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Secrets for Dining Out With Children

Children squirming in their seats, dropping utensils, spilling drinks, whining before the food arrives. Taking kids out to eat is asking for trouble, right?

Wrong. "Parents have a lot of control over this situation," says Janette B. Benson, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at the University of Denver.

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"Examine what your child's table manners are like at home," Benson advises. Family dinners should include rules: Everyone comes to the table at the same time; salt, pepper, bread, and ketchup are passed, not reached for; and watching TV or playing with a Game Boy is verboten. Be consistent with expectations. This will give kids a framework of acceptable behavior, which they can use when dining out, she explains.

Stack the odds in your favor by selecting a family-friendly restaurant (a kids' menu is a good sign) and a reasonable hour (an early dinner is always a smart bet). Anne-Marie Welsh, a mother of three in Erie, PA, recommends asking the wait staff to bring a basket of rolls or crackers to the table immediately. "It staves off the crabbies," she says. If eating out is a rare event, explain the drill to kids beforehand. Say: "In a restaurant, the chef makes many dishes, so we have to wait for our food."

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You might bring along small toys, though it's better to play quiet word games, like Geography or I Spy, or conduct conversations that everyone at the table can join, says Benson. Talking while you're waiting teaches children to be social over dinner.

Is this too much to ask of a 5-year-old? Not at all, says Sabrina Colinet, an etiquette instructor and founder of Excel: A Program for Etiquette and Cultural Enhancement in the Chicago area. "Kids this age can be made to understand that they're ambassadors of their family when dining out."

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