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.