CONFESSIONS OF A                                                                  
A San Francisco Girl's Down and Dirty Adventures in the Culinary Playground

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Baby Bites

I'm truly hoping that in this case, absence makes the heart grow fonder. My apologies for being MIA for, well, ever. I went to Hawaii (poor me), Diner #3 got the plague and I spent a good amount of time screaming and jumping up and down with glee for our new President-Elect (and cursing and smacking bitches down over the current Prop.8 situation).

As I was busy reorganizing and prioritizing my life (chocolate-yes, laundry-no), I realized that while I have often written about how to behave in a restaurant (really, folks, it's not that hard), I have yet to write about how to take children to a restaurant and still be welcomed back. This is because, until recently, I have not been in the practice of taking children to a restaurant. (I'm talking about real restaurants, folks, not the chain establishments that work very hard at getting our children addicted to their trans fats and high fructose corn syrup as early as possible. Go diabetes!)

Now Diner #3 gets his chow on just about everywhere. There are exceptions -- I wouldn't take him to, say, Quince, or the French Laundry because it would be hard to practice Rule #4. Otherwise, most places are fair game. And, honestly, if you've got an older child that understands the things you say to them, you may just be able to visit either one of those places without any qualms.

I cannot count the number of times in the past year (yes, he turns one tomorrow -- how the hell did that happen?) someone has come up to us in a dining establishment and cooed "He's so GOOD!" with the shock and awe of someone who has been hit one too many times with an errant chicken nugget. My husband and I usually smile and nod and wipe the sweat from our brows because, let's face it: dining out with children is hard work. Hard work that makes you want to stick a fork in your eye sometimes. That said, it pays in dividends.

Rule #1: All children are not created equal. Some kids just won't behave in a restaurant no matter what you do. You have my sympathy.

Rule #2: Don't be so quick to assume that you have the child described in Rule #1. See below.

Rule #3: Start early, and often. True story: my child was at Delfina at 5 days old. At this age, they sleep through everything, so go out. A lot. I know the whole "sleep when the baby sleeps" thing is drummed into you ad nauseam but I honestly don't know a soul who does, so as long as you are awake, go out. Bring a nursing cover, or a bottle and you are set. I nursed my son incognito at many a restaurant and learned very quickly how to hold him with one arm and eat with the other (PSA: Avoid soups, coffee and other hot liquids). It may not be day 5, but try and get out by week 2...the earlier you can manage it, the better off you will be. Yes, not all restaurants have changing tables, but a changing pad and the floor will do just fine. One of my fondest memories of Diner #3 is changing him on the floor of the Citizen Cake bathroom while singing "Changing your diaper at Citizen Cake" to his wild peals of laughter. Yes, I know, I need help.

Rule #4: If your child is unhappy, do not make everyone else unhappy too. Your choices are as follows: go for a walk around the restaurant and point out exciting things: "Look! A kitchen! They are making salads! There's a mirror! " If that's not doing it, and screaming/hollering/wailing are imminent, go OUTSIDE. Make sure you are prepared to go outside. Bring outerwear. A dining room full of people should not be subjected to the shrieking of a howler monkey because you forgot a blanket or a coat. When my son was teething and I didn't know it (I mean, honestly, who gets teeth at 4 months old???), I spent a good deal of time on the sidewalk during meals. My husband and I would take turns eating. Sounds miserable, I know, but again, it pays off. Even during the times when we had to actively practice this rule -- and I'm talking 2-3 months of this -- we still continued to take him out. As a result, he is now just as comfortable in a restaurant high chair as he is in his own. Suffer now so that you don't suffer later. It will pass.

Rule #5: Bring a survival kit. Toys, books, sippy cups, bibs, utensils, wipes for cleanup, finger foods (to hold them over until the real food arrives), baby food if they are not ready to eat off the menu. If your child is in a high chair, bring some of those thingys that will allow you to strap a toy to it. It's not a bad idea to have a booster seat of some sort in your car in the case that a restaurant doesn't have a high chair/booster seat/whatever you might need.

Rule #6: Teach your children about the cuisine they are eating. Read to them -- without bothering the adjacent diners -- while you wait for your food(the World Snacks series is great for this). If you are still the one feeding them, use the utensils of the cuisine whether it's forks, chopsticks or fingers. Feed them off the menu as soon as possible. Even babies can eat rice porridge and the insides of postickers at dim sum, polenta and meatballs when eating Italian, mashed up rice and beans when eating Mexican. Their palates are developing, and if you want any hope of continuing to bring them out this will help you.

