You’re seated in a restaurant, about to enjoy a wonderful meal, when a nearby child goes into a major meltdown, complete with screaming and other forms of auditory torture.
a) Wince at your dining companion and hope it will end before dessert.
b) Glare at the parents and/or child.
c) Ask for your food to go and wait by the door.
d) Throw yourself on the floor and pitch your own fit.
e) None of the above, since, oops, it’s your child.
Perhaps you’re wondering: why bring kids along? Besides the simple need to eat together as a family and/or avoid the extra expense of a babysitter, children can gain a great deal from eating in a restaurant. In addition to acquiring social skills, children have a wonderful opportunity for language development and, depending on your choice of restaurant, may learn about a culture or cuisine beyond your own.
Assuming you want children along, what can you do to make sure the experience is positive for everyone involved, including the people at the next table? Here are a few tips that I’ve gathered from parents and non-parents alike:
Dine out early: Breakfast out is often the safest bet. Rested children are prepared to give their very best. Once you’ve mastered the pancake scene, feel free to move on to lunch outings. Dinner, especially in finer restaurants, should be reserved for the well-practiced, well-behaved, and, generally, older child. If you need to eat supper out, go early, before the rush and romantic dinners get going.
Dine out often: Babies aren’t born understanding the rules of etiquette. It takes practice. Don’t wait for Aunt Linda’s fancy 50th birthday party to try out those table manners. Regular jaunts to your local diner or pizza joint can help children get used to restaurants and the social expectations that go along with them.
Be consistent: No matter where you eat, even fast food joints, send a consistent message about behavior. No squirting jelly packets, dipping fries in your shake or standing up in a chair. Ever. Start with family-friendly places. Many restaurants provide children’s menus, high chairs, coloring sheets and plastic beverage cups. Yours probably won’t be the only table with children, a great way for your kids to see how their peers handle the situation. But no matter how welcoming the establishment, and other families’ behavior, remember to be unwavering in your expectations.
Be prepared: When I see a child misbehaving in a restaurant, I often think to myself, “That poor child! Her grown-up hasn’t brought a thing for her to do!” Create a restaurant survival kit, complete with crayons, pads of paper, coloring books, and a few toys. I like finger puppets or small plastic animals (a menu can make an excellent tent or stage.) Maintain the novelty by reserving these toys for restaurant outings.
May I take your order? Prepare through role-play at home. Most young children love playing the role of server or customer in your own “restaurant”. All it takes is some plastic food, a dishcloth “apron” for the server, and a pencil and paper. Children will delight in your best dramatic performance, as you place your napkin in your lap, ask detailed questions about the menu, and offer your compliments to the chef! Older children can create menus, help prepare and serve real food, and model star-dining behavior for younger siblings.
Tip big: Even the most well-mannered children may be messy. So be prepared to lavish thanks on your server and tip in accordance with the scope of the disaster under Junior’s high chair. A couple of extra dollars does make a difference.
You can’t win them all: Occasionally it’s not going to work. Your child may be too hungry, too tired, too over-stimulated, or maybe just too ornery that day. Think of others, and yourself, and retreat. Hail your server, pay your check, and eat your entrée out of a takeout container after your child is snug in bed.
Have fun! If everyone is stressed out, no one is learning what eating out is really all about: good food, good conversation, and good times with family and friends. “Make your own” can be fun, so seek out salad bars or fondue. Never underestimate a novel environment, be it wall-to-wall fish tanks, seating on the floor, or a collection of sports memorabilia.
Kid-Friendly Restaurants in Chicago:
3300 North Lincoln Avenue, Chicago, IL 60657
Lakeview: Wishbone on Lincoln is always crawling with kids. The place is roomy enough that high chairs don’t feel like they are in the way and the staff doesn’t make you feel bad if your kids, or the ones you’re with, leave real big messes behind. Plus the noise level is a little elevated, so a screaming kid isn’t a disruption.
3107 North Broadway Street, Chicago, IL 60657
Lakeview: The Bagel on Broadway north of Belmont is great. The staff remembers you (my 5 yr old nephew has been going there since before he was born!) and is very accommodating with strollers, booster seats & high chairs.
2056 North Lincoln Park West, Chicago, IL 60614
Lincoln Park: It is loud with fun music, so no one is bothered if your children are a little noisy. There are always tons of families, delicious milk shakes, and great kid-friendly food.
The Chicago Diner
3411 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60657
East Lakeview: Vegetarian and vegan restaurant that has kid-favorite food like burgers and grilled cheese sandwiches that are healthy and meat-free. Casual and very laid back atmosphere.
Why it works for kids/families: Fun atmosphere, friendly wait staff, Can talk and have fun without worrying about other diners and most importantly their food is always high quality. They use a lot of organic foods too! As they say, no frankenfoods! Reasonably priced…and you will always have leftovers!
What tips do you have for dining out with children?