Step up to the plate

The whole family can dine out, with practice, a little strategy and thoughtfully-chosen restaurants

The meal begins innocently enough, but hissed parental threats provoke howls of childish protest before the server has a chance to ask 'How is everything tonight?'

Dessert? Out of the question.

A 2003 survey conducted to find out more about kids' attitudes to eating out revealed that nearly 90 percent of families with children dine in restaurants at least once a month and 44 percent try their luck on a weekly basis. Then why does the whole process continue to seem so complicated? Some smart choices, reinforcing good manners and maintaining realistic expectations will help make these family forays satisfying experiences for everyone involved.

'It's not that people aren't interested in etiquette,' says Susan Marino of The Etiquette Center, 'but it takes time to model it.' Marino notes that families dining out face a disconnect between the lax habits of home and the higher standards parents have for public behavior.

The bottom line: If children aren't taught at home through example and practice how to wield silverware, handle a napkin, or make polite conversation, you can't expect them to wow the outside world with their impeccable table manners. 'When children can use utensils, it's time to start teaching etiquette. The sooner, the better,' Marino says.

In fact, Marino has encountered 11-year-olds who weren't sure how to use a knife. In her etiquette classes for children, Marino starts by teaching kids how to set the table. She then introduces practice food, runs through proper utensil technique and tells kids 'all about the napkin.'

Fearing my own napkin skills had lost their starch, I asked Marino for a refresher course: 'Well, the napkin goes on the left, with the open edge on the left. A child should learn to open it and put it in his lap without losing or playing with it. After the meal, the child should wipe his face and set the napkin, unfolded, to the left.' Some of Marino's classes culminate with a trip to a restaurant.

'Make a nice meal out a reward for practice and improvement at home,' she suggests. 'Preparation is the key.'

Prepared parents also bring several other dining strategies to the table. Some opt for booths to shield fellow diners from mayhem. Others seek outdoor seating or request a spot where they are less likely to disturb other guests. Wherever the family winds up, Marino recommends holding kids to one rule above all others: Stay seated. Should collisions with free-range children occur, servers risk spilling the contents of their trays.

Most children find it difficult to resist the charms of small, cleverly packaged objects like butter pats, jelly squares and mustard, ketchup and sugar packets. Etiquette experts are unanimous on this point: Don't let them go there. Marino says it is perfectly acceptable to occupy the youngest kids with your own bag of tricks, as long as noisemakers and other sound effects stay at home. When harmony and order reign over your table, fellow diners won't begrudge your children a few books or quiet toys.

There are other distractions you can use to your advantage. Take the potent novelty of a kiddie cocktail, for example. If it comes with several cherries and narrow straw (for slow-paced sipping), you can usually buy a couple of minutes of delighted compliance ' before the sugar rush hits, that is.

Admittedly, treating children to fancy soft drinks is the first step down a slippery slope ' it's just a matter of time before maraschino cherries take over your fridge or your child starts requesting orange juice in a wine glass before you've had your first cup of coffee.

Many restaurants offer crayons and paper, but a few go to greater lengths to capture the imaginations of their youngest guests. Catie Tollefson is a firm believer in keeping children occupied at all times. She works at Ella's Deli, where a dizzying collection of mechanical objects clicks, clacks and spins across the walls and ceiling. Even the tables come equipped with buttons that make things go.

Another strategy ' make it quick. Ten minutes feels like an eternity to a toddler, so the time it takes to get food to the table is important. Red Robin tries to pare order-to-table time down to just eight minutes. A strategy you can adopt at any restaurant is tightening the timeline of your meal by dining out early in the week or by arriving early in the evening, before the kitchen gets slammed.

When my friend, a coffee shop proprietor and fellow parent, heard that I was writing about dining with kids in Madison, he looked stricken. 'Please,' he begged, 'whatever you do, don't mention my shop.'

