Tiny Dining

While our little tribe does on occasion visit Red Robin as part of our unavoidable excursions to Target, Old Navy and H&M, we also regularly take our kids out to eat at restaurants that might make other parents blanch.

Because I worked hard years in the restaurant biz, I know a thing or two about successful fine dining with kids. As a parent, I am often complimented on the manners of our 4-year-old and, yes, 1-year-old, by diners who wonder how we snake-charmed them into three courses of real food. And no, it’s not Jack Daniel’s in the milk bottle.

Here’s how:

Naptime dictates meal-time. Repeat. Pay attention to your kids’ sleep schedules—know them, respect them and fear them when they are disrupted. If your toddler typically naps for two hours in the afternoon but only got 30 minutes in the car, prepare for dinnertime disaster. Restaurants are disorienting for little folks, and they need their best energy to be on their best behavior. If your kids typically go to bed by 8 p.m., do us all a favor and don’t make a dinner reservation at that time. Eating earlier is healthy for them (and for you, by the way), so shoot for that 6 p.m. slot when the restaurant is less crowded, the staff more attentive and when you might even catch the tail end of happy hour. If you must eat later, be strategic and shift their naps to a later start-time.

Planning ahead means calling ahead. Let the restaurant know exactly what your reservation entails—don’t say “party of four” when what you mean is two seats for adults in desperate need of good food, one booster seat and one high-chair. Banquettes are family-friendly; ask for one so you can corral your kids effectively and limit wriggling off fancy chairs. High-chairs are a crap shoot; I like some but not all. I personally don’t like Sassy Seats, as I think they’re very difficult to attach safely to varying table thicknesses with slippery tablecloths.

Don’t assume there will be room to park your stroller unless you ask. Strollers create traffic hazards in a lot of dining rooms. When we travel internationally, I use our Sit’n’Stroll as a carseat, stroller and high chair wherever we go because it’s compact, comfy and easily washed. If you travel with kids, it’s a must.

Servers are not babysitters. Restaurants are not toy stores. Come prepared. Nothing irritates me as much as parents who take kids to fancy restaurants and then act shocked when the staff lacks crayons and chicken fingers at the ready. Bring your own washable crayons and your own coloring book or blank paper. Bring small, silent toys that are either time-honored favorites or brand-new treasures to be unveiled. The element of surprise can occupy your kid well through appetizers. Be courteous to your dining neighbors; this is not the time for noisy, plastic toy monstrosities that interfere with the conversation of others. Bring sippy cups and water bottles. Bring wet wipes. Bring bibs. Bring your own plastic kids’ cutlery.  Bring your own hand sanitizer for germy high chairs and hands. And no, the sweet server who LOVES kids does not have time to hold your baby while you eat. She’s working— respect her professionalism and time constraints. 

Feeding the Wee Ones–Two Different Approaches. Hungry kids are cranky kids. On some occasions, I feed my kids a full meal at home before we set foot in the restaurant. You can then supplement with snacks meant more for diversion than nutrition. Again, you should wisely supplement with known favorites that you’ve brought along rather than assume you’ll find something kid-friendly in a gourmet setting. We have a “try something once” policy that works as long as you’re not trying to publicly force escargot down your gagging kid’s throat. Any restaurant that cares about service should be willing and able to steam some simple veggies or send out some plain pasta or rice; just take care not to be that diner who wants the ambience of four stars but the cuisine of Applebee’s kid menu.

Pint-size Bribery. This is the time for flat-out bribery. Let your kid try a Shirley Temple with tons of cherries, just for fun. Ditto on ice cream ordered to arrive with the adults’ main courses. Make a fuss over good behavior and well-practiced manners. Kids should learn to be courteous to staff, to say “thank you” and to articulate their own needs as early as possible. This is the time for rewards. The iPhone or iPad can function as a lifesaver if your child is particularly tired or fussy. Be sure to check that battery ahead of time, Mom, and why yes, you do deserve a cocktail.             

Bon appétit!