Dining out with kids doesn’t have to be a disaster, and, no, you don’t have to relegate yourself to “family-friendly” chains with terrible service and even worse food. We like to eat out, and we do it too often for our own good. While we’re fortunate in our community to enjoy restaurants that feature local produce, grass-fed meats and wild-caught seafoods, it still puts a pinch in the pocket book. I talk myself into it, calling it “research” for Nourished Kitchen. Don’t get me wrong: plenty of good recipes on the site have been inspired in some way by dishes from my favorite restaurants (like pan-fried Brussels sprouts with piima cream), but really, I just like to eat out. And like any devotee of attachment parenting, my husband and I tend to avoid sitters in favor of bringing our child with us nearly everywhere just as we’ve done since the day he was born. So in those five years of eating out with a baby turned toddler turned big kid in tow, we’ve garnered a few tips that make dining out with kids not only an experience that fosters their real food education, but also a pleasure.
1. choose a nice restaurant and linger over your food. really.
I love good food. Really good. Artfully prepared. Carefully tended. And as my husband knows only too well, I’d simply rather not eat than eat some mishmash of flavors slopped together from boxes and bags by a pimply teen in the back of a chain restaurant. Yeah, I’m that chick. I’m picky. A food snob. There, I said it. Now you know for sure what you suspected all along.
So when I take my family out to eat, we typically eat at family-owned place and we don’t avoid the upscale restaurants. We appreciate good food and teach our child to do the same. And while typical advice on dining out with kids warns you to avoid up-scale restaurants in favor of those with drive-thru windows, cartoon characters and skeeball, I’d disagree. Instead, teach your child to love and revel in the pleasure of real food and good dining. Save your money and dine out less often so you can dine better. Even children can learn to appreciate the good food at a nice restaurant; moreover, they can also learn to linger over their food and enjoy long, multi-course suppers too. Everyone can appreciate good food.
2. discuss restaurant etiquette before you leave home.
Part of the reason children behave poorly is because they haven’t yet been taught to behave properly, let alone enjoyed an opportunity to practice proper behavior. Sitting still, spine erect, hands folded over a napkin in your lap is not natural behavior. Not for children and, I dare say, not for adults either. These are cultivations of our culture – social expectations. And no one is born knowing that, no, you don’t brush your hair with your fondue fork and, yes, you do have to patiently listen as the waitstaff runs through the specials before you place your order. These behaviors are taught. So save yourself the frustration and embarrassment of good behavior gone awry, by clearly explaining your expectations to your child before you leave home. Even small children, as young as two or three, can understand the basic premises if you take the time cuddle them in your lap, look them in the eye and explain your expectations in terms they can understand.
Before we leave for a good restaurant, and as we pull on our shoes and coats, my husband and I talk with our son. We explain what a privilege it is to dine at a nice restaurant. We discuss that a good meal takes good time and that he may become bored, and that that’s okay. We talk about how it can feel frustrating to sit in your chair when you really want to run around, and why it’s important that you do so. We talk about pleases and thank yous and how polite behavior can earn you the respect of the waitstaff and the privilege of going out again. No bribes. No threats. Just clear expectations with clear explanations.
3. arrive at the restaurant early, when few other patrons are seated.
Reserve the your table for the earliest time available, usually around 5:00 or 5:30. Few other restaurant goers will have arrived that early, meaning that should an errant meltdown occur or should your little one’s voice grow a little to loud with excitement, there will be fewer people to disturb and disrupt. Moreover, a quiet restaurant offers fewer distractions, meaning your child won’t be quite as tempted to make funny faces at the cranky woman in the next booth over.
Reserving an early table also ensures that you have the opportunity to enjoy a leisurely dining experience, before your children begin to lose those hard-won good manners as bedtime approaches and the restaurant fills with other patrons. Just the other night my husband and I took our young son out for supper and, as we love to do, we enjoyed a long and leisurely supper. We arrived at the restaurant at 5:15 and left at 7:30 with plenty of time to enjoy a long, multi-course dinner, but we left just as the other patrons began filing in for their suppers and a good half-hour before we typically begin bedtime routines.
4. if possible, sit outside or near an easy exit.
If you’re observing tip #3 for dining out with kids, and you arrive to the restaurant plenty early in the evening, chances are you have your choice of tables. If possible, choose a table with an easy exit. No, you don’t need the best table in the house; you just need to escape in an instant and with minimal upset should tempers flare. Meltdowns happen. Moods go funky. Even the most well-behaved child (or adult) might lose it, so always be prepared to make a quick exit.
If the weather allows, consider sitting outside on the patio. Not only is it refreshing to dine outdoors with plenty of clean air and warm sunshine, but it also offers plenty of interest for a small child. Children will enjoy the opportunity to observe the clouds, listen to the birds and play games of observation like I Spy. Some of the best patio dining is well-situated away from busy streets and intersections so that children, who grow antsy as they await the next course, might be free to take a short walk to exercise their legs. The outdoor dining area of one of our favorite restaurants occupies a small corner in an otherwise expansive courtyard, and I can send my son to run around the courtyard at a far enough distance that he doesn’t disturb fellow diners, but close enough that I can keep an eye on him.
5. give your kid a little freedom.
While you’re at it, illustrate your trust in your child by allowing him or her an extra bit of freedom. By showing your child that not only do expect them to follow standard restaurant etiquette, but that you also trust them to do so, you instill in him or her a sense of great duty and responsibility. When we’re treated with love, appreciation and respect, we rise to the expectation of others and of ourselves. This is particularly true of children. So if your child wishes to visit the lobby, let her. If your child wants to engage in a conversation with bartender or ask the restaurant owner a question, let him.
