There's been a rather spirited, shall we say, discussion over at al.com's food and wine board recently about dining out with children. It's gotten rather nasty at times, with critics saying parents who let their kids run around restaurants are being selfish, and parents who love to take their kids out attacking people who want a kid-free dining zone.
I think part of the problem is not so much whether or not there are children present, but how well-behaved they are. We waited 10 years before having kids, and probably part of the reason was our aversion to kids running around restaurants like they were a playground. People said, Oh, wait till you have kids. Well, we now have a 5-year-old, and kids running around like wild animals in restaurants is still a pet peeve.
When our daughter was four and a half, we took her to a fairly nice restaurant to celebrate my grandmother's 90th birthday. It was a three-hour event, and with a little patience and planning, it went very well. We're not saying we're experts, but here's what's helped for us:
- Practice good table manners at home. If they're allowed to get up and play tag around the table at home, why wouldn't they think that's OK out?
- Order an appetizer immediately when you sit down so the kids have something to nibble on, or make sure there are crackers, bread, tortilla chips, etc. Bring a small snack with you if necessary.
- If possible, look at the menu ahead of time so you have a good idea what your child can eat. Don't feel like you have to have a kids' menu. (How many chicken fingers do they need, anyway?) Often a good meal can be had from the appetizer or small-plates menu, or by ordering two or three ala carte side dishes. Or order a little more than you normally would and share.
- Bring some small, quiet activities to help keep little hands busy if they get bored in between courses -- mini coloring books, sticker books, Soduko, etc.
- If they really get restless, get up and take a walk outside if the location allows it. Take a trip to the restroom and take the scenic route that maybe lets them get a peek into the open kitchen or something like that. And if they start crying or having a fit, please take them out of the restaurant until they get calmed down.
Finally, think about whether your child is really going to enjoy going out to a nice restaurant with you. Why drag the kids along if they're going to be miserable and make everyone around them miserable as well? We were at Highlands Bar & Grill one night when a man and his daughter, who looked to be about 9, sat down beside us. From what we overheard, it sounded like he had custody for the weekend and they had just driven in from Tuscaloosa. It was fairly late in the evening, and she was well-behaved enough, but it was obvious that she wasn't exactly having a good time, and was tired -- at one point she laid down on the bench and put her head in her father's lap. Now we're all about teaching your kids to appreciate the finer things in life, but what a waste of money, we thought -- feed the poor kid a pizza or a burger and let her go to bed.