I’ve always been envious of parents who were able to enjoy taking their little ones out to dinner. As babies and toddlers, my kids always seemed to have a 30 minute time-limit at restaurants. After that point, we could expect whining, crying, standing on the furniture or other behavior that put a damper on the evening—for us and the other people who had the misfortune to be seated next to us!
But as tempting as it might be to never leave the house with them until they reach the “age of restaurant reason,” (a.k.a. age 4), turning eating out into a rare, foreign experience will only backfire. The last thing you want is for a restaurant to seem like a scary, foreign place to your children. Because there will be a day when you have go to restaurant to dine with your new boss’s family or your snooty Aunt Bev, and somehow, china will be broken, wine will be spilled, and gravy will end up on the ceiling.
Here’s my cheat sheet for surviving—possibly even enjoying—dining out with small children.
1. Have realistic expectations.
Babies cry. Toddlers have tantrums. Preschoolers whine. Little kids are in fact notorious for their hatred of sitting still in a dark, crowded room for an hour or longer will grown-ups talk. If you are expecting a meal out with children to be the same as a meal out alone with your husband or adult friends, you’re going to be absolutely distraught when your 2-year-old spills starts shrieking, “NO LIKE COLD WATER!” at the top of her lungs. Your dining experience likely will be loud and messy. But look on the bright side: it won’t be boring!
2. Choose a kid-friendly establishment.
There are two reasons why you should choose restaurants that cater to kids (and leave Le Chic Café for date night). 1. You won’t offend any of the other diners, because they’re not expecting a quiet, candlelit for two, anyway. 2. Your kids will be fascinated by the other children and may forget to throw their own tantrums as they watch the little boy in the booth nearby unravel over the lack of butter on his buttered noodles.
3. Time it right.
Some kids are on a flexible schedule—they don’t need to nap at exactly 1 p.m. or else…but if you happen to have one of those or else children, an evening out is not the time to pretend your little one is a go-with-the-flow kind of kid. If bedtime is typically 7 p.m., an 8 p.m. seating is a recipe for disaster. If your baby naps at 1 p.m. every day, you’re going to have to eat lunch at 11:30 a.m.
4. Bring kid-friendly eats.
Ideally, a restaurant is an opportunity to introduce new tastes and textures to your children. And yes, you should share little bites from your entrée with your kids, make sure they get to try the appetizer and the salad. But ordering the kids’ meal could be a waste of money if your little one is picky—and it’s rarely the healthiest option. Instead, you might want to discretely bring along some healthy eats like Happy Baby’s ready-to-eat meal bowls veggie ravioli is yummy and protein-packed) or Plum Organics quinoa with blueberries. Even if you do intend to order off the menu, be smart and also bring along kid-pleasers like Clif Kid Organic ZBar, apple sauce or Annie’s Homegrown Certified Organic Cheddar Bunnies. That way you won’t have a rumbly tummy to contend with if the junior spaghetti platter ends up on the floor.
5. Pack everything but the kitchen sink.
Pretend you’re going on a transatlantic flight with your child. Pack the carry-on bag. Bring diapers, wipes, several changes of clothes (maybe even a clean shirt for you), pacifiers, bibs, toys, and teething relief gel. Murphy’s law: whatever item on this list that you forget will be the one your husband runs to the drugstore on the corner to get during your meal.
6. Don’t be a techno-snob.
My husband and I were quite judgmental before we had kids. We’d see parents “resorting” to electronic devices to keep their kids quiet at the dinner table and would say quietly to each other in snooty undertones, “Harumph! What a tuned out family! We will never be so lazy!” I still don’t think the iPad should appear on the table before the menu does, but…do keep it charged, loaded with educational kid apps and ready to go in case you need it. There’s no shame in a few games of Five Monkeys Jumping On the Bed to keep everyone happy until the check arrives.
Jorie Mark is Vitacost.com’s Director of Marketing Communications and mom to three kids, ages 2 to 10.