Rule #7: Improvise. Napkins are great for peek-a-boo. With older children you can give them a menu and ask them to see if they can match the dishes on other tables to the name of the dish on the menu (without pointing). You get the idea.

Rule #8: Clean up your mess. This is where the wipes come in. Wipe the table, and the floor beneath your child's chair. I did this recently at Zuni, and as I was mopping up some bits of cereal and bread crust, our server said "Oh no, we can take care of that." My response? "Yes, I know, but we'd like to be invited back."

Rule #9: When ordering, see if the items you've ordered for your child can be brought out first. It will take them longer to eat and they generally want to eat NOW.

Rule #10: If your child has a tendency to stick forks in their eyes or tear up paper, remove those temptations from their general area as soon as you sit down.

Rule #11: Teach them to say "please" when ordering, and "thank you" when being served. A special thank you to the host/hostess and kitchen when leaving isn't the worst idea in the world either. (Side note: This rule applies to adults, too.)

Rule #12: Encourage them to try new things, but don't force them to eat it all if they don't like it (this goes for all eating). Go beyond the usual suspects and give them a bite of your foie gras (lots of iron). At the end of the meal quiz them on what they liked best, what they didn't like at all, and what they are still on the fence about. You'll know what you can get away with next time.

Rule #13: Know your limits. Don't go out if your child is overtired or sick or possessed by Satan for the day.

Rule #14: If at first you don't succeed, try, try again.

After a year of practicing the above rules, we are now able to go out with our son without breaking out into a cold sweat at the thought of it. And guess what? He LOVES it. He bounces in his chair in anticipation of a bite of sweet corn soup and opens wider than the Grand Canyon when he sees some chopsticks coming at him. He will happily sit through a two hour meal* (in 9 out of 10 cases), especially if it's something he loves. That's my boy.


"To eat is a necessity. To eat intelligently is an art."
-- La Rochefoucauld

*Those of you that hate me for this, let me assure you that he's never been a great sleeper so we've got our own purgatory going on.


Blogger cookiecrumb said...

It's a great list. Are you writing a book?

And how, please, can I get Bean Sprout invited to nice restaurants? (I know. Move to France.)

11/13/2008 5:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for this.

My parents took me everywhere when I was growing up. We traveled a lot for my dad's business and were often staying in hotels, eating in restaurants, etc. My first birthday was in a high-end restaurant and I had RIBS. There are pictures.

I remember almost always being the only child in any restaurant we went to. I remember my dad walking around with me, showing me the restaurant decorations. I remember my mom making me at least TRY everything that was ordered, even though I was pretty picky. I remember my parents NEVER forcing me to eat off the "kid's menu" of boringness and blandness.

What I don't remember is being taught table manners or any basic social niceties like "please" and "thank you." They started me so early that I can't think that far back. I clearly remember acting up now and then, but I also remember being aware that I wasn't supposed to. Which I guess is the most important part.

11/14/2008 1:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Congratulations on your success! I'm pleased to hear that you stuck with it and your efforts have paid off.

We used a similar approach with our now nearly 6 year old daughter, and she LOVES fine dining. She uses her most excellent "princess manners", likes to wear a fancy dress, and enjoys tasting menus because "you get surprises and you don't know what the cooker is going to fix for you!"

When our daughter was a toddler, we found it very helpful to get lots of exercise (eg swim for an hour) and a good nap just before going out for a late, long dinner. She was mellow and happy to sit and color or play quietly with a small toy after having fun and getting worn out. We're also lucky that she will just lean over and fall asleep in restaurants.

At age 4 she told our waitress about the larb gai at Arun Thai -- "It's even better than my mama makes at home!" She then was taken back to the kitchen to meet the chef. We parents were bummed that we didn't get to go with her to learn the secret recipe at this delicious fine dining establishment in Chicago.

I hope you continue to have good luck and fun dining experiences!

11/14/2008 11:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Joy, I want to print this out and laminate it for every parent (or prospective parent) I know who tells me that we can only go to "kid-friendly" restaurants (which, as far as I can tell, means places with a 400-decibel noise level and really mediocre food) if we want to get together. My parents followed all these rules, and I turned out fine...and ate in restaurants all over the world starting when I was an infant. It totally can be done. Thank you for providing such a great guide.

11/14/2008 1:45 PM  
Blogger fbomb said...

I know this is a shot in the dark but were you guys dining at the Lahaina Grill last Friday night? I noticed a well-behaved child sitting with super prepared parents (armed with books, toys, snacks, etc.) behind our table (with the fussy baby and somewhat well-behaved 3-year-old). If so, diner #3 rocks!

