Advice, Kiddo

10 Tips on Taking Preschoolers to Restaurants

 

I recently saw the following quote posted on the Just Eat Real Food Facebook Page:

“We do children an enormous disservice when we assume that they cannot appreciate anything beyond drive through fare and nutritionally marginal, kid-targeted convenience foods. Our children are capable of consuming something that grew in a garden or on a tree and never saw a deep fryer. They are capable of making it through dinner at a sit-down restaurant with tablecloths and no climbing equipment. Children deserve quality nourishment.”  ― Victoria Moran

“I’m with you until the part about the sit down restaurant!” someone commented on the thread, unleashing a mini avalanche of agreement. Hmm, well, my just-turned-three year old daughter eats at least two meals per day in restaurants, sometimes three. And she’s being doing this since she was two. Is it always easy? No, but I put that down to the unrelenting frequency of our restaurant meals. It’s harder to maintain socially acceptable behaviour when you have to uphold that standard 70 times a month instead of just two or three. Adults who have to see a disagreeable relative on a frequent basis may agree with me on that point. Nonetheless, taking kids to the restaurant is completely do-able. Here’s my advice for taking small children to restaurants.

1. Start early. We’ve been taking Mila since she was a chubby little newborn, and I think getting used to the restaurant environment really helps. If you’re breastfeeding, bonus: milk is always at the ready to settle a grumpy tot. (On that note: restaurants are considered public spaces not private buildings. If you’re entitled to breastfeed in public – and you usually are – you can breastfeed in the restaurant too.)

2. Take toys. One of the main pitfalls with eating at a restaurant is that you generally have to wait for food to arrive, and you have to sit still while doing it. So for the love of God, take something for your kids to do that doesn’t involve pulling someone else’s hair or testing their own decibel capacity. Small books, coloured pencils and paper/colouring books, a small bag of blocks or even toy cars are good ideas. We avoid toys that are cumbersome (you don’t really want the whole restaurant to be distracted by the giant stuffed panda on your table) and items like felt-tip pens that can create mess. Surfaces like shiny table-tops are just too tempting for small hands with felt-tips around… You get my drift.

3. Consider bringing a drink bottle and snacks. It’s obviously not ideal to bring food into an establishment that’s based around selling it, but it is much preferable to bring out a small snack for tummies that are getting impatient than it is to deal with a hunger-induced meltdown. On that note, don’t bring starving kids: or at least feed them a snack before you go in. Bananas or a small box of dried fruit are generally acceptable. Best to avoid plastic packets with their cringe-inducing rustle. And sorry folks, but it’s only ok for little ones to have a nibble. Big kids have to wait!

4. There’s strength in numbers. I often end up eating at restaurants with just Mila thanks to Mr C’s busy work schedule, but I really try and avoid it whenever possible. One person means you have to either take your kid(s) with you or leave them unattended if you need to go to the bathroom, go up to the counter, grab some water bottles or anything else. I have left Mila alone while getting something from the other side of a large restaurant room several times. 95% of the time she’s fine and the other 5% she yells “MUMMMMMMMYYY WHERE ARE YOOOOUUUU?” so loudly it sends me scuttling back. Two adults means no playing Russian roulette with your dignity.

English: Byways Cafe (Portland, Oregon)

5. Some restaurants are easier than others. 

You know that 9 course degustation menu that looks delicious? Yup, well, save it for when you have a babysitter. Your kids can get to know good food without going to a fine dining restaurant – at least until they know exactly what the deal is. A hotel buffet restaurant means no waiting times and can be a boon with picky kids. Pubs and cafes also offer eating-out experiences in a more relaxed environment. If you’re relaxed, they’re more likely to keep their cool too. Places that have outdoor courtyards often have a casual vibe and being outdoors soaks up the sound of your darling cherubs much better.  And if you do go to a restaurant, try going to lunch before braving dinner. Lunch is usually a more informal affair and you’re less likely to be surrounded by couples on (quiet!) dates.

