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How to Make Family Restaurant Experiences Worth the (Literal) Wait

Family eating at restaurant

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Key Takeaways

  • Many caregivers reported behavioral changes in their children during quarantine, including increased irritability and restlessness.
  • Experts say the ability to wait patiently builds kindergarten readiness.
  • Fully vaccinated parents, eager for a return to public experiences, like dining in a restaurant, can implement strategies at home to prepare their younger children.
  • Until children are fully vaccinated, the safest dining environment for a family is outdoors.

With glimpses of normalcy returning after over a year of home cooking and snack grazing, many are wondering if their kids are even ready for a return to restaurants. Some predict children will have difficulty sitting patiently through a meal out.

A recent study in Frontiers in Public Health surveyed over 6,000 caregivers about their children’s behavioral changes during quarantine. Those with children under age 6 reported increased irritability (34.7%); sleep disorders, including problems falling asleep and also night awakenings (19% each); and stress symptoms, including restlessness (18.6%) and separation anxiety (16.4%).

If you’re a fully vaccinated parent, ready for a summer of Dr. Seuss’ “Oh, the Places You’ll Go,” here are some strategies you can start building at home to make being waited on an experience really worth the wait.

Why Is Waiting So Hard for Kids?

“The ability to wait patiently is one of those real-world skills that carry over into so many situations like eating in a restaurant, and even builds kindergarten readiness,” says pediatrician Shelly Flais, MD, an official spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics and editor-in-chief of "Caring for Your School-Age Child: Ages 5-12."

She adds, “Developmentally, difficulties with waiting come down to any young child’s natural scientific curiosity—they love to test their limits in new environments.”

As with all human behavior, it’s all about context. A study in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology found young children were more patient when a researcher (not their parent) was present. They were more willing to wait if a reward they wanted was offered.

5 Strategies for Building Restaurant Readiness

Eat Family Meals at a Table

“This can be especially hard with little ones because they naturally want to wander," says Nancy Murphy, MEd, NBCT, a collaborative preschool teacher and early childhood development expert from Santa Monica, California.

Yet, after 15 years in early childhood education, family meals are her number one strategy for building table-time tolerance. “It might be hard, but not allowing kids to get up out of their seats during the meal will prepare them for a restaurant environment,” Murphy says.

If you’re wondering how to keep kids seated without a screen, a good science-backed strategy is to get them talking.

Anne Fishel, PhD, notes that researchers found that “[young] kids learned 1,000 rare words at the dinner table, compared to only 143 from parents reading storybooks aloud.” When combined, dinner conversation and being read aloud to gives kids a larger vocabulary that helps them learn to read earlier and easier.

Play Pretend-Restaurant

Playing is how kids learn as it allows them to experiment with different social roles, and build more complex negotiation, communication, and language skills. “Making a conscious effort to put your phone away, turn the TV off, and play with your child one-on-one is one of the best things you can do,” Dr. Flais says.

It can also be helpful to role-play as your child’s favorite characters. Research suggests this strategy helps kids think more flexibly and persevere longer.

Practice Taking Turns

In order to fully learn the skill of sharing and taking turns, children need the opportunity to apply it.

“Some children may need extra practice with things they may have missed out on by not being in a preschool environment like personal space and waiting empathetically for their turn,” Murphy explains. “When parents are the ‘waiter,’ they can leave the room to gradually increase the time before returning with pretend menus, drinks, appetizers, and so on.”

Have Set Mealtimes

Predictable home schedules and routines can mitigate some of that pandemic-related behavior regression. So, if you have allowed the slower pace of the past year to weed into your family’s normally overscheduled evenings and dinnertimes, Dr. Flais suggests an early dinner around 4:30 p.m or 5 p.m to leave time for some before-bed playground time or an evening bike ride.

Those family meals also have nutritional benefits as children grow into adulthood. Research in the journal Public Health Nutrition found that young adults who had eaten regular family meals as teens were more likely to eat shared meals once they lived on their own, and were more likely to make healthy food choices.

Start Small

“A three-year-old having a tantrum in a restaurant is age-appropriate,” Dr. Flais says. “I always tell parents to look for the cause underneath the behavior.”

Being tired, sick, or hungry can naturally affect anyone’s ability to wait patiently—adults included. Ask yourself:

  • Are they overly hungry? We all know what it’s like to be "hangry"
  • Did they have a nap?
  • Could they be coming down with something? It is a pandemic, after all.

Instead of bringing your kids out for a five-course dinner, she suggests taking baby steps and keeping expectations low. “Try an ice cream stand or a restaurant with outdoor dining; these are not only safer options for families but also better environments for young children," Dr. Flais suggests.

What This Means For You

If you’ve noticed some behavioral regression in your child, know you’re not alone. There are strategies you can start implementing at home to prepare your child for real-life experiences that require waiting like eating in a restaurant or sitting in a classroom.

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