11/14/2008 9:35 PM  
Blogger Joy said...

fbomb -- alas, no. We got back from our trip 2 weeks ago. Bravo to those parents, though!

11/14/2008 9:57 PM  
Blogger kudzu said...

You must have recognized haddock and his family as role models -- the sardine was a fine dining companion from the git-go, and his parents' handling has always been attuned to the situation. My son went to lunch at Pete's Tavern in Manhattan after his first pediatric check-up (one month? long time ago!).

11/16/2008 4:46 PM  
Blogger Green said...

Awesome. I love when parents take their squawking babies outside and enraged when they don't.

11/17/2008 9:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have an 18 month old and we have been using a lot of those tactics--mostly we do OK and sometimes he is totally not into it. Some toddlers get into an active period and it is hard to sit for very long even at home. It makes me sad because I felt like we made real progress but we decided to keep on trying occasionally because it is important to us. Sometimes the stress isn't worth it so I understand the mentality a little bit about not bothering, I still do.

We were just visiting SF 2 weeks ago and I really wanted to go to some old favorites and a new place or two. These days I just go early because that is when he is hungry and there are less people to annoy. We actually got away with dining at Coco500 before any other people got there which helped and he loved his pasta there.

11/21/2008 8:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow. I haven't checked-in on this blog for awhile but this post couldn't be more timely. I have a six month old and really want to get out to nice dinners occasionally (without having to hire/pay a babysitter) but I'm scared shitless of taking our guy out and what that might entail. Today we tried Park Chalet for lunch since it is outside and it worked reasonably ok but I think our guy is teething so he's a bit testy.

Any Bay Area restaurants you felt really lend themselves to a first try?

THank you for this post--it has given me hope. Wish me luck.

11/30/2008 11:36 PM  
Blogger mollyfn said...

We were able to do sit down dinners until Ivy really started moving around and just wanted to be down, walking, climbing, moving. Now at almost 3, she'll sit at the table again. But of course now Scarlett is 1 which means soon to be walking, etc and soon to be not interested in sitting still!

But love your list. We order ASAP and ask for the check so we can bolt if necessary. We still take turns, especially with 2 kids. Mostly we just stay home, or order out because often, dining out and juggling 2 kids just isn't fun for the adults, even WITH margaritas! But in 2 years or so, we're SO back into the restaurant rotation. And when they are both in public school, we'll funnel all that daycare/preschool money to dinner out. Yay!

12/05/2008 2:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very good rules and ones I myself follow with my son (now 30 months old). But write again when Diner #3 is around 2 and let us know if it continues to be as easy as it is now. We used to take our son everywhere--Delfina (they are so fabulous), Range etc.--and up until the time he was about 2, it was no problem. After that, he started wanting to squirm and climb around. Hate to be a buzzkill, but just want to warn you, it may get harder...but enjoy while you can!

12/06/2008 11:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Beautifully written as always!!!

12/22/2008 6:50 PM  
Blogger the Lumpia said...

Love the list. Thank you for posting this! I've forwarded on to some other moms-to-be so that they have some hope for getting out, too.

We have not been out to a 'nice' restaurant but have been to diners and local family owned places on the Peninsula and the City with our now 2.5 month old. We've been lucky as regulars at one diner - the owner held our daughter and soothed her to sleep so we can eat our brunch and not have to take turns. During our meals out, we often meet parents who tell us 'to get out as much as possible NOW" because once the kid is mobile, it's a different game. Once the 'curious and wandering' phase is over, I'm hopeful that as long as I teach my daughter what my parents instilled - table manners and to respect food - that we'll be able to go out to a really nice meal as a family.

Am looking forward to more posts with Diner #3 experiences.

12/24/2008 11:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Most of those are very good rules. I think our boys behave better in restaurants than they do at home.

1/08/2009 7:53 PM  
Blogger jack said...


First of all, your blog kicks ass (and has always kicked ass). It's been a while since I've last visited, but your writing still makes me laugh out loud. In public places. Nicely done...

Second, this list kicks ass. My wife and I aren't quite at the kid stage yet, but this post has given me hope for when that time finally comes around...

Oh great, now I miss SF...

3/31/2009 4:39 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I had to laugh..and cry. I've taken my grandkids out and I follow those rules. I won't take them out to a super fancy restaurant until they are older.

I also believe that it is way helpful to expect the same behavior at they get that meal-time is not play time.

Great post!!

4/06/2009 11:20 PM  

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