English: Child eating a veggie burger at a fas...

Someone else’s child!

6. Skip the kid’s menu. One of the great things about taking kids to restaurants is that they get to eat really great food. No offence to your home cooking intended, but often restaurants are able to take their food up a notch. And then there’s the kid’s menu: usually an homage to the deep fryer. I have a friend who calls it the “beige menu” because of the shades of the items on it – chicken nuggets, pasta, fries. Personally, I don’t take my kiddo out to eat in order to jack her up on empty carbohydrates and sugar. Instead ask if you can order a half portion of something from the real menu, or share your own meal with your little one. Ordering a couple of extra sides can help stretch out your own meal to accommodate a small child. (Bonus tip: take their own set of child-sized cutlery to encourage cutlery use and minimise frustration).

7. Set realistic expectations and be consistent. I expect Mila to talk quietly. That doesn’t mean she always does but I will always remind her when she forgets. Our other rule is no playing with food. If she does, the food goes away (on the far side of the table) while we talk about how we need to respect the food we eat, and that means no playing with it. Then if she wants it back she can have it back. We’ve found this works better than talking to her while the immediate fun of messy food is still right in front of her. On the other hand, I let her eat non-messy food with her hands if she really wants to and if she wants to hop down from her chair, I’ll show her a place that is appropriate to play in. Like everything else in parenting, pick your battles – but don’t be afraid to set limits on what behaviour is ok and what isn’t.

8. Don’t drag it out forever. On the flip side, make things easier on your kids by limiting the time you spend in the restaurant. Order quickly: consider ordering a finger-food starter as soon as you’re seated so that hungry kids can pick at it before the main event. Reconsider a three course meal with very small children: two courses is  enough or one if there’s a storm brewing on the pre-schooler horizon.

Abort, abort the misson!

Abort, abort the misson!

  9. Evacuate the premises. Some days, even the best laid plans don’t work out and you end up in tornado alley. If your child is having a meltdown, do everyone a favour (including yourself) and take them outside until they’ve calmed down. Don’t let them scream the place down. It’s incredibly hard to stay present with your child when you’re intensely aware of the negative attention you’re attracting. A walk around outside for a few minutes can do everyone a world of good, including your fellow diners.

10. Enjoy it! Eating in restaurants is a privilege and something to look forward to, not hyperventilate over. Don’t stress about it too much or your kids will pick up on it. Just relax, expect to have a good time and take pleasure in eating together as a family. I promise, it won’t hurt a bit…

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Advice, Kiddo

Our Baby Expat Turns Three

Oh, time is slipping away too fast. Our littlest expat turned three today. She has no friends here (where are all the small children in the Maldives?!) so it’s been a quiet, peaceful kind of day. Mila woke up at 7 and made short work of opening her presents. We may have helped in that department by being too lazy to take them out of all the parcels that we received them in and just collating them in the biggest box. She didn’t care.

Her presents included books, a wooden dragon and knight set, dyed wooden eggs and eggcups, dyed wooden tiny stacking acrobats, a marble run and a few other other bits and pieces. I used to be very much the minimalist when it came to birthday gifts, but now that the weather keeps us penned into very small living quarters much of the time I’m starting to see the value in having a wide range of different toys.

I started planning her gifts a few months in advance, which turned out to be a very good idea. Male’ is chock-full of toy shops… BUT most of what they offer is pretty rubbish, to be frank. Cheap plastic tat that falls apart after a couple of uses. And Male’ being Male’, none of it is even cheap. So I ended up looking overseas. Etsy is fantastic for handmade wooden toys – we’ve been buying things from there since Mila was born. A bonus now that we are overseas is that you can tailor search results to view only items that ship to the Maldives.

All the books were from Book Depository. I have mentioned them before in my posts and for good reason – excellent prices and free shipping worldwide! My only beef with them is that they send every book you order separately (regardless of whether you order several at once) and each book comes in very thick cardboard packaging. It seems like a waste of resources, but I guess as someone who is ordering items from overseas I can’t bitch too much about the environmental impact of their actions.