Remember, the restaurant is otherwise quiet and empty the earlier you go, and the staff may have a few moments to spare; do not, however, misunderstand this tip to mean that the staff is responsible for entertaining or babysitting your child. When we eat out at one of our favorite restaurants, we often let our child sit on a bench by the door (within our line of sight). He only sits out for three or four minutes at a time before the heady joy of reveling in his new-found sense of freedom wears off and he rejoins us at the table, but the fact that we allowed him that freedom without question illustrates our trust in his ability to manage his own behavior and that means an awful lot to him, and to any child.
6. bring something quiet, small and special to occupy them.
I’m not a fan of gameboys at the table, of piles of dolls, of noisy toys, but bringing a pack of crayons and a notepad or a single quiet “special occasion” toy can help even the smallest children withstand the boredom of waiting for one course to finish and another to begin. Wait until your child becomes bored, before you bring it to the table.
7. make sure the staff brings your child’s food with the rest of the main courses.
One of the biggest mistakes both parents and servers make is asking for the child’s meal to be brought out first. If your child’s meal arrives while you and your spouse are just beginning your salads, his or her patience will wear thin far before you can even order dessert. He’ll have taken his fill, leaving an excruciating hour of mealtime remaining while you uncomfortably power-down your main course all the while bickering over table manners. Instead, order an appetizer and serve your child a small portion to help satiate that gnawing bit of hunger in the pit of their bellies until the main course arrives. Share your soup. Share your salad. The point is to appetize, not to fill.
When the main course arrives, your child will still be hungry, but not overtly so, and will be able to enjoy a full dinner in due time. Moreover, this teaches your child two things: 1) the world and your life doesn’t revolve around his or her whims and 2) the standard routine of dining out which typically includes an starter, a salad or soup, a main course and dessert.
8. don’t order from the children’s menu.
You’ve read me rant before about deplorable children’s menus, and the need to redefine them. Even otherwise good restaurants with thoughtful cuisine offer boring and flat children’s menus: buttered noodles, cheeseburgers, chicken fingers. Blech! Children learn to love what they’re exposed to. If you never offer your child anything but buttered noodles and chicken fingers, he’ll never learn to love anything else. He’ll miss the opportunity to enjoy the nuances of a robust and silky demi-glace, or the texture of frisée lettuce or the wonderful umami flavor of salmon roe.
When your child is very young with a small appetite, simply ask for a separate plate and serve her a little bit of your meal much in the same vein and principle as baby-led weaning. As your child, and his appetite grows, explain the menu and suggest items from the starter or soups menu. Portions tend to be small, and thus affordable – sometimes rivaling the prices of those dreaded chicken fingers on the kid’s menu. By encouraging our son to sample foods from the starter menu, he’s developed a love of lamb carpaccio with pomegranate gastrique, raw oysters, escargots in butter and garlic, moules frites and mini lamb chops. Consider the privilege of eating out an opportunity to exercise your son or daughter’s tastebuds.
9. allow your child a cocktail, or an after-dinner drink.
Eating out is a special treat, or it should be. And while I rarely enjoy a glass of wine at home, except when we have dinner guests, I like to treat myself to a glass or quartino when we visit a restaurant. It’s a treat, and it feels special. We want our child to learn to love good food and that special feeling of enjoying it. Our son likes to order a cocktail, nothing more than soda water and fruit juice, but it makes him feel special, and lucky. Since juice is a very rare treat in our household, ordering a cocktail at a restaurant helps our son to know that eating in a restaurant is special, indeed. Do not, however, fall for sodas, soft drinks and virgin cocktails that are loaded with refined sugar and high fructose corn syrup. All that good work you spent explaining restaurant etiquette to your child: worthless. It’s no match for the wreck created by refined sugars on a little body’s developing metabolism.
10. share your food and (gasp!) drink.
The only way to encourage your child to develop a love of good food is share your love of good food with your child. Offer your daughter a bite of your steak, a spoonful of your soup. How will she know what she likes and what she doesn’t if she’s not allowed the opportunity to try it? Let your child enjoy a sip of wine. One sip won’t hurt anybody, and it will help to, overtime, remove the alcohol’s mystique and replace it with hard-won appreciation. From the time my child was two years old, I’d dip my pinky finger into my glass of wine and allow him a taste. Now that he’s bigger, I give him a sip with dinner if expresses an interest in trying it. This gives us the opportunity to discuss food, wine and flavor.
11. engage your child in conversation and food education.
Engage your child in conversation and use dining out with your kids as an opportunity to exercise a bit of food education. It’s easy, when you’re out with your spouse, to become fully engaged in a conversation that excludes your child. You’ll talk politics, you’ll interrupt your child without even thinking about it (though you surely warn him not to interrupt you!). No one enjoys being ignored at the dinner table and you certainly wouldn’t ignore any other dinner guest, so don’t ignore your child. More specifically, engage your child in conversation. Give him a taste of that wine, then ask him what flavors he tastes and how he thinks it was made. You might be surprised by your child’s astute observations. Describe how a dish is prepared, or where a certain vegetable on the plate grows and in what season it thrives. By engaging your child in conversation, you can make the food and the experience of dining out that much more interesting.
12. relax a little, and tip well.
Relax a little. Nothing goes perfectly. You might follow every tip and find that your child throws a tantrum, or still refuses to eat what she’s ordered. It’s okay. Do your best, and because you’ve followed these tips you’ve arrived early enough and are near enough to an exit that you minimize any potential disruption to other diners. Don’t forget to tip well. No, that 15% doesn’t cut it, folks. Tip at least 20%, maybe closer to 25% and even 30% if the service was very good. If you can’t afford to leave a healthy tip, save your money and eat out less often.
No matter how well-behaved your child is, your table will be messy and harder to clean up. No matter what you do, you’ll still require more of the server. Behave well, teach your children to behave well and always tip a good server very well.