Aside from those who plan to swear off restaurant dining altogether, soon-to-be parents love to imagine what it will be like to eat out with their new, adorable baby. This fantasy, to first-time parents, often includes wine, a quiet child, and nearby strangers smiling in approval.
The reality, in most cases, is the opposite.
As anyone who has ever eaten out with their child (or someone else’s) at a restaurant knows, there will be plenty more sideways glances, spilled water, thrown food, and unexplained shrieking than general joie de vivre. But – and don’t let anyone sway you on this – it is very possible to enjoy a meal in a restaurant with your family.
Your experience will never be exactly like it was before kids, but you can and should enjoy a family meal without making the staff and other diners bat an eye or leaving the restaurant more stressed than you arrived. Here’s how.
Do: Call Ahead
Aside from feeding yourselves and your children, one thing you should always strive to do when you eat out with kids (or not with kids) is show respect to the restaurant, its staff, and other diners. This can be as simple as cueing into your child’s needs in order to prevent meltdowns. To start, call ahead and make a reservation. Sitting at a table while you order, wait for food, eat, and pay is a long enough time for a child to be confined to a small space. Don’t add waiting at the front of the restaurant to that list.
Also, when you call ahead you can tell your hostess the ages of your children and ask for things like high chairs, booster seats, or your favorite booth tucked away from other diners. Sure there will be times you simply can’t call ahead for whatever reason, but when you can, you eliminate potentially negative scenarios.
Don’t: Set Overly High Expectations
It’s easy to get caught up in what could be and spend your entire meal focused on your child’s behavior instead of what you came for: your own food, a conversation with whoever you’re with, and a good time. Instead, remember that if you are courteous, other diners and staff will understand your situation. In fact, they might not even notice what’s going on at your table.
Similarly, your kid can sense when you are tense or anxious. Easier said than done, but try to roll with whatever happens and enjoy yourself anyway. You might have to leave the dining room before your food even arrives, change a blowout diaper in a bathroom with no changing table, or offer to pay for a broken water glass, but hey! This is your night out. You will persevere! Also, you’ll laugh about it later.
Don’t expect dining out to be as relaxing as it once was; just know that, eventually, it will be enjoyable in a different way. Your mantra: early restaurant exposure makes for easier restaurant experiences later on.
Do: Come Prepared
As much as it would help you chill out, it’s unreasonable to expect your child to have the same attention span as you do. Come prepared with an arsenal of activities! Books, small toys, and free bread are great ways to keep your baby entertained while you wait. If you don’t have anything like this on hand, ask! Laurent Lebec, a restaurant bar manager, says, “Even if a restaurant isn’t overtly family-friendly, chances are they have some great distractions for the kids – you just have to ask for them! Big Star [my restaurant] keeps crayons, paper, and activities on our kid’s menu in stock at all times for little ones to occupy themselves while their parents are eating. All our guests have to do is ask their server for those supplies.”
Electronics like your phone or a tablet (and a pair of headphones) also work for older children but aren’t always necessary. Remember that your child can benefit from engaging with the experience of a restaurant and will enjoy being included in the meal if you let them.
Don’t: Leave Without a Lap of Your Table
When the bill comes, your kid will be very ready to leave. And you might feel the same way. Before you head for the door, however, take a minute to do a quick sweep of your table area. Yes, you are tipping for service, but that doesn’t mean your server wants to tidy up one hundred spilled Cheerios off the floor under your baby’s high chair. If you make an effort to leave your space within reason of how you found it, the staff will be grateful and likely more receptive to diners with children in the future.
Also, kids forget stuff at restaurants. Winter hats, pacifiers, sippy cups, toy dinosaurs, you name it. It’s a thing. A quick lap eliminates this and will save your life if the forgotten item happens to be the stuffed animal your 3-year-old can’t sleep without.
Do: Encourage Adventurous Eating
Kids menus at family-oriented restaurants are always a hit, but why not use dining out a chance to let your child try something you might not otherwise cook? If you can’t get them to shake their order of chicken fingers, invite them to help you choose appetizers that the whole family can share and try. Kids love to be involved in “adult” things so use that to your advantage! If you’re eating calamari, they will be naturally curious. The same thing goes when you have a baby or toddler. Share what’s on your plate so they can taste a new spice or seasoning. To supplement, ask for a side or sliced avocado, steamed veggies, sweet potato, or rice, depending on where you’re eating. As long as you feel comfortable with your child’s allergies or ability to chew, fun, out-of-the-ordinary finger foods will keep your child engaged and happy and set the tone for future visits.