Finally, we also took advantage of my parents’ kindness. They offered to ship toys over for us, so we bought online from New Zealand toy shops and had the items delivered to their address. Of course this also gave them a chance to slip a few extras in for the birthday girl. The marshmallow bunny to be fair was looking slightly the worse for wear after surviving being juggled around different airports and customs. This was of no concern to my daughter, who swallowed it up like a cobra.

The rest of our day will likely be equally low key. Once Mila wakes up from her nap, we’ll make some more marble runs. We’ll go to dinner at the resort restaurant. We’ve got a dragon cake lined up as a surprise: dragons + chocolate = winning! Mr C has the night off. And then we’ll play some more, try again to explain what “turning another year older” actually means and watch a Spot the Dog movie. I’m slowly learning here that small is good, that simple is good. That this quiet existence is enough for us all.

Happy birthday to my sweet, loud, beautiful, firecracker of a child.

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Expat Stories, Kiddo

No Nakey Bums in the Restaurant

Life with a nearly three-year old is life with a small round-cheeked hand grenade. I never know quite when she’s going to go off: a literal type of poo/liquid/finger paint explosion or dropping a verbal bomb at the breakfast table. Today it was the latter.

Breakfast has never been the easiest meal for us. Small children, well mine at least, do not like to have to sit quietly and eat their breakfast with a knife and fork while making small talk.We turn up at the buffet restaurant looking like we’ve prepared for a week-long sit-in. Colouring books and pencils, small bags of blocks, picture books, toy cars and other random assorted items that couldn’t possibly be left behind (a fistful of felt-tip pen lids without the pens? Check). Of course I also need my phone for making distress calls when I feel like Mr C has kept us waiting longer than necessary – ie more than a few minutes, and sunglasses for sinking in shame behind when my noisy mini-me threatens to disturb the peace.

The other thing about breakfast is that it requires clothes. Mila the would-be-nudist is not so fond of that detail. We’ve had many a conversation about how it is fine to be butt-naked inside (in our house, at least) but you need clothes on to go outside. We live in a pretty public space, without the luxury of a garden for naked runarounds. Mila knows that if you were to go to the restaurant naked, you might get in trouble with the restaurant staff and you would probably get told to go home and put some clothes on. So it was with great delight that she spotted the naked lady, sitting down to eat her breakfast.

Only she wasn’t nekkid. She was wearing a low-backed halterneck dress. Her hair covered most of the tie at the top and the seat covered the rest of the dress, but hey, she was wearing it!
“That lady is nakey,” Mila said, not quite quietly enough for my liking.

“No, she’s not naked, she has a dress on – ”

“No, she’s NAKEY! THAT lady. She’s got no clothes on.” The dreaded pointing finger came out. “THAT LADY THERE HAS A NAKEY BUM.”

“Sshhh,” I wheedled, “she has a halterneck dress on. See the tie of the dress around her neck?”

“I DON’T WANT TO BE QUIET, I WANT TO BE LOUD,” my definitely not quiet daughter boomed. “THAT WOMAN IS GOT NO CLOTHES ON. SHE NEEDS TO PUT CLOTHES ON. SHE NEEDS A GO HOME, PUT HER CLOTHES ON.”

Mila started trying to stand up in her seat to get a better look at this “naked” woman. I reached for the Sunglasses of Shame.

“YOU NEED TO PUT CLOTHES ON, YOU LADY,” Mila shouted, half out of her seat. A few heads swivelled in our direction but I could feel a dozen more pairs of ears becoming finely attuned to our corner of the restaurant. The woman in question remained miraculously unaware, or at least she had the good sense not to turn around and face the beady stare of a preschooler.

I searched frantically in our bag for more distractions. A peg and some string? a few hair clips? Nothing enticing.

“SHE WILL GET IN TROUBLE, SHE’S NAKEY,” Mila started a new angle of attack.

