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.
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.
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.
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…