As a parent and a foodie, I seem to be stuck in a very difficult position. I love to eat out at restaurants but I’ve got three rambunctious children who are difficult enough to control at home let alone in public and let alone in the confined space of a restaurant.
I think if you want to eat out you should and you should do it often with the children in tow. There are a few strategies to make it work. Here’s what seems to get us through relatively unscathed.
Most normal diners who don’t have to bring three snotty cherubs to dinner with them like to eat dinner at around 7:00 – 7:30 yet many restaurants open much earlier, some as early as 5pm. Getting there when the restaurant opens means there are less people to annoy. When the place gets louder and more packed later on it can be too much stimulation for some children and can exacerbate bad behaviour. Also eating when the restaurant is less busy means the wait staff can be more attentive to your table and the kitchen is more likely to get food out to you more quickly.
Choose your restaurant wisely.
I think that there are probably some establishments that are just not suitable for children such as fine dining restaurants. Save these for date nights or when your children are teenagers. Whilst I’m all for expanding the palettes of my family, choosing a cuisine that you know they will love is an easy way to get behaviour compliance. Most restaurants will have a website where you can view their menu. A quick check to see if there is at least one dish that you know your children will eat will prevent being stuck with shovelling bread rolls down their throats whilst trying to cut a steak with your fork with your other hand. Trust me, I have been there!
For our family, we tend to choose pizza, Thai, Chinese, German, Japanese or modern Australian restaurants. For my son Luka who is the fussiest eater know to man, his requirement is that the restaurant serves either chips, pizza or soft shell crab believe it or not. We also like the casual nature of these sorts of restaurants. We tend not to go anywhere that is too stiff or formal.
Have a small snack before you leave.
I have always been in two minds about this. On one hand if a child is hungry they are more likely to eat what is on their plate. On the other hand and what I find to be more the case is that children have no patience when it comes to waiting for food to arrive. At home when I tell them to come to the table for dinner it is served up immediately whereas there is often a 20-30 minute wait from the time you sit down to the time the first entree is brought to the table when dining at a restaurant. I think that not being ravenously hungry whilst waiting for the food to come out really helps with patience.
Colouring books, playdough, iPads, Nintendo DS?
I’m torn on this one too. So many parents that I talk to tell me that distractions keep their children occupied at dinner time when they are out. I think if it works for you then power to you. I personally feel as though sometimes these things cause more trouble then they are worth. My three end up fighting over games and I really dislike the way it separates the children from conversations and interacting with the group. Perhaps it really depends on what kind of night out you’re after. Are you in a group where you’d like lots of adult conversation and fewer distractions from the children? Are your kids happy to play quietly on a game or quietly colour in? If so it might work.
Be prepared to act swiftly when trouble arises.
If a child is showing signs of becoming tired or misbehaving it’s really prudent to nip it in the bud. Take them outside and reinforce what your expectations are and make sure there is a consequence for bad behaviour. There is no worse feeling than 30 or so pairs of eyes from other diners piercing you like knives when your child is being noisy or misbehaving. People appreciate pro-activity from parents. When all else fails, the threat of no ice cream for dessert usually works!
Eating out is a pleasure that I love to indulge in often and as a parent now I don’t want to give that up. I believe the more often you eat out with your kids the better they will get. It’s my intention to try as many wonderful restaurants that I can. After all, who better to share a meal with than the people you love the most?