A friend once told me she would rather take her daughter on a transatlantic flight than bring her out to eat at their local Olive Garden. While that may be a little dramatic, many parents share the same philosophy when it comes to dining out with their kids. They want no part of it. It’s too much hassle, too much headache and just not enjoyable.
As New Yorkers and frequent travelers, we didn’t really have much of a choice when Jake was born. Living in one of the world’s greatest culinary capitals, we were not about to stay holed up in our apartment sustaining solely on takeout for the first 6 months to one year of his life. Trying new restaurants is part of our DNA and we were determined from the beginning to learn how to do it right.
We took Jake to his first restaurant at just 5 days old and never looked back.
Many families in our neighborhood do the same, so we are lucky to be in good company. He wasn’t the only baby on his mother’s lap at Sushidai in Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market or the only kid in a highchair at Hartwood in Tulum. He certainly wasn’t the only toddler at the various trattorias we visited all over Italy, where kids are not only tolerated but celebrated.
He’s behaved better than some adults we know, and in other cases we’ve had to know when to throw in the napkin before the meal has even begun. It is the parents’ responsibility to gauge these things, which can explain why some just choose not to bother. But to us, it’s always been worth it.
Whether we’re halfway around the world or down the street at our favorite neighborhood spot, here are 5 lessons — some learned the hard way — that we have taken away from the first three years of dining out with our little foodie:
Know Your Restaurant
Our number one rule is to always be courteous to other diners. You don’t want to ruin someone’s special occasion birthday dinner or graduation lunch. On the flipside, you also don’t want to mistakenly find yourself sorely out of place in the middle of a raucous boozy brunch. Which means choosing restaurants wisely. Loud and buzzing works well for us; pin drop quiet does not. Michelin stars are a no-go in our book. We recently resisted sitting down to a tasting meal at Villa Crespi, Lake Orta’s finest restaurant housed in the hotel where we were staying this summer, in order to avoid disrupting anyone’s meal of a lifetime. Alas, we did fine at the second best choice in town, a lakeside spot that served solid local specialties in a more relaxed setting.
Go at the Right Time
I remember very clearly taking a seriously jetlagged four-month old out to a Greek taverna on our first night in Athens. It was around 11pm in the evening. We landed late, checked into the hotel and were starving. We didn’t want burgers from room service, we were in Greece! As soon as we sat down, he began shrieking uncontrollably. My husband whisked him outside for a breath of fresh air. They came back in and it started again. My turn. We traded off continuously until we finished all the dishes we had ordered, separately. As they say, hindsight is 20/20. Since then, we’ve opted for more kid-friendly seatings — around 6:00 or 6:30pm.
Ask for Their Food First
The waiting is the hardest part. Once Jake has a plate of food in front of him — or even a basket of bread — we can all breathe a little bit easier. But until then, it’s always a game of distraction. Ask for your kiddo’s order to come out first, as soon as its ready or along with your appetizers. Many good kid-friendly restaurants will offer this option without you even asking — that’s where we got the idea 🙂
Give them a Taste
I don’t know about anyone else’s kid, but my little boy is always a lot more interested in what’s in my dish than what’s in his own. Whenever we order him a sure-bet off the kids menu (pizza, chicken fingers, mini burgers) he undoubtedly reaches for the grilled octopus or is all, “hey Ma, pass the gazpacho.” Sharing is caring. Give them a taste and you may help spark a love affair with a new favorite food.
Bring Something to Do
Ideally, your kids are engaged in the conversation, sitting down quietly with two feet on the ground, napkin on lap. Unfortunately, that’s not always the way it goes down. Stash a coloring book with crayons or a sticker book in your bag just in case. If all else fails, hand over the iphone loaded with games or let them watch a movie on the iPad with headphones. Don’t beat yourself up over it. Just don’t make it a habit and you’re fine.
At what age did you start dining out with your kids? Do you have any tips and tricks to share?