I have been dining with my children since the day we left the hospital with my first new born. Dining has always been one of my favorite past-times and I was not going to let anyone take that away from me. Although the choice of restaurants has changed, I continue to dine and get creative in how to approach different scenarios.
Still ingrained in my memory is our trip to Maui and the kids threw a huge scandal in one of the finer restaurants on the Island, Lahaina Grill. My kids are usually well-behaved, but this day some demon took over and for no apparent reason they began screaming at the top of their lungs. I still remember trying to enjoy a bottle of Luca Malbec and trying to shush the demons. The servers were so nice; however, we did clear out half the dining room.
From that day forward I pledge to myself that this would not happen again. So I started to analyze what went wrong. As I started making a list of all the reasons, I realized I’m dealing with kids and I have always got to expect the unexpected. That being said, I comprised a list of ten tips parents need to know when dining with children. Just because you have kids, that does not mean you should give up the finer things in life, you just have to get creative on how you pursue them.
Ten Tips Foodies Need to Know When Dining with Children
1. Don’t expect nor insist on getting the best table. Do not walk into a restaurant and ask for the table by the window. Let the guests who are celebrating anniversaries and birthdays have first dibs on those tables. In fact, ask for the table furthest away from everyone. You are there to dine, so dine. Leave the table experience for the other guests. Trust me, your experience will be better if you are not driving away guests because your child decided to sing the Elmo song during the appetizer course.
2. Dine early. Restaurants hit their peak around 6:30-8:00pm. When dining with kids, service is going to be important because you just never know when you are going to need extra napkins. If you are dining at the restaurant’s peak hours, the chances of attentive service are diminished. Arrive when the restaurant opens and you’ll receive prompter service and avoid nasty looks from other serious diners.
3. Bring your own wipes. You never know when an accident will occur. Kids know how to dirty themselves in the strangest ways. Restaurant napkins are good for laying on your lap and catching dripping sauces, but horrible for wiping chocolate in between your child’s fingers. Many restaurants use polyester napkins which have very little absorbing power. Bring your baby wipes they can be a life saver.
4. Know your child’s threshold. Don’t go out to eat when your child is tired or has been cooped up all day. You know that children become more uncontrollable when they are hungry and sleepy. Take them out when they have had plenty of rest. You will see that the demons will not nearly be as active. Please, do not let the restaurant be the highlight activity of the day. A child running through the restaurant is not a proper version of dinner and a show.
5. Bring a back up food supply. If your child is anything like my son, then he/she does not eat anything. Choosing from the menu can be difficult with picky eaters. But don’t let it ruin your dining experience. Bring a snack you know they will like, this way at least they are held over while you enjoy your meal.
6. Save the tasting menu for another day. When dining with kids, don’t make the dinner last any longer than it has to. Yes, order an appetizer, enjoy an entree and depending on your child’s sugar intake that day, enjoy a dessert. There is no reason for you to opt for the tasting menu, save it for when you have a babysitter. You want to make the restaurant experience for your child short and sweet so that they enjoy going. If you drag it out, all they will remember is that going out to eat is boring.
7. Get creative when ordering. Just because they offer a kids menu, that doesn’t mean that your child has to have the kids menu; nor does it mean that they have to order the Filet Mignon. My advice is look at the side dishes, the accompaniments of the entrees and the appetizers. If the Salmon comes with mashed potatoes and green beans, ask the server for a side of green beans and mashers. There is a lot of food in the kitchen that might not be on the menu. If the steak is served with caramelized carrots and lobster risotto; the chances are that they might be able to give you carrot sticks and plain risotto. It might take a bit longer to order, but read through the menu and get to know the ingredients.
8. Pick the right restaurant. Many parents default to the Soup Plantation, Applebees and other family restaurants. However, this is not a dining experience, but a quick fix to put food in your child’s belly. Get to know restaurants in your neighborhood that are kid friendly. You’ll be surprised how many fine dining restaurants are actually pretty kid friendly. In fact, I worked at a French restaurant in San Francisco, Chez Spencer, which had a sand box in the patio for the kids. Their are many restaurateurs with children that are sensitive to your situation. Go out and explore some of these restaurants; they’re waiting for your business.
9. Invest in a smartphone, DVD or tablet. I can’t believe I am saying this. I used to hate seeing children come into the restaurant with screens glowing and the kids’ eyes transfixed to the screen. I thought, “whatever happened to the family table experience? These parents are ruining their child’s minds.” And then I had kids, and my righteous views went out the window. Enjoy your dinner with your spouse and let you kids engage in one of those kid friendly apps or play their favorite movie (using headphones). The restaurant experience is for the parents, enjoy those few minutes of tranquility. Save the family table talk for your home; don’t turn the TV on while eating at home! For more traditionalists, crayons and paper also do the trick.
10. Let your children engage with the staff and their surroundings. Dining with your children should be fun. My most memorable dining experience was when I was 11 years old at Tarantino’s in San Francisco. The waiter gave me a tour of the kitchen. I think this was the catalyst to my career choice. Have a good time when you go out. Make it fun for them. Engage with the server and other workers. Let them be part of the experience. Play games such as “I spy”; involve the food, the people in the restaurant and the surrounding decorations. You never know, they might get tour of the kitchen and even make their own dessert.