“No, no, she won’t,” I tried to calm her, “Remember she’s not naked, she has a dress on, you just can’t see it.”

“I can’t see it? It’s invisid-bil?” I could see cogs turning. Then, “Take my clothes off mummy. I want get my invisid-bil dress on too.” My daughter is trying to peel her clothes off in the restaurant.

Happy days.

This blog post is part of a Bloglovin link-up party 🙂

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Expat Stories, Kiddo

Tiny Island: Pros and Cons

This is not a list of pros and cons so much as a summary of my day today. Ergo, the cons:

Mila is still doing it tough. Just on the cusp of turning three, away from all her buddies, her adored Nanny (nana) and Papa, and her much-loved part-time daycare. Her favourite word currently is RRROOOOAAARRR! She roars at me. She roars at the restaurant staff. She roars at the canteen staff. She roars at guests who look at her (you got a problem with your eye, boy?). She roars at everyone. And not a very nice, kindly type of roar, if those happens to exist. An angry, WHY DID YOU DO THIS TO ME? type roar. She’s not happy, and it’s all my fault.

Well, my fault and Mr C’s: together we made the decision to uproot her. But as women and mothers we are raised to feel guilty and inadequate, to soak ourselves in all the memories of things we didn’t do quite right. Not all the time, of course, but more than enough. Did you make the right choices? Are your legs slim enough? Is your career good enough? Is your mothering good enough? It’s that last question that creeps along in my shadow, no matter how much I try to kick it away.

Today the weight of all my doubts felt heavy. I roared back in words. Not in a nice, kindly way. Stop that! I am sick of this! Immediately I felt guilty. And that made me even more pissed off and upset. Mother and child: locked in a battle of wills that was not really about either one of us and more about all the changes in our lives and all the things we couldn’t really articulate, at least not in neat, tidy and kind sentences. So we roared.

Then Martha, our nanny, arrived. She has been making HUGE progress with Mila. Mila does not roar at her, at least not after the first 10 minutes. Martha rocks her to sleep in her arms if I’m not there. That’s quite a physical feat for a tiny-boned, petite Sri Lankan woman faced with my sturdy child. “I had to sit down afterwards and rest!” she says, “But it was worth it. She looks so innocent when she’s sleeping.” We smiled together at the caveat. If Mila wants cuddles, Martha has plenty of them. Sometimes they nap with arms around each other, like I do with Mila when I’m at home. Mila has started saying Martha is her friend. That feels good. They read books together, do lots of drawing together, go for walks around the island together. The trust that was broken in our first awful nanny experience is being repaired. That feels good, too.

So, after being a sub-par parent this morning, far from my best, Martha came in to relieve me. She’s only here for a few hours at the moment so that Mila can get to know her, but boy was I glad to see her. Mila was already deep in dreamland; I brushed her hair back behind her ear and kissed her forehead. Still so much like a baby. Then I grabbed my laptop and my book, tiptoed out the door, prayed no-one would feel the urge to do some lunchtime construction work or get out the insanely loud fogging machine, and high-tailed it down to the bar.

I might have voluntarily foregone my social and support network of family and friends, but being able to hire a nanny – at much more affordable rates compared to New Zealand – is helping to bridge that gap. Once I would have babysitted the toddler of a sick friend; she would have easily done the same for me if I was worn out or needed a break. Now I have Martha. Maybe my ‘village’ is a little contrived, but Martha really does feel genuine and warm. I am so glad to have her here. A day that was spiraling into messiness has been restored with a couple of hours – all to myself! – to relax and recoup.

One large frozen pineapple margarita, coming right up.

photo credit: http://www.tasteloveandnourish.com/2013/05/01/frozen-pineapple-margarita/

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Expat Stories, Kiddo

Nanny: Check

We hired a nanny today. Second time lucky?

