak softly and to be on their best behavior when eating out. With some clear reminders and careful attention, eating out can be a good learning experience for children of all ages.
Before going, remind your child of what's in store. She'll be given a menu, the waiter will take her order, and everyone will stay at the table until the meal ends.
Since a young child probably isn't accustomed to waiting for meals, take a small drawing pad and colored pens (or other quiet playthings) to keep her occupied. Just be sure to put them away before the food arrives. For very small children, bring something they can eat while they wait for their order to arrive: single packs of applesauce, crackers, individual servings of yogurt, and so on.
Place your order as promptly as possible. For efficiency's sake, order for any child who's five or under. Be positive she knows what she wants before the waiter comes to take the orders. It disrupts service for the waiter to have to stand there while the child repeatedly changes her mind.
If a toddler gets restless or noisy and you can't stop the disturbance, escort her from the dining area and stay with her until she calms down.
Keep children seated in their chairs. If they run near servers who are carrying heavy, scalding-hot dishes, they risk harming themselves and others.
If your child spills something or makes another mess, do whatever you can to clean it up. The less you occupy the busboy and waiter, the less you delay service for other diners. Because cleanup for your party will be larger than for those without children, be generous to the wait-staff with both your appreciation and your tip.
If your child starts irritating other diners-say, by peering over the back of a booth or jumping-don't wait to put a stop to the behavior. (As obvious as that seems, it's amazing the number of parents who are willing to let mischief slide.) If the other diner mentions your child's behavior first, apologize and say that it won't happen again. Then take pains to see that it doesn't.
Know when to leave. Children find it hard to sit still for long periods, and it's unrealistic to expect them to. Unless dessert and coffee are served right away, you'll be wise to forgo them.