OK, let's get it straight: having kids doesn't mean your life is over or that you have to sacrifice your social life. I'm passionate about this belief, especially when it comes to eating out, an activity our family long ago elevated to high hobby. I want my daughter to appreciate fine food and good dining as much as I do, so from the time she was born we've been hauling her to restaurants—and having a good time, too.
Granted, we're unusual. If you're like most parents, it's been a long time since you ventured beyond the neighborhood pizza parlor with little ones. Remember those long ago days before kids when you used to go to real restaurants? Not McHotDog Queen. Not that faux Italian place in the mall with the floor sticky from spilled soda where they pass out free earplugs at the door to drown out the endless beeps and crashes of the video arcade. I'm talking about places with tablecloths and wait staff, not announcements over the loud speaker ("Number 12, your dinner is ready ... number 12, please!").
I know. Next month is your anniversary, and you plan to get a babysitter and go out. Until then ... Until then ...? That's no way to live! While going out to eat with babies and toddlers can be a challenge, it isn't impossible, foolhardy, or insane. It's usually enjoyable. It does take a little practice but it's worth it.
Here, then, is a quick hit version of everything I know about restauranteering with the under-five set.
- Leave your fears at home. Most people don't mind children in restaurants as long as they aren't disruptive. We're not talking four-star, staid establishments here. There are a zillion informal and excellent restaurants in the world; some of them might even be in your hometown.
- Set reasonable expectations. Your child won't be perfect, quiet, neat, and adventurous at first. Eating out is a skill—and as usual, practice makes perfect. The way to teach your little ones how to act in a restaurant is to take them to restaurants.
- Choose appropriate restaurants. Moderately priced ethnic restaurants, trendy university hangouts, casual but elegant dining of all kinds—these are all good choices. Focus especially on ethnic restaurants—most cultures are less uptight about children. (Some cultures even appreciate them!)
- Take the edge off. Feed your child a little something in the car on the way. Not enough to fill her up, but enough so she isn't dying of hunger while you wait. Alternatively, ask the wait staff for bread the moment you arrive.
- Tote along a little kit of supplies (toys, food, coloring books). Stock your wallet with emergency stickers and bandages—not for injury, but for entertainment. Bring anything that your child enjoys that isn't noisy, messy, or large.