10 Secrets to Dining Out With Babies and NOT Going Crazy!
The one question I’m asked most often about my kids beyond “do you want more?” is how I get them to be so good in restaurants. It’s true, I have small children, boys at that, who are a joy to dine with. I can fully embrace my accomplishment in this area (and theirs) because I suffer the depths of disastrous failure in other areas (e.g., the global ban on sleep, among other successful campaigns against my sanity). I appreciate what I’ve got.
And, I understand the questioning. I keep asking others how they get their kids to magically nap at the designated hour, in the designated area, for the designated time, AND manage to repeat the process mere hours later for bedtime. I also query near strangers about matters such as cellulite removal and how to get your cat to stop peeing on everything. I don’t really expect to receive the magic key of information that unlocks my struggle, but I feel like there’s value in the search. If you are searching for the nugget that will allow you to enjoy a peaceful meal out with your small people, you’re welcome to what I’ve got.
Here’s what I know.
1) There are no bad children.
First, it must be said that all children are “good,” regardless of their capacity to sit still long enough to get more food in their mouths than on the floor. Some kids are naturally inclined to follow your lead on certain things, and others need monumental guidance in the same area. Patience and repetition may not be what they advertised in the Have Kids; It’s Great! package, but that’s what we bought. Summon your optimism (they take their cue from you) and keep going.
2) Leave the car seat in the car.
This is probably the biggest life-changing thing I can tell you. Purely by accident, I never left my babies in car seats in restaurants (or anywhere else except a car). I say “by accident,” because a health care worker advised me that my particular little baby would benefit from being in physical contact with me as much as possible, which would help with an issue totally unrelated to silverware and hors d’oeuvres. Following medical advice, I would stroll my baby’s car seat into a restaurant, but as soon as he awoke (four seconds later), he was plucked from his mobile bed and placed on a loving lap. He sat front and center to the glorious new world of food, from the comfort of a half embrace.
When the kids were ready, they were offered tastes of anything they wanted. Textures, colors, aromas were all enthusiastically discussed and the boys were invited into the conversation at their level. Spicy things were cautioned but allowed. “Icky” food was brightly assumed to be enticing to young palates. Dropped food was gently mopped off their heads as we ate over them (haha). I’m sure the unconscious hugs, kisses and attention you naturally give a child on your lap led to their broader enjoyment of dining out as much as the exposure to the food.
3) Eat outside.
Something about being outside calms kids. I don’t know if it’s the more casual atmosphere, less stimulation with quieter music and fewer tv’s, the fresh air, or what. But it works.
4) Ignore the kids menu.
They’re all the same – breaded processed things with fried, limp, or canned accompaniment. Where is the adventure in that? The learning, the appreciation for varied cuisine and worldwide culture? The pleasure?? I heard once that toddlers in Japan eat raw fish because it’s what they grow up with. It’s normal. The idea of an American kid eating raw fish was outrageous to me at the time but the concept made sense. Now, ironically, my kid’s favorite food – above pizza and hamburgers – is sushi.
5) Order intelligently.
Involve little kids in the selection of their meal but don’t overwhelm them with choices. Don’t offer things you don’t want them to have so those things don’t become normal or expected. You know what your kids like so order them something close to that, but in the standard preparation rather than kidified. Restaurants can do anything à la carte so you don’t end up with too much food. We usually order them their own main dish – a piece of salmon or chicken – and give them samples all of our stuff on the side.
When the kids were really small, we brought our own food for nutrition, as well as timed distraction. Give it in small doses though, or your child will be done well before you are. And embrace the power of the boob! If you’ve got a breastfeeding baby, you’ve got it made. You will need to have someone cut up your food for you since you’ll be cradling a nursing child, but it’s a small price to pay. In fact, I used to order things I could eat with one hand – salads, finger foods, etc. (It’s a great excuse to eat fried calamari for your entree).
6) Let them be restless.
If they’re antsy, walk them around outside or even through the restaurant to explore and use some energy before the food comes. It makes sense that if they’ve been sitting in the car, they could use a chance to move their legs before being expected to sit again. This also gives your dining companion an excellent opportunity to relax and enjoy the view without distraction. (Partners score big points for offering to give Junior a little pre-meal walking tour while mom enjoys a moment of peace).
7) Don’t push them to eat.
If a kid announces he doesn’t like something before he’s tried it, believe him. There’s something about it that’s unappealing or, more likely, unfamiliar and he’s testing the waters (which is pretty smart, when you think about it). When the decision to eat is up to kids, they feel more in control of the entire situation and they relax enough to get curious. I can’t count the times I’ve told my kids it was okay if they didn’t want to eat and they immediately picked up the offending item. But if they don’t, that’s okay too.
8) Come prepared with distractions.
Unless you’re okay with the sugar packets being dumped all over the table, bring your own toys. (Honestly, that’s gonna happen, anyway). Mete out small, quiet toys to babies one at a time, as needed. Invite the older ones to draw. Restaurants usually have kids’ menus and provide crayons. Don’t get mad if all Junior wants to do is crack them in half. He’s occupied and that’s the point.
Bring a treat in case the kids get antsy toward the end of the meal. Try one of those veggie pouches or blueberries or whatever your kid loves. Then, you can finish up in relative peace. Your partner (or you) may want to do another walking tour as the bill is being paid.
I wouldn’t advise using a phone or electronic device unless you are desperate (which happens). It removes them from the experience and the goal is to integrate them and enjoy it together. You won’t need these distractions forever.
9) Pay attention to your kid.
When kids start “acting up,” they are expressing a need – to connect, to move, to tell you something. Don’t underestimate the power of tuning in to your kid and paying attention to him. A few minutes of startlingly repetitive conversation with your three-year-old can yield 15 minutes of peaceful eating (okay, ten. Or eight. But still). You wouldn’t expect any other dining companion to sit silently the entire meal. When he starts fidgeting, start talking. And listening.
10) Eat while they sleep.
For little ones, time your meal around a nap. Walk them to sleep in the stroller (or wrap) before you go into the restaurant. Then, enter slowly to acclimate them to the sound level. (This is all advice for you poor saps like me who have kids who don’t understand that sleep is a great cure for sleepiness. That condition was also cleverly glossed over in Have Kids, It’s Great!). Park your bundle at your table and enjoy your meal “alone!” By the time they wake up, you’re relaxed, you’ve had a break (and possibly a margarita) and you’re ready to share both your attention and your food.
My boys are four and two. I can’t think of a place I wouldn’t take them. This is not to say we haven’t had our moments. My first son kept me pretty much housebound the first four months of his life because of his tendency to burst into extreme crying fits that lasted for hours. Due to the noise level we brought with us, we tended to choose very loud restaurants the first few times we ventured out so as not to disturb fellow diners. Twice, we had to have our freshly plated meal packed immediately to go and hit the road; the babe was just not interested in being shushed. But, for the most part, it’s been smooth sailing with both boys.
Bonus Foolproof Tip: Invite your mother-in-law to dinner with you and as soon as Junior gets squirmy, send them both off with a kiss and toast your good fortune to have backup.