When I was a child, going out to eat was a special treat usually reserved for special occasions like birthdays or vacation. Today’s research indicates that the average American family eats out nearly twice a week – it’s commonplace.
While many restaurants make children feel welcome by providing special menus, crayons and activity sheets, eating out can be tiresome for small kids. This is especially true for toddlers who want to escape from their highchairs to visit other tables.
“If my son – who’s 2-and-a-half – could just play with the sugar packets and throw salt everywhere, he’d be fine,” says Andi Jenkins, a Nashville mother of two. “But being in a restaurant, we have to keep the reigns on him, and he gets bored and frustrated.”
Fortunately, there are simple things parents can do to make dining out more enjoyable for everyone.
When dining out, be sure to choose child-friendly restaurants. Beyond the well-known places that cater to children, many familiar neighborhood eateries can handle children well.
When you are out of town, it’s a bit trickier. Call ahead and ask a few simple questions, such as does the restaurant have a changing table for your baby? There is nothing worse than having to change a baby’s diaper in your car or on a public restroom floor! Also ask if the restaurant has a children’s menu or offers special selections for kids. If not, ask if they can accommodate special requests. You can tell a lot about how welcome children are at a restaurant by how the person on the other end of the phone responds. Most places are happy to serve families, although some may not be equipped to do so.
Feed Kids First
Order your child’s dinner when you place the rest of the table’s drink orders. Children often take longer to eat than adults, and having a child’s dinner brought to the table as soon as possible engages little hands in a pursuit beyond salt and pepper shakers! If you are unable to order a child’s dinner early, consider asking your server to bring crackers or a small plate of veggies for your child while adults enjoy salads or appetizers. Most kitchens are happy to accommodate this request.
Children behave better if you sit next to them, rather than across from them. “We always request a booth,” says Jenkins, “and one of us – my husband or I – will sit next to each child.”
Careful seating can also help prevent accidents. It is much more difficult for a child to fall out of a chair or spill milk if seated next to an observant adult, and it’s easier to help a child with his food this way.
Making Special Accommodations
If your child has a special dietary need or merely picky tastes, ask your server for help. Some places less accustomed to children may not have specific items on the menu for kids but can often simplify dishes to make them appealing to a child. Almost any pasta dish can be prepared with only butter and cheese. A dish of fish, chicken or beef can be prepared with sauce on the side. Some kitchens even have a special jar of peanut butter for those exceptionally picky eaters.
Pack a Few Special Toys
On any public outing with small children, be prepared to distract. Pack a few items into your purse or diaper bag to divert little fingers, especially if you know that the restaurant does not have special activities. Small toys, paper and crayons, a small credit-card-sized flashlight, a pocket mirror, a watch or even car keys can all help keep a small child busy while adults finish eating.
No matter where you and your family decide to eat, with a little careful planning you can have an easy – and fun – night out.
Jane Gaither is a freelance writer and mother of two residing in Nashville.