My husband and I spend an inordinate portion of our income eating out. Becoming parents probably should have turned us into responsible adults who put all that money toward our son’s college (or our own damn student loans), but we didn’t want to. I’m a food writer and my husband is “the food guy” at a brewery, so enjoying good meals together is one of our favorite family activities. Our hope was that by taking our baby out to eat from a young age, he’d get used to it and see restaurants as just another place to eat a meal — without losing his damn mind at the table or throwing dinner rolls at fellow patrons.
My son is nearly three now, and, amazingly, at restaurants he stays seated, is polite to servers (even if he addresses them as “Worker Person!” — which is totally awkward but, hey, at least it’s gender-neutral, right?), and only licks the top of the Parmesan cheese shaker sometimes. Do I credit the early-and-often exposure? I’m sure it helped — along with a few other things. Here are some tricks of the trade that have worked for us over the years.
1. Go early. Like, old-people early.
Have you ever tried to get an overtired baby or toddler to do anything? Yeah. So don’t be the cool parents who take your kid to a restaurant at 8pm, or even 7pm or 6pm. Because you know who will think you’re cool then? NOBODY ELSE AT THE RESTAURANT. Go earlier than you could have ever dreamed, and, yes, you’ll be eating dinner in the afternoon, but think of the upsides: It’s healthier (digestion!), and often cheaper. Order off the happy hour menu and save a few bucks on your tab. Plus earlier in the evening you’re less likely to annoy other diners who prefer a more mature crowd when eating out.
2. Look at the online menu before you go.
I probably don’t need to tell you this, but hangry kids are the worst dinner dates. The Internet is your friend here; order for the group before butts even hit the seats. Getting all of the orders in ASAP can make the difference between a 45-minute dinner and an hour-and-a-half one.
3. Strategic seating.
Some restaurants are very strict about where they will and won’t seat you, especially if it’s early and there are only a few servers on the floor. But if you have a choice — and it never hurts to ask! — try to pick a table that will offer some visual stimulation, like a window. Our extended family goes to a place that has a fountain in the dining room, and it’s so captivating my son barely makes a peep through the whole meal. Oh, and if the server seats you right by adults without kids, ask to be seated a little further away. For their sake, but also for yours. No need to fret the whole time about your kid making a little noise.
4. All hail the high chair!
This one starts at home. As soon as my son could eat solids, he was seated in the high chair for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks — no exceptions. As far as he was concerned, the high chair was just where eating happens. This comes in handy at restaurants because it means one less battle to fight. That said, remember who you’re dealing with and don’t expect your very small child to stay in the high chair for hours on end.
5. Carry a stash.
You probably already know to throw into your tote a few things special for the restaurant, namely toys (or books or crayons) and cash. I have a set of little animal figurines that only surface at restaurants, so every time my son gets them they still feel special. But bring cash, too. That’s to throw down in case you need to bolt for a meltdown or a diaper blowout. Speaking of cash, look down. Is there food on the floor that wasn’t there when you arrived? Tip a few bucks more. Has your server made a couple extra trips to your table for your kid? Tip a little extra.
6. Put away your phone.
I’m guilty of being on my phone way too much around my kid, but when we’re at a restaurant, I make a point of putting it in my purse and leaving it there.This frees me to keep him engaged by drawing together, playing I Spy, or busting out the aforementioned books or toys. Try searching for familiar letters and numbers on the menu or folding the napkin into fun shapes. Want more tactile activities? Taste salt and pepper, go fishing for ice cubes with a spoon… just don’t get out that phone. Because as soon as you get distracted, your little one will want down and out or will just go straight to that velociraptor screaming thing he does.
7. Keep on Keepin’ On
No matter how prepared you are or how positive your attitude is, your kid is bound to have a public meltdown or two in a restaurant. But don’t give up! Believe it or not, nobody expects small children to behave like adults. Treat each meal out as a learning experience for the whole family, and remember that practice makes perfect — the more opportunities your kids have to dine out, the better they’ll get at it.