God, I really hope so. Not that my gut instinct has proven itself particularly reliable, but I do have a very good feeling about her. Her name is Martha: she only moved here from Sri Lanka in February, with her new husband. I like that we’re both new here. She showed me her wedding photos. I wanted to talk about our wedding too, how we were married a month after them. Our wedding was gorgeous: blue skies, a country house, a garden wedding and a reception in a covered pagoda that had grape vines climbing all over the ceiling beams. But I pulled myself in. I’m wary, after being pregnant in Malaysia, of anything that might label me The Unmarried Heathen Mother, even though I am married now. I am not ashamed of having a baby outside of marriage – hell, I wouldn’t be ashamed if I’d conceived her during a one night stand – but I don’t have time for the labels people here might give me. Here’s my husband, here’s my child: I’ll leave you to your own assumptions.

Anyway, back to Martha. She’s lovely. She called herself shy but didn’t seem it. She misses her niece and nephew in Sri Lanka. She’s bored at home and wants a job. “OK, done!” I wanted to crow. She was just so nice. But we had three more interviews to get through first. I just knew they wouldn’t be as ideal, and they weren’t. A woman who spoke hardly any English, despite having perfect grammar when she SMS’d and emailed me. Was that her husband writing for her? Or was her writing just leagues ahead of her spoken English? It was an odd interview. Then two more women whom I could hardly tell apart. Painfully shy with voices so quiet I had to strain to hear them. They both rubbed Mila’s cheek as they left, which is the standard Maldivian greeting to children. She growled.

Actually, she did pretty well today. It was a long, hot morning. We were in Seagull cafe, sitting upstairs under a fan that I willed would spin just a bit faster. Mila occupied herself with her colouring pencils: then blowing bubbles in her juice, then mashing and mixing an ice-cream sundae as big as her head. She’s still not three, so I don’t expect miracles. Just remaining reasonably quiet and not exceptionally mobile in a public space is the miracle.

She fell asleep on my lap on the ferry home, tiny beads of sweat on her upper lip, skin sticky. I kissed her damp hair. This nanny will be better than the last one, I silently promise her. And then I hoped like anything it was true.

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Expat Stories, Kiddo

Finding Childcare in the Maldives

Like everything else here, turns out it’s an adventure.

In New Zealand Mila was in daycare three days per week while I studied full time. Obviously, those numbers don’t quite add up: to make my study work I had to rope in my lovely husband and parents on occasion, and pull all-nighters when I ran out of time. I did make it work, but it was far from ideal. What was ideal was her daycare. Oh, that place! We all still miss it. A Reggio Emilia  based centre with an outstanding child-staff ratio and staff that were caring and engaged and interested. They cooked together, gardened together, went rampaging through the local forest and stream. It was an idyllic place for her. If I could find anything like that again – or if we ever go home with a preschooler – I wouldn’t hesitate to enroll her. But here? Wishful thinking.

We were of course, promised a nanny would appear almost as soon as our plane’s wheels hit the tarmac. I was anxious about it: I drove Mr C mental making him repeat the assurances and check that the deal was still on. It was, it was:everything will be ok! Don’t worry about it. We’ll have you a nanny within an hour. Three in the next day – just pick the best one. But I was right: promises are slippery things here, and finding a nanny was not that simple.

The first one, Irma, took two weeks to show up: an eighteen year old with an attitude and no previous experience. “My sisters don’t think I can do it, so I want to prove them wrong,” she announced at her interview. If there had been anyone else, we wouldn’t have hired her. But there wasn’t, so we decided to give her a go.
“Do I have to come this early? It’s too early for me, I’m so tired,” she complained on the first morning. It was 8am and she’d just stepped in the door. As a parent of a small child, I’m pretty lacking in sympathy for anyone who thinks getting up at 6.45am is an ungodly hour.
“Yes, you do.”

“I don’t like the food at the canteen.”
“Do I have to take her to meals? I don’t like that place.”
“Can you make the TV work? I want to put the TV on.”
“I didn’t see her drawing on the floor because I was busy talking on the phone to my ma.”
“I don’t like having to get the ferry.”
“We didn’t do anything today, it was so boring.”
“Do I still have to take her to breakfast?”
“I couldn’t play with her today because she doesn’t like me.”

