1. Use the bathroom right after you order.
It never fails. Your child will have to pee urgently the moment that hot plate of food touches the tabletop.
So after you are seated (remember to be considerate with seating arrangements, as they are far more important to a child than most adults realize and if you do not anticipate this, you may very well have tantrums on your hands), focus on the task of deciding what each person would like to eat. Once that is decided, order your drinks and food, and go to the restroom.
It does not matter if you went before you left the house. It does not matter if you don’t have to go. “We’re all going to try to empty our bladders so they don’t get full in the middle of our meal. You don’t have to go potty. You just have to try.”
This step prevents having to get up to take everyone to the bathroom in the middle of the meal and also the added benefit of eating into some of the food wait time.
2. Bring an activity.
Upon return from the restroom, each child takes out his activity.
In our family, each child gets to pack a tin lunch box with whatever activity of their choosing fits in the box.
If you have a toddler, bring a small sensory bin that has no mess like pom poms (which are also great for throwing in public places).
3. Bring a healthy snack.
We do not eat snacks in restaurants while we wait for food (kind of defeats the point of eating out) but, if there is an exceptionally long wait for the food and a child is particularly hungry, I can always pull out a homemade and healthy appetizer like an apple or banana.
Some people prefer instead to ask the waiter to bring the child’s food first. I am NOT one of those people. This results in my child being done and ready to get down and run away after I’ve had one bite of my food.
4. Be consistent with your restaurant rules.
For example, in our family once the food comes, you must remain seated. Prior to that, if my toddler wants to walk around, I will explore with him. If my kids want to stand next to each other to work on a joint activity, that is perfectly fine. But once my plate hits the table, the nomadic phase of the mealtime is over.
There are no objective rights or wrongs here. You just want to settle on some rules that work for your family and be consistent with them.
5. Expect your children to act like children.
Children are incapable of walking through a restaurant door and transforming into a little adult. This is the same kid who was just climbing a tree and wailing over something seemingly arbitrary. So keep your expectations in line with who your child is today.
For example, if your child has a lot of gross motor energy, anticipate that perhaps once during the meal you will take her outside for a break to get the wiggles out.
You can tailor the specifics to your specific child but the moral of the story is to find a way for your child to be successful as himself in this typically adult setting.