Of course we want our kids to be well behaved when we take them out to eat. Who doesn’t dream of random strangers approaching our table as we eat with our well mannered children to comment on how sophisticated our little cherubs are? However, good manners don’t just come out of a can – they have to be developed. That means our kids are not going to act appropriately in restaurants unless we work hard to give them the tools and skills to succeed in public. Here are some tips on making your cheerio throwing crumbgrinder into a perfect little lady or gentleman who remembers their please’s and thank you’s.

Start at home – Show them where to place their napkin and how to use it, how to use utensils, correct them if they start shoveling food in their mouth or talk with their mouth full… Guide them in appropriate restaurant behavior and manners by insisting on the same kind of behavior and manners at your own dinner table.

Venture first to kid-friendly restaurants – Instead of jumping into fine dining with your toddler, consider taking them on several test runs at more kid-friendly restaurants like McDonalds, Applebees, or the like. These are great places to start practicing fine dining skills outside of the home, and you’re less likely to receive admonishing stares from other diners should your children not be entirely sophisticated in their dining skills (i.e. they’re still dropping food under the table, or worse, launching it across the restaurant)

Set consequences early – Before you leave the house, and even before leaving the car to enter the restaurant, specify the appropriate behaviors you wish to see as well as the consequences for not following proper dining guidelines. Make your expectations very clear so that there’s no guessing game.

Bring entertainment – Let’s face it, most kids lack the ability to sit still for long periods of time. And where better quality foods are served, the wait time is not known for being short. So bring along crayons, coloring books, or some other item that will allow them to be quietly entertained and take away the “I’m bored” blues without bothering other diners.

Practice having conversations – One of my family’s favorite conversation games is to play “What’s your favorite ____?” and then fill in the blank with the subject of choice (car, vacation, place to live, animal, etc). The ones being asked then list their personal favorites. It’s a fun way to learn more about each other, and also introduces all new topics of conversation as we get deeper in the game. Find games like these to play while waiting for food to practice the fine art of conversation, practice not interrupting and waiting their turn to speak, and to also help pass the time.

Skip the appetizers – Appetizers on the menu are notorious for being as large as a regular entrée. And if you order a starter, your child might fill up before their meal even gets there. It’s better to just skip the before meal snack. However, if your kids are like mine where they are suddenly starving once they smell food and cannot possibly wait that long, have the server bring a bowl of fresh fruit or crackers to tide them over, or even a simple glass of milk.

Correct them privately – Should your child be acting against the guidelines for eating out, remind them of proper behavior quietly. If you’re dining with non-family members, excuse the two of you from the table and talk to your child in private to avoid embarrassment – a feeling that could lead to further misconduct to hide their shame.

Pack up and leave – If negative behavior doesn’t stop, don’t give chances over and over – just leave. While it sucks to have to miss out on a meal out, leaving sends a message to your child that their behavior will not be tolerated, and will cause them to miss out on something really special. Of course, their misbehavior may also be a sign that they just aren’t ready to eat out yet, and that’s ok. Just keep practicing at home until they are.

What are some ways your family has been successful in eating out while the kids are young?