Too bad ' once you brush aside the scone crumbs and over-the-laptop glares of the creative class, coffee shops make ideal stops for families. Counter service ensures that you can sit down to lunch or a snack in a matter of minutes. Plus, you've already settled the tab, so there's nothing to stop you from sailing out the door as soon as the wind changes.

Other family favorites require more commitment than coffee shops, but you can pay any of them a visit without spoiling someone's big-ticket, child-free dinner date. (That said, do tip generously.)

These days, Roman Candle tops my family's short list. Our four-year-old adores the little serving tables that fold down from the wall, but she really flips for the pepperoni pizza with a blue moon ice cream chaser. On our most recent visit, the timely delivery of a small Lego box kept her occupied while my husband and I sipped wine and savored a few minutes of uninterrupted conversation.

Families with a taste for adventure and healthy fare will enjoy The Dardanelles, where children are made to feel most welcome. As soon as we sat down, our waiter presented my daughter with a small teapot of fruit punch. Delighted, she dubbed the treat 'princess juice' and spent the next ten minutes daintily (and very quietly) pouring herself mug after miniature mug. Fresh vegetables play an important role in this restaurant's flavorful Mediterrean dishes, but the kitchen will gladly accommodate less-developed palates with simple meals of parmesan noodles or shish kebab.

If it's Friday, it's fish fry for many families across Wisconsin. Irish Waters scores with crisply battered fish and reasonably priced kids' meals. Bonus point: The wait for a table is rarely as taxing as it can be at other Madison-area fish fries.

Benvenuto's dishes up a crowd-pleasing menu of Italian comfort food. Portions are generous, so you may not need to tap into the children's options at all if you ask for an extra plate. Well-spaced tables and crayons for the kids mitigate your family's impact on the rest of the dining room.

Believe it or not, children hunger for family traditions and generally behave best when they know what to expect. When you find a place that everyone in the family enjoys, stick with it ' there are benefits to becoming regulars. A warm welcome from a restaurant's owner or waitstaff adds a special dimension to family meals away from home.

The Etiquette Center,, 800-647-4086

Benvenuto's,, 1849 Northport Dr., 241-1144, 2949 Triverton Pike Dr., 278-7800

Ella's Deli,, 2902 E. Washington Ave., 241-5291

Roman Candle,, 1054 Williamson St., 258-2000

The Dardanelles,, 1851 Monroe St., 256-8804

Irish Waters,, 702 N. Whitney Way, 233-3398

Red Robin,, 2440 East Springs Dr., 301-0435, 522 Monona Dr.

comments powered by Disqus

More to read

Loading More Articles
No More Articles

Mama Madison: Coping with toddlers in a Wisconsin winter

I'm having trouble enjoying the season, because I can't keep myself from thinking about the miserable weather that's sure to be following close on the heels of the crisp, pleasant fall we've been having. I am not at all emotionally prepared to be the parent of two toddlers during a Wisconsin winter.

Mama Madison: Melissa Wardy pushes positive messages

I've always been a supporter of companies that empower women and girls, and when the creator of such a company is a fellow Wisconsinite, I get even more excited. When Melissa Wardy of Janesville got fed up with stereotypes found in clothing for girls, she started her own company.

Mama Madison: Three cheers for reading at the Wisconsin Book Festival

Do you have a little reader or an aspiring teenaged writer in your house? If so, you may want to venture to the Wisconsin Book Festival this weekend, to whet their appetite for wonderful words as well as your own.

Mama Madison: What's in a name?

When I was pregnant with my daughter, my husband and I had two names picked out. Upon her arrival we had not yet come to a conclusion on what that name would be. Everyone told us that when we saw her we would just know. We didn't.

Mama Madison: Eugster's is more than just a visit to the farm

At age 10 months, my kids have seen the zoo a lot already. I was a zoology major in college, and I have something of a zoo addiction still, so the twins (and their dad) are more or less condemned to a future rife with zoo visits.