Photo credit: Dharmaflix

No wonder she doesn’t like you! I raged inwardly. You don’t make an effort – you don’t take her to meals unless I practically drag you – everything is an effort and a chore. I split into anxious halves: let her go or keep trying? It was amazing how fast the whole situation unravelled. Irma left the house a mess every evening, kept turning the TV on after I asked her not to and seemed to be eternally distracted because she was on the phone. The last day Mila spent with Irma was awful. She’d just had enough and clung to my husband and I as we tried to leave. I held her and rocked her on my lap for an hour before I left. She screamed as I walked out the door and I could still hear her screaming as I walked away. My heart was broken: it was not right leaving her in that situation, with a nanny who obviously did not, to be quite frank, give a shit about her little charge.

I bawled down the phone to Mr C that I was not doing this anymore. I would withdraw from my studies for the semester if it meant no more Irma. He agreed. No more Irma. Despite the loss of my academic semester, I felt my lungs inflate properly for the first time in days. My stomach unclenched. Relief. We’d had two weeks of Irma and that day when Mila screamed was the last day she worked. We paid her out for the rest of the month, and went back to square one.

We had already listed on Great Au Pair, a site which charged a steep US$60 for a month’s premium membership. And you needed to have a premium membership in order to contact potential nannies – so basically for the site to be of any use, although of course it was easy to sign up for the free version without realising that. Despite the name, the site promised it was also possible to hire nannies for any country in the world. We had plenty of applicants: but nobody from the Maldives, and most expecting the same salaries from their home countries: France, the UK, the US. Here in the Maldives we are able to offer a salary that is much better than the local going rate, but it still doesn’t compare to a Western income. Plus, we didn’t want to pay for an air-fare over here or organise work permits – so in the end, the site was a flop for us. We needed to go local.

And then I found it: Ibay. It’s the Maldivian equivalent of Ebay, and it has jobs. It’s a hassle to sign up for: you have to register with a bizarre SMS back-and-forth, the terms and conditions you agree to are only in Divehi (so God knows what I agreed to!) and the links aren’t the easiest, but, but, but – 100% worth it.
Maldivians seem pretty keen on their phones, so I gave out – with some reluctance – my phone number as well as a robot-protected version of my email address. Nobody bothered with my email. I had ten applicants the first day, and ten the next. Where were all these would-be-nannies coming from? I didn’t care. Well I did, but there was time for going through their CV’s later. For now I just wanted to feel gratitude that anyone had replied at all. The resort hadn’t made any progress finding anyone else, and I had begun to feel like we’d just fired the only nanny on Male’.

Of course, not all the applicants were what we wanted. The most memorable was Amina. Our text conversation went like this:

Amina: How much you paying.

Amina (five minutes later) Why you no text me back.

Me: Hi, can you tell me your name, whether or not you are living in Male and your childcare experience please. [I give her the salary range]

Amina: So how many hours I have to work

Me: Four days per week and two evenings.

Amina: I want to keep the baby with me in Male’ during day

Me: Sorry, she has to stay on the resort

Amina: I will come and see environment then decide if I accept the job.

Uh, sorry Amina, but no-one’s offering it to you! We may be a little bit desperate for a brilliant nanny, but you’re certainly not The One and we ‘re not THAT desperate. Been there, done that. Not doing it again.

But then moments later:

“Hi, I saw your advert for a babysitter for your family. Am really interested to spend time with kids. I am a Sri Lankan, married, living in Male’. Thanks, Martha.”

Photo credit: Dharmaflix

Now that is more like it.
We haven’t got to the interviewing stage yet, but today I’m feeling upbeat: somewhere in my phone inbox is someone who will take good care of my beloved little one.
Today, despite all the idiosyncrasies and dysfunction of everyday life here, is suddenly bright and warm with sunshine.

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