Having children doesn’t mean you have to give up eating at great restaurants, but dining out with your little ones can feel like a gamble: You’ll leave the meal with a nice family memory — or a migraine. Here are a few simple tips to help you hit the jackpot on your next outing.
Choose the restaurant wisely
This doesn’t have to mean fast food, but it also doesn’t mean Daniel Boulud. Or even Café Boulud. Despite what some people would argue, anywhere with crisp white tablecloths, beautiful glassware, and $20-plus entrées is out (save those places for date nights; the cost of a sitter is worth it).
Instead, introduce your family to some of our favorite Roadfood spots — or sit down at any taqueria, dim sum palace, or casual trattoria, where it’s likely that the din will be loud enough to drown out your rugrats’ inevitable squeals (or screaming fits).
Go for the early bird special
My kids turn into monsters when they’re tired and hungry (okay, so do I). But even if you’re not ready for lunch at 11:30 a.m., or dinner at 5 p.m., your kids may be. And there are good reasons to muster your appetite for early meals: You never know how long it’ll take to get your food, and servers tend to be more energetic at the beginning of their shifts. Eating early leaves plenty of time for a fun, leisurely meal and gets everyone home in time for bed (which means you’re less likely to be a monster the following morning).
Order in short order
Even if you arrive early, you’re going to have to wait for your food. To minimize the time between sitting down and digging in, look at the menu online beforehand and decide what you want. If your child is old enough, describe the options and let her choose (and dining out isn’t the time to insist on Brussels sprouts). Then, when the server asks, “Can I take your drink order?” You reply, “Actually, we’re ready to order.” Most servers will be happy to feed your party sooner rather than later.
Pack it up, pack it in
I rarely remember to pack properly for family outings, but my friend Charmain (offspring: 6, 4, and 2) always does. The last time our families dined together, she kept all the kids entertained and well fed with her gear: books, no-mess coloring pads, quiet toys, sippy cups, forks (in case the restaurant didn’t have small ones, which they didn’t), scissors (for cutting food into baby-sized bits), apples (for “dessert”), a paring knife in protective sheath (for cutting apples), bibs, pacifier (in case her baby cried, which, of course, she didn’t), baby wipes (for cleaning greasy hands and faces), and a camera to capture the whole thing.
Unless your child is tall enough to sit in a regular chair, you should bring your own booster seat. After all, you’re never guaranteed one, and even if there’s a booster available, it may be broken or gross, even by the standards of parents who take liberties with the five-minu — I mean, five-second rule. Sitting at the same height as the adults will make the kids feel like part of the meal, and you’ll enjoy eating without someone on your lap. The best portable boosters on the market are inexpensive, sturdy, and easy to clean.
When our third child was born, my husband looked at her angelic face and said, “Great. Now we’re outnumbered.” It’s basic math: If you have more than one child, you’ll want to have more than one adult. Whenever possible, we bring along generous souls — grandparents, godparents, uncles, aunts, good friends — on our dining excursions. Even if we don’t have to make any emergency potty runs or reparations payments to our fellow diners, it’s nice to have someone else play “here comes the plane!” and peek-a-boo with the kids while we take a moment to appreciate the food.
You really can’t put a price on having someone else serve your family dinner and then clear all the dishes. But it’s definitely more than 15 percent of your bill. Regardless of the ages and appetites of your kids, they still fill seats and use plates, cups, and utensils. And no matter how hard they try to be neat, they will make more of a mess than most adults. If the little ones drop or break something, tip even more (if the service is rude, or slow, you can tip according to your conscience and cross off the restaurant as a child-unfriendly spot).
If you’ve failed to follow the tips above, don’t stress out about it. Like continually shushing your kids on the airplane, your fretting during a meal can be more annoying than their childish naughtiness. So let them play cards with the sweetener packets or (gently) drum on the table with their spoon, if that’s what it takes for you to study the menu and choose what you want. Happy parents make for happy kids and happy times.