Earlier this year, famed chef Grant Achatz brought to light a much-discussed issue – should parents take children to “fancy” restaurants? I’m pretty sure that, before we welcomed my two bouncing baby boys, I would have indignantly replied – YES! Children should be allowed EVERYWHERE.
And then I had my children. As most parents can attest, this makes most trips out of the house feel like venturing out with a ticking time bomb and waiting for when – not if – it goes off. But we live in one of the best food cities in the Midwest, and I married a food writer, so we GET to try the great new places that are opening every day in Columbus! Over the years we have developed a few tricks and tips for taking our (very active, very loud, very hungry-all-the-time) little boys to restaurants. I’m sure I’ll have to revise this in a few years once they get older, but if you have kids 7 or younger, read on!
7 Tips for taking Little Kids to Restaurants
1. Practice Manners at Home
I know this sounds obvious (and slightly condescending), but if eating meals at home resembles eating out, kids will be more familiar and more likely to display good manners. It’s as simple as that. Before kids, we used to eat at the coffee table in front of the TV – totally fine, until you have kids and they won’t sit in a chair at a table anywhere. Practice, practice, practice.
2. Don’t Treat the Waitstaff Like your Cleaning Crew
I have never been a server – in fact, I would make a TERRIBLE server – but lots of my friends have been, and I have the utmost respect for them and the crap they deal with. We are choosing to add as little to that pile of crap as we can. When we go out, I stuff a thing of baby wipes in my purse. And, before we leave, we clean – the table, the floor, the walls, if necessary, and we stack plates and cups. Every. Time. I don’t care if people stare, I don’t care if we look OCD, I will do this until my kids are in college (and probably after). Although it may be the server’s responsibility to make the table ready for the next diners, it should not be on their shoulders to scrub the walls or pick up half-chewed pieces of chicken from the floor because one of our kid-bombs decided to explode. And, I shouldn’t have to say this, but I will – TIP WELL.
3. Rethink Screentime when Eating Out
I’m worried I’m going to get some flack from this one, especially the next time one of you sees me hand my phone to one of our boys at a restaurant, but hear me out. We all know that screens aren’t great for kids, we hear it all the time. But we still allow our boys to watch at home…because we live in 2014. However, we have found that the stress level at our meals quadruples once we give in to “Can I watch?” or “Can I play a game?” at a restaurant. The dropping, and the dripping, and the fighting, and the volume, and the hitting-the-wrong button, and the shrieking…I just…I just can’t. (And don’t get me started on the amount of germs that are on that thing…) So, try something different…
4. Come Prepared
So what do our kids do at the table if we don’t give them our phones? I have discovered the wonders of the Target $1 bins and what that can do for a meal. Target and Dollar Tree carry $1 activity bags of themed items – crayons, stickers, a little coloring book – and package them in a slim sealed bag, perfect for a purse or car. I keep these things everywhere, and we consider the $2 it costs as just part of the experience of having a quiet meal. And set yourself up for success by bringing kiddos that aren’t over-tired or over-hungry. I also always keep a few crayons and a small pad of paper close just in case. It’s amazing how quiet those small things keep even the loudest of kids.
5. Focus on the Food
It might be an obvious statement, but when we’re out, Nick and I are often discussing the food at hand, so our boys have grown up hearing their parents talk about presentation and portion size and taste and acidity and drink pairings. So I realize this might not be the most natural thing for everyone, but talk about what you’re eating! Discuss the tastes and smells and look of the food in front of you. If you cook together at home, talk about how to replicate it in some way, or how you would change it. And, if nothing else, you’ll start to hear adorable and amazing quotes out of your little kiddos as they say things like “I think this needs a tad more mac and cheese.” or “This is delicious! I like how it’s meaty!”
6. Venture Off the Kids’ Menu
It’s so comforting, I know. Sitting down and seeing a neat little corner of the menu list all of our kids’ favorites – mac and cheese, chicken nuggets, grilled cheese. I get it. And we ABSOLUTELY order from the kids’ menu sometimes. (It certainly helps that tons of restaurants are now offering terribly interesting and delicious menus for the littles.) But we have been pleasantly surprised when we have ordered “adult food” (what IS that, even?) for our kids and they have LOVED it. In fact, and I so LOVE the restaurants that GET IT, a lot of places actually have “half-sizes” of larger entrees for less money that aren’t on the menu. Or, many of the appetizers offered are often the perfect size. It doesn’t hurt to ask what they can do!
7. Manage Expectations
I am not defending Chef Achaz’s position that kids should never ever be brought to upscale restaurants, but I will say – you need to know the restaurant, you need to know your kid, and you need to adjust your expectations accordingly (and maybe decide not to go). If you are taking your 3 year old to dine with you at a 4-hour candlelit chef’s tasting menu, you don’t need a child psychology degree to figure out that you’ll have problems (unless your 3yo is exceedingly well-behaved which, in that case, can mine come over to live with you for a while?). You can’t expect your kiddo to NOT grab the candle and start waving it around like a lightsaber because, well, HE NEEDS TO DEFEND THE GALAXY. It’s your job as parents to understand that not every restaurant is great for every kid, so pick your battle (grounds).
So there it is! I would love to hear your tips for dining with young kids – I think most of us can use all the help we can get! And stay tuned for a list of my favorite kid-friendly restaurants in Columbus. Happy Dining!
SPECIAL BONUS TIP
This one was mentioned by many readers, so I thought I would share it too. If, even after all of your preparation and planning, your sweet child still has an epic meltdown, pick them up, take them outside the restaurant, and take a walk until they have calmed down. Don’t try and settle them at the table – it rarely works, and the other diners don’t need to hear the tantrum. I have spent MANY a breakfast pacing with a boy (or two) on the sidewalk until they stopped shrieking because his brother looked at him. The horror.
– by Mrs. Breakfast With Nick