Help for home-schoolers at the Madison Mentor Center

Home-schooling can be a lonely proposition. Even as a college professor, Juliana Hunt remembers struggling to find support to home-school her now-grown daughter. "I was always hoping to find like-minded people who were in the same position as me," she says. "I know that children learn best through a give-and-take, question-and-answer process of teaching and learning, but where do you find mentors who can make that happen?"

Mama Madison: Yummy Sprout is a wonderful resource

After sleep patterns, I think the next biggest parenting concern I have and hear about revolves around the topic of food. How can I make sure my kids are eating enough vegetables? Did I pack them a lunch that is healthy enough? What can I feed them after school that doesn't come from a box? How many gripes am I going to get about the dinner I'm about to prepare?

Mama Madison: Tips and tricks for baby air travel

As far as places to embark on Baby's First Air Travel go, Dane County Regional Airport is a pretty sound choice, especially at 6 p.m. on a Saturday night. My biggest fear was that my nine-month-old son would start screaming in the airport; my second biggest fear was that my son would start screaming and some of my former Epic colleagues would be around to hear it.

Mama Madison: Apple-picking time

The recent shift in the weather is just another sign that autumn is fast approaching. That means one of my favorite activities is just around the corner -- apple picking. My husband and I have been picking apples every fall since before our kids were born.

Mama Madison: Baby feeding recommendations

I have a lot of questions about what to put on my eight-month-olds' plates -- and, if I'm honest, a deep and abiding fear of putting the wrong thing there. Did I start them on solid foods at the right time? What's the deal with baby-led weaning -- how much self-feeding should they be doing? At what age should I give them potential allergens like shellfish or nut products?

Heartland Farm Sanctuary helps animals that help kids

Lily the potbellied pig arrived at Heartland Farm Sanctuary blind, lethargic and too overweight to walk. The children of Heartland's summer day camp program took it upon themselves to put the curl back in her tail.

Mama Madison: Back-to-school confidences

Is it just me or does each summer seem to go by quicker than the last? The end of summer is upon us and for many families this means the start of a new school year.

Mama Madison: Does back-to-school really mean a whole new wardrobe?

This past week, on the way to the grocery store, my daughter asked what I believed she thought would be a innocuous question, "Mom, when are we going back-to-school shopping?"

Mama Madison: Next generation of bloggers

Volunteering with the Young Writers Summer Camp this past week really helped me to remember how utterly creative kids can be when encouraged to come up with their own ideas and use their own words.

Mama Madison: Returning to the workforce

This past week I gleefully accepted an offer for new job on the UW-Madison campus. My kids are getting are older and I guess I've felt for a while now that it was time to figure out what would be next for me on the professional front.

Triathlons raise money to teach kids healthy habits

"Kids spend so much time in and around school, it's the only place where some have a chance to develop an appreciation for a healthy lifestyle," says Katie Hensel, founder and executive director of Tri 4 Schools.

Mama Madison: Kids will find their own passions in their own ways

"I'm envious, mom," said my twelve-year-old daughter as she hopped in the car after theater camp last week. "All the other kids in my group seem to really like, and to be really good at, singing, dancing and acting. But I think all those things are just okay."

Vital work is being done at the Lussier Community Education Center, from community-building to STEM skills

"People are looking to book space here all the time," says Remy Fernández-O'Brien, communications and facilities coordinator for the Lussier Community Education Center, a private, nonprofit community center on Madison's west side. "They want to throw their child's first birthday party here or hold a Girl Scout meeting. We're really busy year-round, but it's especially lively here in the summer."

Mama Madison: Parental dice rolls?

Last week, in response to the county-wide Sleep Safe, Sleep Well public health campaign that encourages parents to "share the room, not the bed" with their sleeping infants, Isthmus contributor Ruth Conniff penned a lovely opinion piece in defense of bed sharing entitled "Confessions of a Co-Sleeper."

Mama Madison: What constitutes a keepsake?

As much as I'd like to believe there is latent genius in my daughter's early finger paintings, I'm pretty sure her works are not distinguishable from those created by the pointer fingers and pinkies of thousands of other children from across the world.